ABOVE: Bless His Heart (2022), Oil on Wood Panel
Ceirra Evans (she/her) is a visual artist based in Louisville, Kentucky. Her most recent show, It’s OK to Go Home, ran this year at the Moremen Gallery in Louisville. Her work has also been featured locally at 21c Louisville and Tim Faulkner Gallery as well as in Hindman, Kentucky, near her home county in the eastern part of the state. Internationally, her work has been shown at Spongleheim Gallery, The Holy Art Gallery, and Boomer Gallery in London
Through personal anecdote and humor, Evans’ work dispels myths around Appalachian culture to generate conversation and discovery regarding misunderstood or underappreciated values held by the people who call the region home. Ben Gierhart spoke with her over Zoom to delve more deeply into the nature of and intentions behind her work.
Ben Gierhart: You're from Bath County, Kentucky, and it appears as though your work is preoccupied with your wishing to express that aspect of yourself. How would you say you're growing up there informs your art?
Ceirra Evans: The first thing that comes to mind isn’t even necessarily the subjects that informed the work or the politics, or anything that's really what the work is about. What the question makes me think of is more so the work ethic. You know, being from a place where people are just very hard working, it's all about consistency every day. Whenever I'm in the studio, it's all about work. It's all about being consistent. And it's about being disciplined.
I'm in the studio probably six out of the seven days a week, even whenever I did have a part time job. Now that's all I get to do, which is really wonderful. But to me, I feel like being from Bath County and being from Appalachia has made me be such a disciplined artist. Just because that's how my mother works. That's how everybody in my family shows up and shows out.
With trying to express Appalachia and this idea of ruralness… I always say I think the one part that I didn't realize I missed the most was the people and place. Because whenever I came to Louisville, I realized that people really didn't have the same values as I did. I feel like they weren’t on the same wavelength of graciousness and generosity. And that's one of the things that I hope people see within the work, and they see that sort of empathy. This was how I was raised, and this is exactly what the people from there are all about. And so yeah, as much as it is about the subject, it's about that value and how they have taught me to be a person.
BG: I think that's so beautiful. There are a lot of perceptions out there on what being from Appalachia means. I just think it's really wonderful that you're able to show that there's so much more than what people think they know about it.
CE: For sure, people definitely have the stereotype. There are certain things that I feel like are true. One of the truest things I always find is the idea of the outlaw being from Appalachia. To me, that is what I am. I am an outlaw. My family is made up of absolute badasses that way. The thing about it is that people will be scared, and they judge, you know? They think there's some sort of idiocy that comes with that.
To me, if you practice this really radical empathy, like most people do out there, you're able to be the Outlaw. But you're also able to be this person that's absolutely gracious. That's really what I'm trying to do, especially in artwork. People can do bad things, and people can be a part of generational trauma. That's exactly what is in Appalachia. But there's so much love and so much more to that story.
BG: Definitely agreed. And speaking of agreement: I think most can agree that art is a means to express what cannot be expressed any other way. And if you agree with that, can you speak a little on how your relationship with art began? And how it has helped you process your thoughts, feelings, and questions you may have about yourself in the world?
CE: Whenever I give tours of the work, and whenever I can really tell the story behind the work, and anytime people are in the studio, I always tell people that artwork is a great therapy. The reason why I make artwork is because I go through so much therapy. That in and of itself has helped out so much with some of the works, like It's OK to Go Home, the last show.
The titular work of the whole entire show was a way of me expressing my thoughts and feelings and forgiveness for my mother. That relationship has been so prominent within my life and has been something that I've worked with quite a bit.
Painting has helped me realize where those turning stones are and my emotional growth. I mean, a year ago, I painted a portrait of my mother, and there's so much cynicism within it. And then with this portrait that I did of her, me and her together, I feel like there was so much empathy, and I was able to see that emotional growth and how I expressed it on the canvas.
I really appreciate that you asked that question, because I feel like sometimes people get so caught up in what the work’s about and don't necessarily talk about what the practice is behind the work. Because it's like I said, a means of expression. And it's definitely a way that I'm able to tackle the subjects that live within my head.
I've been painting very consistently since I was probably about fourteen or fifteen. And so I really, really put in a lot of time and work into what I want to be a great and really wonderful relationship. That's so cheesy. People say they're in a relationship with their work, but it's so true. I was talking to a friend today where I was like, ‘If you don't treat your artwork right. If you don't give it the time and space to grow, it's not going to allow you to do the same thing.’
