New sensation
SECA Art Award winner Simon Evans keeps his head.

By Lori Spears


guardian photos by lori spears
ON JAN. 21 Simon Evans waited in line to get into his own award show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The queue wrapped around the block at the "2004 SECA Art Award" opening. There was even one of those huge, rented searchlights, as if the exhibit was being advertised to extraterrestrials.

It was a big event, with art patrons, society figures, press, and friends of the artists. Immediately, I felt underdressed and out of place. I overheard someone saying the scene was "skater-rific." Inside, caviar was served and skateboards were checked along with coats. Two worlds had definitely crashed into each other. In no other place can two classes of people coexist: rich people love and finance art, and artists sell their work to pay the bills.

Evans's C.V. is very short, but it includes six impressive exhibitions, among them the 2003 Frieze Art Fair in London. It is as if he fell out of the sky. However, under gallery owner Jack Hanley's guidance and given Evans's determination and talent, he will soon be an international art star.

I talked to the former professional skateboarder in his apartment, where found drawn-on dollars were scattered across his studio floor, part of a project in which Evans trades them for unembellished ones. Evans is humble, hardworking, and grateful – his art is subtle, satirical, and small-scale, much like himself. His pieces look like things you found in the attic, stashed in your pocket, and accidentally washed but loved nonetheless. The soft-stained colors don't compete with his obsessive lists of feelings, things, and places. They are kind of romantic and definitely personal. Each piece feels like a confession. In addition to showing his work at SFMOMA, Evans is exhibiting notebook pages in "Notebooks, Wednesday 04 to Wednesday 05" at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. In March, Evans relocates to London, where he hasn't been in 11 years, and he has a name for his next body of work: "In Dwarf Land and Cannibal Country."

Bay Guardian: You are an only child, born in London in 1972. Let's talk about your family.

Simon Evans: My dad was a policeman, and my mum made sieves. I was a dutiful child. My parents left me alone. I would draw, watch TV, read, and skate.

BG: You were a professional street skateboarder for the now defunct Experience. Is that what brought you to S.F. in 1994?

SE: Yeah, I just flew out to film a video part. All the mags are here – Thrasher and Slap. I came out here and ended up staying.

BG: Then you quit in 1996.

SE: Yeah, it was boring. It felt like a narrow world. It wasn't enough for me anymore. I had literary aspirations. [Skating] just got to the point where I didn't feel creative anymore.

It is a youth culture. I quit skateboarding and got a job at a tea shop. I just worked every day, and when I wasn't working at a crappy job, I was writing fiction, short stories. It wasn't working out.

BG: What would you write about?

SE: Fantastical stuff, like practical, everyday stories. There was a story about a girl with an artificial apple up her bum. It was like a fitness device. I like stories like that. Funny, everyday, with a fantastical twist.

BG: First you were skating, then you didn't feel fulfilled, so you started writing, and yet again you felt unfulfilled. So you started drawing?

SE: I worked so hard. It would take me, like, four months to write a two-page story. Every word was very difficult. I would obsess. I would write the stories over and over again. It got to the point where four lines would take me months. I would close myself down. I wasn't comfortable.

BG: When did you decide you needed to have visuals, to be an artist?

SE: When I was 24, my then-girlfriend was very free and into art. I always had it in me.

With writing, I always felt like I was forcing myself into a box. After a while, I was getting into art. It was freeing. I did this big collage on our bedroom wall. Then I closed myself down again because I felt like I should be writing. In '98, I just decided. Something clicked, and I went out and bought a sketchbook. That was a hard thing to do, that change.

BG: When you started making art, you weren't influenced by other local artists?

SE: No, there was a historical context. I didn't go out much. I worked my job, bought records, went to the bookstore. That is how I educated myself.

BG: Did you show your work to your friends?

SE: I have always showed my work to my friends. But they are biased. What happened to me was that I worked at a coffee shop, Diamond Corner Café at 24th and Diamond, for Bob and Christy Bennet-Hanes, a really nice couple. They like art and music, and I would show 'em my sketchbooks. They were like finished pieces, but the whole book was the art. And they asked me to put on a show in 2000.

BG: Were you low-balling the prices and selling yourself short?

