Step through the traditional Chinese doors into the courtyard of the Seattle home of Nancy Mee and Dennis Evans, and enter a world of artistic alchemy. Here, elements of science, literature, technology, and art are combined into stunning and evocative works of beauty.
In the living room, native masks from around the globe peer at you from the walls, while the long beaks of animals carved by Kwakwaka’wakw, a Pacific Northwest Coast indigenous people, protrude into space. Exquisitely formed rocks from China, called scholar stones, invite you to contemplate their timeless wisdom. Painting fills the walls and, in the loft above, an amber glow highlights a wall of Mee’s cookbooks and Evans’ encaustic paintings.
Mee and Evans are accomplished, internationally recognized artists whose works grace museums, galleries, public venues, and private collections around the world. Their home is part of their art. It reflects their commitment to a creative life together as professional artists, a devotion that they have practiced for more than four decades.
At the edge of the living room stands a regal door from India beckoning you into the house’s inner sanctum, where room after room is filled with art, much of it their creations.
They say, “We live within our art.”
Mee works as a sculptor, using slumped and sandblasted glass with cut and cast metal and stone to create stunning architectural pieces. Using elegantly distilled lines, she evokes essential and universal truths.
Evans is a multimedia artist, a Renaissance man who weaves his knowledge of physics and poetry, chemistry and classics, astronomy and antiquities, mathematics and mythology, into intriguing and beautiful creations that stimulate the imagination and the senses.
The couple met when Evans was completing his Master of Fine Arts in Design at the University of Washington and Mees had just returned from studying printmaking in Paris. Evans knew that, for professional artists, just being in love would not be enough to sustain a life together.
“The act of creation takes a lot of personal energy,” he says. “In a certain way, creating art is the most selfish thing in the world, because you have to be so absorbed in your vision. Sometimes you don’t have room for anybody else. I can’t imagine being married to someone who wasn’t an artist. It could destroy a marriage.”
So, before committing to a life with Mee, he warned her, “I don’t want to go any further with this relationship until you know what you’re in for.”
As professional artists, life might be hard. It could take years of struggle to establish the professional reputations that would secure their livelihoods. There would be no automatic pensions. They would need to develop their art, learn the technical skills required to fabricate pieces, and master the risky business of art, all the while supporting themselves and the production assistants they’d have to employ.
Mee responded without hesitation, “I’m in.”
Forty years later, both their relationship and their business are flourishing. Now that their reputation has grown — and “the wolf is no longer at the door” — they have had time to consider how their art will evolve during their next stage of life.
Through years of diligence, they’ve discovered what it takes to be professional artists. Mee says, “A lot of our work isn’t glamorous.” Producing pieces can be tedious, labor-intensive work, involving grinding steel, sanding, welding, and building crates. The ah-ha moments of discovery, problem solving, and creation are exhilarating, but they’re only a small part of the work.
One talented assistant quit their studio after only three months because he didn’t anticipate how much manual labor was involved in producing art. “He thought the work would involve more discussions of philosophy,” Evans laughs. “Well, we’re blue-collar philosophers.”
They’ve used art to enhance their northeast Seattle neighborhood. Noticing that the blocks near his home were barren of trees, Evans helped his neighbors plant 37 “Thunderbolt” purple leaf plum trees (Prunus cerisafera) that now burst into pink blooms every spring. They call their community “Utopian Heights,” after the name they gave their home when they first moved in. Evans even created and installed an official-looking “Welcome to Utopian Heights” sign to welcome visitors to this unofficial neighborhood.
Evans’ Merlin-like sense of mirth has flummoxed city inspectors. When one challenged the beautiful garden and sculpture he installed on a parking strip, Evans replied, “I have permission from the Mayor!” Only as the inspector was leaving did he add… “And I am the Mayor,” referring to his permanent position as Mayor of Utopian Heights.
On the morning of 9/11, Mee and Evans were planning to excavate space for a new garden on land they owned across from their home, when they watched the tragic news. With heavy hearts, they told their assistants to take the day off; the garden would have to wait. But by noon, Evans had watched enough news. Pounding his fists, he called to Mee, “Enough of that violence! Let’s start something beautiful today.”
Later that day, each of their assistants returned to the site to be together. Thus, “The Garden of Souls” was born. Today it is an uplifting oasis in the neighborhood, where visitors can find a moment of serenity amidst Japanese maples and Mee’s entrancing art.
Another of their gifts to the community is a Shinto-like shrine they installed on a corner by their home, providing paper and pens to anyone who wants to leave a message or prayer. Once every six months, Evans and Mee gather up about 1,000 prayers, and burn them in a ritual ceremony.
Evans thinks about his life in thirds, and now that he, at 70, and Mees, at 65, are in their third chapter of life, both artists are considering their legacy. “We met an 80-year-old woman in India who was giving away her precious saris. Rather than waiting to die, she preferred to ‘give with warm hands.’” Mee and Evans have started donating pieces to chosen institutions and to their godchildren who can enjoy the art for years to come.
After spending so many years immersed in art, Evans encourages others to begin creating: “There’s always time. Start now. You’re never too late.” His mother started painting at age 60 and his father, who’d been a meat cutter in Yakima, became a woodcarver after he retired.
Ever the alchemist, Evans divulged the secret risk that comes with throwing one’s self into art.
“The arts are dangerous because they’re a time sink. When you work, you become so absorbed in your work and then suddenly your whole day is gone! Maybe, at this point in life, we don’t want time to go by so fast.”
Perhaps. But Mee and Evans have made art the centerpiece of their lives for decades.
That isn’t going to stop any time soon.
See more of the art of Nancy Mee and Dennis Evans at http://www.UtopianHeights.com.
Sally Fox is a coach, consultant, speaker, and podcaster who’s helping individuals and organizations to bring their best stories forward. She lives on Vashon Island with her horse, husband, and the inimitable Barry-the-cat. Read about her work and find her blog at engagingpresence.com. You can also listen to her podcasts at 3rdActMagazine.com.