I look at the work that I did in July, and that wasn't the work that I do now. There's so much that I've grown from and been through, and it's very interesting to see how that's expressed on the canvas.
BG: I do really understand that dynamic. And I think you really nailed it when you talked about letting your work grow so that it can help you grow too. My next question begins with the observation that some of your work appears to have stylistic commonalities with some elements of caricature and illustration. What about those styles speaks to you? How do they aid your intentions with your work? What other styles or techniques influenced your work?
CE: It's so true: Illustration really does inspire my work. You know, whenever people talk about, ‘What are your favorite influences?’ I always tell people I'm like Norman Rockwell and Dean Cornwell and all those early illustrators. What I find so beautiful about illustration, and the reason why I try to use it as much as possible whenever I paint somebody or I'm trying to capture the essence, is that with illustration, you don't have to guess what they're feeling. You never have to guess exactly what the art is about. You know the story as soon as you look at it. And to me, that's so important because whenever I'm painting the stories of Appalachia, I want people that are from there, and I want my family and my friends of my peers, to be able to look at it and not have to guess exactly what the artwork’s about.
I was talking to a friend the other day, and I hate the idea that whenever you go into a museum, it's almost like there is this assumption that you have to have a degree to be able to look at a piece of artwork. The best as an artist is to make sure that that's not what the relationship with the viewer is. And that's why I use so much illustration and so much caricature because whenever I'm rendering somebody… Even if they don't even really understand or haven’t been a part of the story of Appalachia—at least they can connect to it. And they can understand it almost like a movie.
Another big inspiration for me is film because whenever I'm painting something, really what I'm doing is staging a scene. A lot of my work is inspired by movie musicals and Broadway. That's the kind of stuff that I love and that I cherish whenever I'm not in the studio painting. The thing that I love about that the most is that pure emotion there. The cinematographer is setting up a scene and they want it to be perfect. I use a lot of that as inspiration just so that the story is not just a one liner. You're really reading into it, hopefully as much as possible. Because I just find that so important, especially where I'm from.
BG: That's great, and things are so much more accessible that way. And musicals especially are all about the storytelling, so it makes perfect sense why you would gravitate towards that. I'm also fascinated by the titles of your pieces. They really, really grabbed me. For example, No Politics at the Table, for me, works simultaneously as a call to your own specific memory but also as an invitation to the viewer to delve into their own. Do you have any kind of process for coming up with a title or does it just pop into your head?
CE: A lot of times, whenever I'm creating a piece, it'll come from a conversation. I'll be talking with my mother or my grandfather or somebody about an issue or something that is close to the family. My mother will say some liquid gold, like she'll say something that is absolutely perfect. From that, the art piece will appear in my head.
So, the title and the work coincide with each other. They're not two separate things that you have to understand. A lot of times, the work will come from the title first. I like for those titles to be almost conversational. I want it to be something that plays in the back of somebody's head while they're looking at the piece and almost having a conversation with a piece.
And that's one way that I process the title. The other way is… I'll make the piece. I'll work on something like the work Everyone Needs a Lil’l Help. That was in this recent show at Moremen. I knew I wanted to do something about sitting in this very melancholy place waiting for food, begging and asking. The title itself went through so many different renditions. And finally, I just called up my mother. She's the one that's naming all these pieces, just because she's able to simply put it in perspective.
And I think that's the best part. Because, with the vision that I have, I feel like she's able to really take out exactly what it is and make it more palatable and more sensitive to the issue. There's a lot of times that I'll be like, ‘This is what the piece is. What do you think it should be?” And she immediately told me, ‘Everyone needs a lil’l help? That's what you should call it,” and I was like, ‘Well, shit.” Liquid gold.
And yeah, sometimes it's a backward process. I try to make it as organic as possible. If the title doesn't seem right, I just have to wait. I have to give it a second, and I have to have a conversation with somebody about the work because I don't want it to be so black and white. I need to really play with the piece. That way… I want it to be a part of exactly what the story is and almost like that's something that's being said within the conversation of the scene that I'm setting.
BG: What you were talking about with your mother kind of leads into the next question where it seems like your family and your relatives have a profound connectedness between them and your work. And I've read how your pieces often contain figures representing them. It sounds like I already know the answer to this, but I'm going to ask anyway. Is this a conscious choice, and if so, what purpose do they serve your pieces?
