Two days before the opening of their joint show at Studio IX, Virginia Rieley and Eliza Evans are together in the gallery space, spreading their art multi-dimensionally throughout the room. Evans is on a ladder, hanging dried gourds that she grew in her garden and then used as portrait canvases. Rieley stands in front of a long table, contemplating pages of the calendars the two artists have created every year since 2006. She’s trying to figure out how to represent 15 years’ worth of calendars on one wall. It’s big, but not that big.
The art in this show—simply and aptly called “Retrospective”—spans a lot of time within the boundaries of greater Charlottesville. The women are true locals and their friendship is local too, having begun when they were grade schoolers at Red Hill Elementary. In some ways, their collaboration reaches back to those childhood days. “The comedy thing came first—we would make each other laugh,” says Evans.
“We’d make rhyming poems,” says Rieley. “And little songs,” adds Evans.
Since Evans’ father, John Borden Evans, is a well-known local painter, “There was always paint around,” says Evans. Being an artist seemed natural.
The other walls of the gallery feature individual work: Evans’ portraits and Rieley’s collages. It was while Rieley and Evans were living together in Scottsville, around 2006, that Evans painted her first portraits of friends, in the form of a mural inside their shared house. She realized she’d tapped into a rich vein. Portraits—mostly simple, frontal portraits painted on wood, with a solid background color—soon became her signature.
“I really like people,” she says, “and I always paint from life.” For several years before her children were born, she was known for setting up a mobile studio on the Downtown Mall and doing on-the-spot portraits. Many of the 180 or so portraits that cover the long wall in this gallery—arranged so the background colors form an enormous rainbow—come from those mall sessions, and picture people who let Evans borrow the pieces back for this show. Then there are the ones she painted “of people without a job, who were sitting there talking to me anyway,” she remembers. “I accumulated quite a few.”
The show includes newer works too, and taken as a whole, they record a Charlottesville era. A lot of viewers will probably spot several faces they know on this wall. There are couples, kids, dogs and cats. “It’s history, but it’s not a photo,” Evans says. “It’s an impression.” Most of her subjects aren’t smiling or presenting themselves too self-consciously; one senses that Evans’ easy manner has allowed them to sit still and look back at her, even as she closely observes them. The portraits honor people in detail and spirit.
Evans doesn’t think her style has changed much over the years, but she says she’s gotten more efficient. “There used to always be a moment when I wasn’t sure it would come together, but now I never have a doubt,” she says. “I just do it.”
Rieley’s work, meanwhile, focuses on the local settings that the people in Evans’ portraits probably know well. Her collages—constructed from photos, watercolor, and ink—will feel familiar to anyone who’s lived in Charlottesville, with their mix of iconic and ordinary spots around town. Serpentine walls and the Beta Bridge are here, but so are modest streetscapes and anonymous garages. “I’ve been honing the formula over the last 10 years,” she says.
These images have often become backgrounds for the pages of the calendar that Evans and Rieley have created together for the last decade and a half. Though the images—which layer Evans’ portraits over Rieley’s collages, and sometimes include rhyming poems à la their school days—are appealing, the calendar’s real claim to fame is captured in its moniker: Every Day Is a Holiday.
The concept arose when both artists worked at the farm known as The Best Of What’s Around. One of them wondered aloud when the next holiday was, but then realized that the month of August is bereft of holidays. So Rieley and Evans started inventing their own reasons to celebrate and marking them on a calendar.
These run the gamut: Notice Your Privilege Day, Swimming Day, Do Someone A Favor Day, Kissing Day. Each one is lettered onto its square in Rieley’s neat hand. Over 15 years, some holidays have remained attached to their dates while others have shifted or been replaced.
Meanwhile, each year, the duo have come up with a slightly different concept for filling the upper calendar page, the one that features an image. Sometimes they’ve focused more on text in decorative frames, sometimes on landscapes. To represent the calendars in this show, they’ll choose eight complete years to tack up on that big wall—a sprawling grid of local people, places, and homegrown holidays. (If you’re interested in the 2020 version, look for it on Etsy.)
All the calendars—true to the concept—grow from the same spirit of celebration, not to mention freewheeling creativity. (Poem next to a portrait of a young, serious-looking man: “My name is Patrick. / I’m handsome and nice. / Lately I’ve been making / really good fried rice.”)
“We don’t take ourselves super-seriously,” says Rieley. “But we’re both perfectionists,” adds Evans. Rieley clarifies: “We want it to be enjoyed.”
Eliza Evans and Virginia Rieley’s “Retrospective” show is on view at Studio IX through February 2.