SE: I am not used to that. I think one of 'em was $200, the biggest one. Bob priced them. I did another show there a few months later, and we did open bidding like an auction.

BG: So you were starting to get a taste of it – having shows, selling work. You have to start somewhere. You didn't go to art school, so you don't have that background. You weren't getting feedback from other artists. You were kind of isolated. How did you get hooked up with Adobe Books?

SE: At this point, I wanted to change my work. I thought it was derivative of Paul Klee. It was cutesy. There were watercolors like children's books illustrations. This is when I wanted to express the world around me. I didn't want to escape as much.

Alexis Georgopoulous from Tussle and Donal Mosher were putting on a show about the Wild West at Transmission, and they thought it would be interesting [to show my artwork] because I was an English guy. I did a bunch of gouache paintings about my idea of America on paper and cardboard. They were like Ben Shann pictures. But I was happy because they were more me. They were about my life and experiences in America. No one really liked 'em. They were scratchy and rough and not really pretty.

Amanda Eicher, the curator from Adobe's back room, talked to Alexis about me, and she asked me to do a show, and I had eight months to do it. I had a lot of time. I wanted to make a new body of work, and this is when I started to make the work like I do now. It just happened, and it clicked. I was working at the pie shop in the Sunset, and there was all this paper and tape available to me, and I [had] just read Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. It resonated with me. It was whimsical and at the same time biting, intelligent, and critical of the establishment. It just fit my sensibility.

BG: Tell us how you got hooked up with Jack Hanley?

SE: In 2002 he saw my work at Adobe. Most of the pieces had sold, and what didn't, Jack took to Miami [Art Basel Miami Beach]. He phoned me up, said he liked my work and wanted to set up a show. This was really good news. I felt like, wow – this is it. I was a really big fan of Chris Johanson [who also shows at Hanley].

The thing that shifted me was that I was in the past with my artistic taste. I got a book of the "Sensation" exhibition with James Riley, Matthew Mahoney, Hirst. That really connected with me. I felt like I should be making art in the present.

BG: So you were definitely aware of the times and artists around you. In 2002 the term "Mission School" was coined.

SE: I was always a bit intimated. I saw Chris Johanson and Alicia McCarthy around and knew their work. But I felt like a nerd or a jerk. I wasn't aware of how big it was. I was an outsider. I didn't know that many people. I didn't hang out much.

BG: Did you consider yourself a part of the Mission School? Or are you second-generation? There seems to be this folky art wave – using raw or found materials, simple line drawings.

SE: I am not a folk artist. Most of my materials are purchased. I would say that I am influenced. It is part of my environment. Barry McGee was a trailblazer into the highfalutin art world. Chris Johanson's work is so deceptively simple. I have always had a hard time imagining him as a folky dude. His use of color and composition and line, his conceptual intent, is spot on. I associate "folk" as naive.

BG: What is your artistic intent? Before you said it is "not to go back to the pie shop."

SE: I won't compromise my art. I will push it, and do what I want to do and not just what people want to see. I could go back to the pie shop. But it's scary, when you get a little higher, it is so much further to fall. And you remove the imaginary bubble. When I was working in that coffee shop, I had a romantic notion of a struggling artist banging away and being found dead.

BG: And penniless.

SE: Now that I don't have a day job, I don't have to use my imagination in that way. I put all my imagination into my work. It's hard work, like, 10 hours a day, and there is pressure. It is overwhelming. It is not easy. I wake up at 7 a.m. Drink tea. Work till 2, then get lunch for an hour, take a walk, come back, and work till, like, 7 p.m., when I get more food and work till 10.

BG: Do you still skate?

SE: Yes, like to get to the store. But I have fun on the way.

BG: Did the discipline you got from skating helping you now?

SE: Definitely. Even physically, it is exhausting. It is really hard on your body. Just doing it till it's right. All the repetition. Yeah, that is like skating.

BG: Do you feel lucky?

SE: I feel ridiculously lucky. I'm waiting for that bad thing to happen just to counteract the luck I've received.

BG: Waiting for the bubble to burst?

SE: Yeah, someone to come out of somewhere and make me pay for the luck I've received.