CE: There're a lot of pieces that contain very specific family members just because sometimes it is me painting a very specific moment. There's a painting that was about my father that I couldn't not put him in because it was a memory that I had I painted it from.
It was a memory from, you know… it was this trauma-induced memory that I had when I was eight years old. And so, although I won't give them a name, it's important to let the viewer know that this is what this person is to me. When connecting with the viewer, I know that a lot of people will have the same story with their father. And the same thing with my mother. I think it's just so important to tell the truth.
I've had a lot of conversations with my family about representing them and trying to get the best representation I can whenever I put them on the canvas. I think the thing that we all come to agreement on is that as long as I'm telling the truth, that's all that matters. If I put my brother on the canvas, it’s okay as long as it's exactly who he is in that moment. That's the most important thing.
Sometimes certain things are played on, and I make up people, but I try to keep them as specific as possible. What I find from talking with people is that whenever I do tell them that this is my mother in the painting, this is my brother, this is my grandmother… And it's so specific… It seems like people will take it even more personally. People connect with it a little bit more, and weirdly enough, even though it's so personal, people seem to find themselves within the canvas. I still don't understand that relationship. I don't have an answer for how that works. But it seems like it gets a better response whenever it is personal. And it's just more real. It's so important to be so true and authentic, you know?
BG: Thank you. If you'd rather not say that's fine, but I thought I'd ask: The piece you were talking about with your father, is that Whiskey River, or were you talking about a different one?
BG: Yeah, that one. Thank you. Okay. Where do you see your work going from here? What questions do you still have that you want to explore through your art?
CE: I know right now, in the studio, I'm working on a couple of different pieces that talk about Appalachia even more critically, still dispelling myths, but I think it's taking it almost a little bit more political. I'm working on a piece that talks about what gun safety means. How guns are, especially in Appalachia… They're not even seen as something to brandish. They're definitely seen as something to be respected and loved and used only at a time of absolute need.
That is such a heavy-hitting thing to me. It's such a triggering object, and it's an object that I think has a lot of conversation around it. Right now, I'm trying to invite those things that make people a little bit more uncomfortable. I feel like the work up until now has been so personal, but as I'm understanding how to cope with my life and identity and also what future solutions I think Appalachia deserves… I think it's important to talk about these more critical subjects.
I'm asking those questions about guns, and I'm asking those questions about wages and the job crisis. That's something that I feel like a lot of people and especially my family talk about right now. How much they're making and how much further they will be able to live on what they're making… this texture of poverty.
I'm not necessarily trying to use it as propaganda but more so trying to tell these very, very personal stories that we do talk about in real time, what people are making and how the hell they're even able to live off of it.
I think further into the work, I really want to start talking more about different parts of my identity and talking about how being queer from Appalachia has been so different from other queer experiences. And it's something that I find with every queer person that I've talked to from my region… that it's not necessarily about who you love, it's about how you choose to love them.
I think that's such an important question to ask. Being from that region and where these values are so ingrained in the mountains, values that my mother and my family have taught me whenever I choose and pick apart relationships. I really want to represent this idea of how I've been taught to be so selfless whenever it comes to love and whenever it comes to being in a relationship, and I think that's the question I'm really trying to ask. How has Appalachia taught me to love people, and especially within my queerness?
Also, I think it's important to talk about what corners queer people are being pushed into. There are corners you're being pushed into and also platforms you're being set on. You’re asking the question as to why you have to hide it. But also, of course, there are certain queer people who are shining and certain queer people who aren't.
Being a queer woman from the south, I was honestly very supported, and I was given a really safe place… but I can't say the same thing for everyone—for many transgender folks that come from where I'm from, and I think that's so interesting. I think that's something that we have to beg the question of, you know? If we're all part of this community, and people want to accept everybody in the community, why are we picking and choosing? I really want to try to have more conversations on that and try to represent it the best way possible.
That's still something that people don't realize: They're there. There's a big queer community in eastern Kentucky. There are safe spaces, and there's also places that aren't so safe. I'm working on some pieces right now, and hopefully they come to fruition and talk about those really, really tough subjects.
Ben Gierhart (he/him) is a playwright/theater artist and arts writer based in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a firm believer that the study of all artistic disciplines only enriches a particular artist’s specific gifts.
With Love (2021), Oil on Canvas
No Politics at the Table (2021), Oil on Canvas
Whiskey River (2022), Acrylic on Canvas
Y'all Full of Crud (2022), Oil on Canvas
Everyone Needs a Lil'l Help (2022), Oil on Canvas