Visual artists are a vital part of Kentucky’s Queer community. Thanks to the Great Meadows Foundation, which was launched in 2016 by contemporary art collector and philanthropist Al Shands (1928-2021) in order to critically strengthen and support visual art in Kentucky, Queer Kentucky will be featuring interviews with a number of these artists.
It is the quest of the artist to explore and to report back to the world. Artists are storytellers at their core and Ceirra Evans is cut from this cloth. Through her work as a painter, Evans dives deep into herself and her own journey examining the complicated and often difficult experiences of coming of age queer in rural America. Her work tells stories rarely told. Stories of selflessness and sacrifice and the healing that is possible between two worlds seemingly at odds.
Originally from Bath County, Kentucky, Evans moved to Louisville in 2017. She is a graduate of Spalding University with a Bachelor’s degree in liberal arts. Evans’ artistic practice lies within the intersection of painting and storytelling. Her stories are deeply personal and reflective of her own experiences growing up queer in the hills of Appalachia. Following a narrative that is ultimately moving towards forgiveness and healing between herself and her home, Evans’ work has a vulnerability to it that is both direct and yet gently passive. She describes her earlier work as an expression of cynicism towards Appalachia and acknowledges that many of the subjects in these paintings are her kin. It is this commitment towards uninhibited self-expression that makes Evan’s storytelling tangible and truly special.
For Evans the story comes first. She credits her double major in art and history with giving her a more complex vernacular to develop the content of her work but it is evident that her strength in storytelling also comes from her ability to self-reflect and to think deeply about her life and the people and places that fill it. Evans’ newer body of work is a step towards a posture of empathy rather than cynicism. She chooses to find the binding commonality between her own queerness and the conservatism of rural America. For Evans, it is the “shirt off of the back” selflessness of her upbringing that connects her to home. This blending of queer narratives and Appalachian culture gives specificity to her artistic self-expression moving her towards authenticity and away from “performative queerness”. Evans’ work creates spaces for queer rural America to exist. Her paintings fundamentally challenge the pigeon-holed identities of queerness only existing in metropolitan spaces and the presumptions that hate and homophobia are the bread and butter of the South.
Evans’ storytelling is deeply autobiographical. Navigating through ideas and experiences of femininity and masculinity within her self she is able to unveil and challenge the boundaries of normative gender identity. Evans’ work looks closely and honestly at the ways in which femininity and masculinity are taught by the examples of matriarchs. Examining these more complex and nuanced sides of gender identity within her paintings allows space for healing and reconciliation. This merging of polarities seems to be central to Evans’ work. Whether it is through her painting practice or her own journey into authenticity Evans’ aim is to pull from the best of two worlds. Namely her queer community and the community of her childhood.
Queer storytelling for Evans is inextricably bound to stories from Appalachia and how could it be any different? As queer people the context of our upbringing informs our unique expression of ourselves. Our trauma, our identities and our roads toward forgiveness and self-acceptance all originate from our experiences of home.
Evans’ newer body of work, entitled “The Shirt Off My Back”, explores the commonalities between the selflessness of Appalachian culture and the ways in which she has learned to love and connect with other women. These paintings, although still works in progress, are intimate and vulnerable. Evans’ use of a softer palette and more painterly and figurative techniques give the viewer a quieter yet more sophisticated look into the stories she is telling. Whereas her earlier work was composed of a stronger primary based palette and a looser style of painting that seemed to scream out her narratives her newer work whispers softly, inviting us to more closely investigate what is being said.
Evans is a generous artist. The narratives and emotions that run through her work leave little to guess. Inspired by the illustrations of artists like Rockwell, Evans aims to push the feeling of the painting directly to the surface. In this way her work has an accessibility to it that can only be described as Southern hospitality. Indeed access is an important part of how Evans presents herself as an artist. She has made it an aspiration to show her work primarily within the region honoring the connection between her creative practice and its’ subject matter. Keeping the work accessible to the communities who’s stories she is telling seems to be just as necessary to her process as the actual painting itself.
There is a utility to Evans’ work that moves beyond aesthetics. The vulnerability and honesty of her storytelling is validating and gives real visibility to rural queerness. In the telling of her own stories Evans’ paintings also bring up ideas of permission and self-acceptance. Permission to tell the difficult stories of one’s life. Permission to be seen amidst all of our imperfections. Permission to be just as we are. It is this acknowledgement of inherent value and worthiness that pushes Evans’ work towards a higher purpose.
For Evans’, truth and sincerity are pivotal to her creative practice. She credits her success as an artist to this commitment to forthrightness. Alongside her ability to be vulnerable in her work she has a clear understanding that some things are not meant to be shared. Evans does admittedly set boundaries for her self expression. She paints what she is clear about, saving the unexplored or the under-explored for quieter self reflection. Evans’ ability to patiently develop an intimate understanding of the stories she’s telling speaks to her maturity as an artist and as a person.
Evans’ work and the stories she tells are necessities in the movement towards inclusion. Her paintings give a voice to her home and to the journey of coming of age queer in rural America.