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Terry Evans: Revealing The Secrets Of The Prairie

It’s fitting that the first career retrospective for photographer Terry Evans takes place in her hometown of Kansas City, Mo., at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, a place where she took art classes as a child. For decades, Evans has documented the Midwest prairie, its people and artifacts; more recently, she’s explored her new hometown of Chicago, and the oil and gas industries, always examining the relationship between people and the land.

Photography as "interface with the world"

Terry Evans grew up in Kansas City, Mo. and studied painting and drawing at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. In March 1968, she remembers borrowing a camera from her father, a professional photographer, to take photos of Robert F. Kennedy, who was kicking off his presidential campaign. 

"It was such an amazing experience to be right there at the interface of something that was happening in the world and making pictures," recalls Evans. "And afterwards, it seemed to be that was lots more interesting than making paintings in my studio by myself.

"I liked the idea of being able to use what I had learned in art in photography. I liked the idea that photography is an interface with the world. It allowed me to then do everything that I loved to do, to go exploring and to take pictures."

Early works

There are 100 color and black-and-white photographs in the exhibition, Heartland: The Photographs of Terry Evans, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. A wall of black-and-white photographs from the early 70s includes early documentary work in Kansas.

There's a young girl, who's blind, standing in the window frame outside a house, listening to the radio; a woman sitting in a chair, her son asleep in her lap, with images of Jesus in the background; four teenage boys, stopping work to pose around hay bales spilling out of a barn door.

"I've always been interested in photographing people in their own environment," says Evans. "I'm more interested in how people interact with the land and landscape around them and where they live. Those are the stories that I want to tell."

Exploring the subtleties of the prairie

Terry Evans moved to Salina, Kan. in 1968, after her marriage to Sam Evans. In 1978, she was first asked to photograph the prairie, an experience she says that shaped and directed her work for the next 30 years.


"I never thought that I wanted to photograph landscape. I was so interested in photographing people and learning their stories," says Evans. "And then one day, Wes Jackson of The Land Institute asked me to photographically record some survey work he was doing on a nearby 80-acre virgin prairie near Salina, Kansas, where I lived.

"And so, in looking at the ground in the spring and in watching the prairie grow I started seeing so many patterns and so much life there. There's such diversity and complexity of plants. It suddenly became extremely interesting to me."

Evans says over the next year and a half she returned to the prairie, taking photographs at different times of the year, to try to understand the patterns of biological growth.

"Because they also seemed very symbolic to me," she says. "It seemed that if I could understand the structure and growth on the prairie, then I could understand the whole universe."

Aerial photography reveals relationships

In 1980, Evans first tried aerial photography, a practice she continues to this day.

"I started doing the aerial photography because I really wanted to know if the prairie looked the same from above as it did below," she says.

When Evans first started taking photographs of the prairie she read everything she could get her hands on, from grass systematics to medicinal use of plants by Plains Indians.

"One thing that I read was a book about Medieval spirituality and there was the phrase, 'As above, so below.' And I began to wonder about that in relationship to the prairie," she says. "And once I did make my earliest aerial photo flights, I was so amazed because I could see all the relationships on the ground."

For a 2003 - 2005 series called "Revealing Chicago," Evans made 46 flights, exploring the six-county Chicago region by helicopter, hot air balloon, and small airplane.

"One can't help but see the connectedness of everything from that aerial perspective," she says.


Heartland: The Photographs of Terry Evans, through January 27 (extended), 2013 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 45th & Oak, Kansas City, Mo. 816-751-1ART. Tickets: $8 for adults, $7 for seniors, $5 for students with an ID, free for members and children 12 and younger. Check herefor a $2 off coupon.

To view more of Evans's work, check Dolphin Gallery, 1600 Liberty, Kansas City, Mo. 816-842-4415.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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