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WM: The Magpie

Walking alongside Cherry Creek in downtown Denver, Jennifer Evans turns right as the creek flows into South Platte River, following a dusty path that stretches hundreds of miles through Colorado. Along the way, she picks up a coil of rusted wire, some railroad spikes, and a handful of circle-top landscape pins that have worked their way out of the ground. She’ll later add them to her found-object collection in her art studio next to the jars and jugs of baubles, beads, tiles, jingles, paper, fabric, twine, and tools. 

The artist and cultural anthropologist sees these things as precious treasurers, not cast-off junk. 

“I love finding little shiny objects, but they also have meaning,” Evans says. “My son once called me a trash picker, but I prefer to think of myself as a magpie in that respect.” 

Many Native American tribes see the magpie as a friend and helper, and wearing a magpie feather as a sign of fearlessness. Ancient Romans believed the magpie to be intelligent with the ability to reason. Eastern cultures say the magpie foretells good luck and happiness. In Scandinavian culture, the magpie represents balance. The magpie has also become a symbol of expressiveness and refinement. 

Like many 18-year-olds, Evans entered college at the University of California Berkeley with little idea of what she wanted to study. 

“I spent the first couple of years just taking classes,” Evans says. “I ended up taking intro classes in anthropology, African American studies, Scandinavian studies. And they were amazing.” 

Her interest in folklore was born. 

“Folklore is cultural anthropology, as opposed to physical anthropology,” Evans continues. “It’s more understanding a culture’s stories, its crafts, its myths; to understand who the people are. It’s not only studying another culture; but learning how that culture relates to other cultures appealed to me.” 

Since Berkeley did not offer an undergraduate major in folklore, Evans and her advisor created an individual major consisting of coursework from several different departments and writing a thesis. That was where the folklore seemingly ended, but creating her own path was just beginning. 

“I was at Berkeley in the ’70s. Even in high school, I started reading and hearing about the women’s liberation movement, and realized it was a real thing,” says Evans, who went on to become the first woman to serve on the Board of Trustees at Wabash College. “It was important. This idea of strong women became part of me— women in leadership positions, women in positions that weren’t traditionally for women. 

“At the time I thought, I’ve got to go into business, because that’s what women were supposed to do.” 

After graduation, Evans started a training program at Continental Illinois National Bank, got her master’s in business administration from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and worked her way up to vice president. With two children, she went on to hold a range of leadership positions at Citizens Fidelity Bank, Silicon Valley Bank, Citibank, and The Cradle Adoption. 

“Folklore studies was always part of my interest, but I didn’t pursue it as a career,” Evans says. “I went into my career in banking—blindly isn’t quite the right word, but not with a lot of direction. I tried different career paths a couple times, and then went back to banking because it was a way to support my family.” 

Dean for College Advancement Michelle Janssen recruited Evans to participate in the ad hoc committee for resource development in 2015. She applauds Evans’ fortitude. 

“She was a single mom. She raised her daughter, Lindsay, and her son, Jack (Montgomery) ’15, and she was a professional banker in a very competitive field dominated by men,” says Janssen. “She goes for what she wants with grit and determination, but with this grace and lightness about her purpose that draws people in.” 

In 2016, Evans was invited to join the Board of Trustees at Wabash, her son’s alma mater. 

“I am incredibly proud of my mom and her work as a trustee,” Montgomery says. “I am excited to see her paving the way for a more diverse board. I admire her commitment and embodiment of the College’s core values. She is a critical thinker and compassionate leader in all she does.” 

As Evansdaughter became a teenager, she began showing an interest in becoming an artist. The busyness of raising and sustaining her family by herself gave Evans little time to pursue her own interests, but she did all she could to ensure her kids could pursue theirs. 

“There was a collage class at the Evanston Art Center,” says Evans. “But it was from 7 to 10 p.m. and my daughter didn’t want to do something late at night by herself. I said, ‘How about if we do it together?’ 

“It ended up not really being her kind of art. But I realized I was really enjoying it. It resparked my creative outlet.” 

Evans began making some things here and there in what little spare time she had, but it wasn’t until a friend saw her work that she realized how much art had become a budding passion. 

