Wally Evans chuckles when he says learning to paint makes him forget his age.
“It’s fun. It’s wonderful,” the 81-year-old said recently. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”
As a gift last Christmas, his son, David, and daughter-in-law, Julie, hired retired art teacher Shellie Leonard to give Wally painting lessons. Realizing his artistic dream, however, is complicated. Wally has had age-related macular degeneration for about 20 years.
Wally and his wife, Judy, owned Flowers by Leroy in Rapid City for 24 years, where the couple and their staff designed floral arrangements for clients in South Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska. Wally designed window displays for the shop, as well.
“I loved what I did. We had a wonderful business,” Wally said. “I still miss a lot of things with the industry. We got to know a lot of people through the flower shop. My wife and I both often mention customers and how we miss them.”
Wally’s changing eyesight, particularly the loss of his ability to see colors accurately, sidelined his career. The Evanses retired in 2006. Under the care of Dr. Prema Abraham at Black Hills Eye Institute, Judy said treatments have been able to restore some of Wally’s ability to see colors.
What Wally never lost was his appreciation for beauty and his creativity.
“I had always wanted to paint and then with my vision being what it is my wife encouraged me to pursue it,” he said. “I started doing sketches which I loved doing, and Shellie has encouraged me to move into doing oils. I’m still learning a lot every day. This is a new opportunity.”
Leonard said she taught a number of students who had disabilities during her 25-year career at Rapid City Stevens High School. Teaching anyone with vision or other disabilities engages all the senses in the learning process, she said.
“We started out by drawing … and I got a feeling for what Wally hoped to do with his training. He wanted to put his memories on canvas,” Leonard said. “I taught him about the supplies, I taught him the elements of art and principles of design, which he catches onto very quickly.”
Leonard has encouraged Wally to work on less detailed sketches. He is now progressing from sketching to oil paintings.
“Oil paints are very forgiving and he can move them around. It’s like painting with butter, so if he’s not happy with something, he can scrape it off and start again,” Leonard said.
Wally’s creative process requires ingenuity, along with artistic skill.
“The other day we were out painting on location. I couldn’t see the subject we were there to paint and from the angle we wanted to paint, so my wife took pictures and she ran home and printed them in color, a full-page size. With a magnifying glass and colored photo and looking as the light changed, I was able to see more,” he said.
Wally takes inspiration from French impressionist Claude Monet who suffered from vision problems. Monet is believed to have had cataracts and as his vision decreased his paintings became more abstract.
“Monet has always been my favorite artist. His paintings are not real detailed and it allows more freedom,” he said. “We took our family to Giverny, France, and took them to Monet’s home studio and gardens. I have a wonderful picture of Judy and I there.”
Wally admires Vincent Van Gogh’s work, as well, and influences from both artists might show up in his paintings.
“Wally has his own style,” Leonard said. “He enjoys Monet. He enjoys Van Gogh. He can do the brush stroke of a Van Gogh and the light of a Monet, but the painting in the end is going to be a Wally.”
Wally has a lifelong love of gardening and, like Monet and Van Gogh, Wally likes plein air (outdoor) painting. Fortunately, the fields near his home at Hart Ranch make ideal locations for painting.
He also loves architecture. An especially heartfelt project has been sketching from a photo of the Evans family church in Wales, he said. The church dates back to the 1200s. Wally and Judy celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary by taking their children and grandchildren to see it.
“Wally has lived a very storied life and when he tells his stories, there’s always something or someone that’s beautiful and so he has this vision in his mind," Leonard said. "As a teacher, I want to give him the confidence he needs to put that vision on canvas.”
Judy hopes one day to have a framed painting by her husband on display in their home.
“For a man who created such beauty for the people of Rapid City, it’s fun for him to find beauty in a paintbrush,” Judy said.
“I’m thrilled to see what he has done. It’s very exciting,” she said. “This is the beginning of an adventure. It’s going to be fun to see where it takes him.”