Tony Vevers, 81, P'town artist, historian

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Globe Staff / March 30, 2008

As with the poetry he read and quoted, Tony Vevers was economical and evocative in the sentences he spoke and the art he created.

"You get sort of enraptured with nature," he said in a 1965 interview for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

Those seven words summed up what could be a manifesto for the figurative oil paintings of his early years - many capturing dunes, rocks, and people near Provincetown - and subsequent abstracts that included sand and rope retrieved from the water's fringe.

A painter and professor, Mr. Vevers was a historian of the Provincetown scene, his adopted home for half a century. And as a writer and abstract artist, he incorporated aphorisms into a series he created after suffering a stroke 14 years ago. One collage reminded viewers: "All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare."

His health compromised by an infection and pneumonia, Mr. Vevers died March 2 in Liberty Commons, a skilled-care facility on Cape Cod. He was 81 and had lived for decades with his wife, Elspeth Halvorsen, in a Provincetown house they purchased from the artist Mark Rothko.

"The balance between the love of nature and the life of the mind was really important to him," Tabitha Vevers, an artist who lives in Provincetown and Cambridge, said of her father, who sometimes found titles for paintings in the verses of William Butler Yeats, a poet he admired.

Just as important to Mr. Vevers was the place where his thoughts became art. In a household that honored creativity - his wife also is an artist and his other daughter, Stephanie of Brooklyn, N.Y., is an arts documentary producer - the studio was sacrosanct.

"He was a very soft-spoken and gentle person and actually very private about his studio," his daughter said. "That was the one place we really weren't allowed to go. He didn't want us to see anything until it was finished."

The paintings, abstracts with found objects, and essays that emerged secured his place in his town's unfolding narrative as artists flocked to the tip of Cape Cod.

"He is the keeper of the history of Provincetown art, both for his generation and the period after World War II," Robyn Watson, who was then director of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, told the Globe in 2000 when the museum held a retrospective of work Mr. Vevers had created over the previous 50 years. "There are artists who can exist outside of art history, but Tony has existed in the middle of it."

Not at the beginning of his life, though. Born in England, Anthony Vevers spent part of his childhood living at the zoo. His father was director of the facility at Whipsnade in Bedfordshire, and the family had a home on the grounds.

As an adult, Mr. Vevers recalled developing a visceral response to nature as a child akin to that of William Wordsworth, the British Romantic poet. As an artist, however, the countryside of his birth held scant allure.

"England is too much of a poet's country for a painter, I think," he told the Smithsonian. "And the landscape is too worked over."

For safety at the outset of World War II, Mr. Vevers and his sister were sent to the United States, and he began painting while attending the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut. Upon graduation he was drafted into the US Army and was promoted to staff sergeant. He also became a naturalized US citizen.

After the war, he graduated from Yale University, studied in Florence, Italy, and wound up in New York City, where he frequented the Cedar Bar and the White Horse Tavern with the likes of poet Dylan Thomas and abstract expressionists such as Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning.

On a trip in 1953 to Monhegan Island in Maine, he went to a dance at a schoolhouse. Inside was Elspeth Halvorsen.

"She saw these three men walk into this dance hall," their daughter said. "She looked at the one in the middle and said, 'That one's for me.' "

Halvorsen and Mr. Vevers married six weeks later and lived in New York City, then began spending time in Provincetown, where he supported his family by working in construction. He began exhibiting his paintings, and a one-year appointment as a lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro was followed in 1964 with an offer to teach at Purdue University in Indiana. Mr. Vevers taught there until 1988, when he retired as professor emeritus and returned to living year-round in Provincetown.

"I should also say that he liked to have a good time," his daughter said. Music and dancing were staples at the gatherings her parents held at their Provincetown house. "They taught me to do the twist when I was 6," she said. "They had some pretty lively parties."

Nevertheless, "painting was really serious with Tony," said his nephew Tony Sherin of New York City. "It was a life-and-death dilemma. He was grappling with issues."

That inner creative struggle contrasted with his demeanor, his nephew said.

"Tony was very gentle, reserved, and he listened carefully," Sherin said. "Sometimes his replies were difficult to understand because he spoke very softly."

In 1977, Mr. Vevers helped found Long Point Gallery, an artists' cooperative in Provincetown, with friends such as Robert Motherwell, an abstract expressionist painter. The two opened a joint show there one night in 1978, and Mr. Vevers was sweeping up and collecting trash in the gallery the next morning.

"I saw the door was open," he told the Globe, "so I thought I'd come up and clean up a bit."

Such unpretentiousness was not uncommon. Tabitha Vevers remembers growing up in a house where her parents "made everything. If you needed something, you didn't go to the store and buy it. My mother sewed curtains and my father built tables."

His art, meanwhile, evolved from figurative painting in the 1950s and '60s to abstracts in the '70s - opposite from the route many artists take.

"I think he sort of enjoyed bucking the tide," his daughter said. "When everyone was working abstractly, he worked more figuratively, and then when everyone started working more figuratively, he started working abstractly."

Robert Henry, an artist and former president of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, suggested that his friend's abstracts evoking the beach had a deep resonance for artist and viewer alike.

"The fact of working with sand," he said, "is like working with the soul of Provincetown."

In addition to his wife, two daughters, and nephew, Mr. Vevers leaves a sister, Pamela Sherin of Skillman, N.J.

A memorial service will be announced.

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