Building on a strong design–in her painting and in her life
Evelyn Dunphy, now a widely respected West Bath artist, always believed in her heart that she was an artist. As a little girl growing up in rural Nova Scotia, she held onto that dream, and throughout the next half century she kept the faith and kept working to become what she knew she was. Finally, today she can say with assurance that some dreams do come true.
For a woman who didn’t start actually painting until the mid-1990s, Evelyn has come a long way. Her work has been exhibited and awarded in juried art shows throughout the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, most recently by the North American Biennial New England Watercolor Society Exhibition. She is a Signature Member of the New England Watercolor Society, and a member of multiple other guilds and associations. She has also been featured in the Boston Globe, the New York Times, the Maine Sunday Telegram, and many art magazines.
Evelyn Dunphy is best known in Maine and New England for her iconic landscapes, especially of Mt. Katahdin. In 2006, she was part of a group of Maine artists who worked to help save Katahdin Lake and the precious wilderness around it. They donated their artwork and time–and contributed their presence and energy–to the huge fund-raising campaign. The artists, together with the Maine Department of Conservation and the Trust for Public Land, raised the needed $14 million ($11.5 million, plus $2.5 million in state funds) to buy the 6000-acre property from the Gardner Land Company, a Maine timber company. Now much of the land is part of Baxter State Park, with other portions administered by the Department of Conservation. Evelyn and all the Maine-based artists involved in this preservation effort were an important part of its success.
None of this heady success was even remotely in Evelyn’s game plan when she finally began to paint at age 50, pursuing that path that to her seemed predestined.
Evelyn grew up, one of five children, in a remote region on the Shubenacadie River, north of Halifax. The nearest store was 10 miles away. It was a hardscrabble but beautiful place. She went to a tiny grade school and remembers being chosen to decorate the blackboards every morning and being delighted by those colorful chalks. Materials were hard to come by, and these were her first medium. There were no other art supplies.
She was an avid reader and a bit of a dreamer. At nine, she was writing “novels” in which she was the heroine and traveled the world. In her imagination, she was always on an exotic journey, never stuck in a dull office. At 11, her family moved to Halifax, and she left her isolated existence behind. She had friends, piano lessons, and a paper route. Life moved on. “I didn’t look back for many years,” she says.
In high school, Evelyn had aspirations to be a nurse, but after graduating at 16, she found she’d have to wait until she was 19. There were no college possibilities, so she worked in a bank office to save money for nursing school. Then came a surprise offer to work as a flight attendant for Air Canada. “It was my dream opportunity to travel. Any idea of being an angel of mercy went out the window!”
After two years of jetting throughout Canada and the US, she met and married her husband of over 50 years, Hugh Dunphy. Together they raised five boys, and they now enjoy 11 grandchildren. Along the way, there was always time for some sort of art. In the beginning, it was applique. With no formal art training, Evelyn began designing, cutting, and stitching quilts and wall hangings. She made intricate constructions of seascapes, landscapes, and Bible stories. Armed with nothing but a few samples, she approached the Smithsonian Museum shop and was awarded a commission for 75 baby quilts.
In 1989, the Dunphys moved to Maine from New York (40 min from the city) where their raised their sons. Hugh went to Bowdoin, so Maine was very familiar to them. Evelyn recalls, “We came to visit friends on vacation and on the second day we were here, we bought the house we have been in ever since. Best thing we ever did!” They spent the next several years renovating their classic 1830s-era farmhouse. Hugh built her a little red studio behind their house for inspiration. She began to devour art theory books and spent hours creating a lush palette of perennial gardens around their property.
Evelyn soon came to grips with the fact that studying art was only half the battle. As she put it, “While I was always thinking that one day I’m going to paint, I did everything but!” In 1996, she took the plunge. For three years, she worked diligently, washing watercolors onto paper and honing her skills. She studied with a few select Maine artists, attended workshops, and sought out private tutors. Of all the works she created during that time, she didn’t try to sell a single one. “People would ask me if they could buy a painting, but I couldn’t. I was so afraid I wouldn’t be able to do another one.”
Luckily for art lovers, she overcame that fear. In addition to showing paintings in her studio, she put on her marketing hat and began actively selling them. Today, an Evelyn Dunphy original commands significant prices, and her reputation continues to grow. Not resting on her laurels, she still heads for her studio most mornings and works until late afternoon. She tries to keep a regular schedule. “If I don’t, it just doesn’t happen,” she says. In fact, rigorous discipline is clearly part and parcel of Evelyn’s artistic endeavors.
As her body of work increased, she added pastels to her repertoire because she likes the immediacy of that medium (much like the chalks of her childhood). She also produces some of her originals in limited, high-quality giclée prints.
Evelyn explains her painting process succinctly: “My first step is deciding on a ‘concept’—a subject, a particular color combination, a mood or atmosphere, or maybe just a combination of shapes that excites me. Once my concept is clear, I plan the composition and values and explore the colors that I want to include. Building a strong design is the first step to create a painting that will be more than just a ‘pretty picture.’”
In addition to her painting, Dunphy has also been teaching small workshops in her studio for the past decade. Last year, finally outgrowing her space, she moved to the West Bath Grange, where she held weekly classes and invited guest artists to give workshops. In September 2019, an Australian art video company with a global reach made their first US East Coast visit. Dunphy, one of six artists chosen (and the only Mainer) was filmed for a segment on their international channels. The subject was a painting of Katahdin.
For her dedicated students, she has been holding workshops in Europe for several years, working with Escapade, a French art tour company. Dunphy was one of the first American artists to lead two workshops in Cuba in 2016.
Today, in the midst of the COVID pandemic, in-person classes have come to a stop. Not one to give in, Evelyn, who is already social-media savvy, has taken a new route: teaching art via Zoom. Working with the head of French Escapade, which had to shut down travel operations in March, Evelyn has become one of a small team of global artists holding virtual art classes with students from all over the map. With two weeks of expert help on upgrading technology, she is now holding intensive classes three days a week, each month. Exhilarated by the whole process, she says, “At first I thought this would be a poor substitute for what I had been doing, and of course I miss the actual travel, but there are surprising benefits.” Her students are tuning in from Maine, Canada, Alaska, and throughout the United States, 16 at a time.
“The schedule of teaching and travel that I had planned for 2020 evaporated overnight,” Evelyn says, “so this opportunity to stay engaged with artists in an online format has been a great ‘silver lining.’”
Thinking about her recent experiences she says, “For me, one of the most important aspects is meeting so many new artists, many of whom have become friends. As one artist/student from Toronto wrote to me, ‘One day we will get together in person, and it will be as if we have known each other all our lives.’”
For more information about Evelyn Dunphy, please check her website or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org