“A friend came over and said, ‘Jennifer, these are really good. You should put these on the wall.’ So, I thought, Okay. I put them up on the wall and decided, that’s kind of fun and I kept working on it.” 

It wasn’t until 10 years ago when Evans married Jack Tankersley and moved to Denver that she created a dedicated studio space. Then, in 2019, Evans took a class at the Chicago Mosaic School taught by Australian artist Pamela Irving. The four-day class reopened her world of artistic and cultural exploration. 

“I could see that Jennifer was naturally inquisitive and a very creative person,” says Irving. “She arrived early each day and worked incredibly hard during class hours. Her work has a quirkiness I really relate to. She was eager to learn and absorb information, and her work had a quiet confidence.” 

Evans sees it as a breakthrough for her as an artist. 

“I had no idea what I was going to be doing. I didn’t know what this class was about,” says Evans. “I had never done anything with mosaics.

“I ended up making an upright piece like an African Nkondi, which are usually male figures with a bunch of things sticking out. There’s usually an opening for placing things to represent dreams or desires, for warding off evil spirits, and preserving the lives of people you love.” 

Irving told Evans the piece reminded her of the Wandjina, the cloud and rain spirits from Australian Aboriginal mythology. This comment helped Evans recognize that the inspiration for her art went all the way back to her days at Berkeley. 

“The mythology fits right into my sense of creating art. I realized my piece, Wandjina, The Folklore Major, is influenced by several cultures— African, Mexican, Greek and Mideastern, American, and French. I was returning to my passion and my story.” 

What followed was a flurry of pieces, as Evans became a sort of griot, using each piece to pass down the stories of the people who had influenced her life and art. 

Much of Evans’ work continues to stem from what she learned about various cultures and the art and relics that were important to them. She takes the opportunity while creating her art to reflect and remember the experiences of the people within the different cultures her pieces represent. 

“There are cultures that I am not a member of and cultures that I am a member of, and I have an understanding that it’s important not to meld the two, but to have an appreciation for both,” says Evans. 

“At Berkeley, I took a Native American folklore class that was more Native American history—how the white culture in the U.S. oppressed and decimated their communities,” Evans says. “I subsequently found out I have a great-grandmother who was Native American, specifically Choctaw. That history of oppression continues to be of interest to me to learn more about, to understand more about, and to be sad about.” 

Another piece she recently completed pays homage to the African American quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. The women quilters reused fabric scraps and old work clothes to create quilts to keep their families warm. Later, many were sold raising money and support for voting rights drives during the Civil Rights Movement. The quilts were made to be functional, but many now hang in museums because of their artistic value. 

The idea of reusing things and the process of embroidering and quilting help Evans feel connected to the stories of the generations of women artists before her, including her own mother, who began painting watercolors at age 60. 

“While I have always been impressed by my mom’s creativity, I find her curiosity and willingness to explore new techniques and artistic methods most inspiring,” says Montgomery, “her passion for learning and commitment to growing as an artist.” 

Stepping into evansloft in downtown Denver is a lot like entering an art museum. She and her husband have collected art from all over the world, but their collection also includes the work of her daughter, stepson, and mother, and, of course, many of Evans’ own pieces. 

However, there is much art yet to be unveiled in their personal gallery. 

“I have a whole series that I haven't shown anybody other than my husband and son,” says Evans. “They are all photographs of my grandmother that I’ve made into collages, some of which I have added embroidery stitching to. My son is writing a piece on each of them.” 

The other series in progress is the Blue Women series born from a paper-cutting class during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We were doing all these different things with paper, using different images. I wasn’t sure what I was going do with it,” Evans says. “Then I posted it on Instagram, which was something that I’d never done before. 

“Over the next few months, I made two or three more. There was something about the cutting out,” says Evans. “My collage making is very organic. I don't have any idea when I pull a piece of paper out what’s going to happen to it exactly.” 

Each piece in the series includes at least a little bit of Evans’ favorite color—blue. “I remember when I made the first one, I was feeling blue”—and so the Blue Women began. 

The series now includes more than 80 women, each representing the emotion, strength, playfulness, boldness, or expressiveness of a different woman or group of women. 

“I don't know if I’m going to stop creating them,” she says. “It needs to keep going for a while.” 

As the folklore suggests, Evans is a magpie after all.