by Pat Saik
Sandra Russell Clark and Evert Witte - lively, active Fourth Ward residents - add provocative, prestigious contributions to the energetic Bay Saint Louis art scene.
By the time Sandra, New Orleans born, met Evert, a native of the Netherlands, both artists had impressive resumes. A fine art photographer, Sandra’s work had been published in widely-respected magazines like Vogue, Elle, Mirabella and Traveler. One art critic described her work as “melancholy and mysterious.” Her photographs made in New Orleans cemeteries and during study and travel in Venice hold a sense of the timeless and the beautiful.
At their first meeting Evert asked Sandra so many intriguing and insightful questions about her work, Sandra took notice. “He was interested in the ideas behind my work,” Sandra recalls. This was no casual look and a “my, how beautiful” comment. This was an artist talking artist talk to another artist. He told her about his work as well.
After their brief encounter, Sandra travelled to Brazil, thinking she would never see Evert again. She was wrong. Evert later came to visit her in Italy in 1993 when Sandra was teaching workshops in photography and working on a project of her own that focused on Venice. They got to know each other both during the shared time in Venice, and by traveling together. “Evert is great in times of stress, like when I lost my passport. He made me laugh and calmed me down.”
A year later, in 1994, Evert returned to New Orleans as a visiting professor of painting and drawing at Loyola University. Sandra and Evert married in March, 1995. In 1998, after Evert’s first solo show at the Cole Pratt Gallery in New Orleans, the couple moved to Bay St. Louis at the urging of a good friend who lived in the Bay.
Bay St. Louis offered what the two artists needed: studio space to work and in Sandra’s words, “a sweet, nice town situated on the water.” Having grown up in a country dominated on the west by the North Sea, Evert felt in the Bay a kinship to his own country, attracted by the water and the beautiful, small community that is Bay St. Louis. A house on Sycamore Street, near the beach, became their first home here.
After Hurricane Katrina washed away their Sycamore Street home along with every painting of Evert’s and thirty years of Sandra’s work, Evert and Sandra escaped from utter devastation to Long Island, New York, where they gradually recovered over a two-year period from the kind of trauma that Katrina wrought on so many.
Returning to Bay St. Louis in 2007, they moved into a home bordering Old Spanish Trail. It fit the bill for them both. The house is an Arts and Crafts cottage, built in 1946 and the couple spent one year renovating it and adding an addition. They also renovated an old barn on the property that now serves as Evert’s studio; Sandra has her own workspace in what had been a makeshift structure just along the road where the former owner sold produce he had grown on the property.
Oli, a rat terrier with an underbite who adopted Sandra and Avert post-Katrina, patrols his rural-like kingdom with zest if he is not napping on the front porch. With maternal love in her eyes, Sandra says Oli is “a smart, a brilliant dog.”
The present is filled with new achievements and new projects for both artists. Recently, Evert was chosen to participate in the Mississippi Invitational, a juried exhibit sponsored by the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson to survey recent developments by artists living and working across the state. Franklin Sirmans, curator of the Los Angeles County Museum, chose only thirteen people from across the state of Mississippi to display their work in this show. Evert is the only artist chosen from Bay St. Louis. The show opened October 8 and will be on display until February 5, 2012.
From among the 13 artists accepted for the show, one artist was then chosen for the Jane Crater Hiatt Artist Fellowship, a travel and research grant. Evert is the proud recipient. Evert intends to study Renaissance paintings in Rome, Florence and Venice, Italy. And what does Renaissance painting have to teach an artist who paints abstracts? Evert answers: “Space in painting is one of the most important objectives. What I am looking for is the creation of spaces. I want to translate those discoveries to my painting.”
Sandra will be working on one of her own projects in Italy—a photographic project in which she researches and records everyday life in Italy. Sandra has also taught photography classes through the Mississippi Arts Commission, as has Evert in abstract painting. Evert serves on the board of directors of the Dusti Bonge Art Foundation as just one way that he connects with the community.
Sandra and Evert are excited to see the direction of Bay St. Louis, with beach improvements, planting trees, and spiffing up the Depot district. Sandra loves The Mockingbird for a coffee and a visit with friends. “It’s the center of town. It holds it all together.”
Put it this way, Sandra says enthusiastically, “Bay St. Louis has come back alive.”
To learn more about Sandra and Evert as artists, visit each of their websites: www.evertwitte.com and www.sandrarussellclark.com.