Celebration of self-taught Ohio mosaic artist

DAVID BERMAN Chillicothe Gazette Published:

CHILLICOTHE (AP) -- Throughout the past 52 years, self-taught mosaic artist Phil Evanoff quietly has amassed a staggering body of work in the basement of his Chillicothe home.

Evanoff, a 96-year-old retired chemist, single-handedly has created more than 600 mosaics, each one the result of thousands of intricately placed fragments of tile, glass or sea shells.

The mosaics reflect Evanoff's wide-ranging interest in art and nature from around the world. Many of his creations are painstaking recreations. Piece by piece, he has reproduced French cave paintings, Bulgarian Christmas cards, African cliff drawings, an Aztec calendar stone and even Vincent Van Gogh's famous "Starry Night" painting.

Beginning Monday, a selection of Evanoff's work will be on display in his first-ever solo exhibition. The show in Ohio University-Chillicothe's Bennett Hall runs through Feb. 23.

Evanoff characterizes his work as "pure hobby," but it's clear he's excited to show off his talent in a proper gallery setting.

"I think it's amazing," he said of the exhibit.

"It's hard not to appreciate Phil's work. Mosaic is a difficult enough media, requiring a patient eye for color and abstract shape," OU-C fine arts professor Ken Breidenbaugh said. "Phil has, interestingly enough, taken images from the history of art -- cave drawings, Greek ceramics, Impressionist painting, architectural photographs -- and adapted each to mosaic form."

Born in 1915 in Philadelphia, Evanoff encountered his first mosaic at age 5.

"I had always known what a mosaic was since I was a little kid," he said. "The church I grew up in, in Philadelphia, had beautiful mosaic Stations of the Cross. My mother told me what they were and how they were made."

Evanoff said it never occurred to him to make his own until 1959, when a friend stopped by to see the tile-top tables Evanoff had built and spoke of a tile salesman in Cleveland who made a mosaic using a paint-by-number kit.

"I had a lot of tile left over, which I had no intentions of doing anything with. ... I picked a picture out of a book and copied it," Evanoff said of his first mosaic, a re-creation of a famous cave drawing of bulls from Lascaux cave in southwestern France. "It took me exactly 40 hours. That's the only one I ever kept accurate track of."

Evanoff has averaged one mosaic per month for the past 52 years, but his output ebbs and flows. He's finished as many as 25 in one year and gone as long as two years without creating a single piece of work.

"Right now, I'm having trouble finding subjects that turn me on," he said.

By his own admission, Evanoff's work is sloppier than it used to be. There's good reason for that -- he's blind in one eye and half-blind in the other. But it's also therapeutic, temporarily curing him of his aches and pains and chronically runny nose.

"When I start doing this, I feel better," he said.

The only ailments his mosaics don't seem to heal are the cuts he gets from making them.

Jane Ragland, a friend from church who comes to Evanoff's weekly mosaic club gatherings, joked that Evanoff signs his mosaics in blood.

Evanoff has been hosting the club's handful of members for about eight years. They work on their mosaics for an hour or so, then socialize over coffee and cocktails.

Evanoff's late wife, Cathy, was a member of the group and a mosaic artist herself. Before losing her battle with cancer about a year ago, she made Evanoff promise he would continue to host the club, a request he has honored.

When Cathy died, she left behind an unfinished mosaic of a Japanese flower.

"We all took turns filling in the background," said Evanoff's son, Phil, who has followed in his father's footsteps.

The elder Evanoff enjoys working alongside his friends, but he also likes to work alone. A voracious learner, he plugs away on his mosaics while listening to audio recordings of lectures on physics, mathematics and religion.

Even after a half-century of creating mosaics, Evanoff said he has not done much to hone his craft.

"I'm afraid I haven't improved much in technique over 52 years," he said with a laugh.

"I joke with him occasionally and say, 'You'd think over 52 years you would show some level of improvement,'" Evanoff's son said. "But he comes back and says he set the bar awfully high on the first one."