The Arts Paper september 2017
artists next door
Back to the Garden filmmaker karyl evans documents real stories about real people hank hoffman
he daughter of a plant geneticist and an agronomist, Karyl Evans first saw a future in the life sciences. After earning a degree in horticultural landscape architecture, however, she realized her heart was in the arts more than the sciences. A Master’s degree in filmmaking led to a multiple Emmy Award-winning career as a documentary filmmaker. With her latest film, The Life and Gardens of Beatrix Farrand, Evans returns to her roots. Farrand was a pioneer in the male-dominated field of landscape architecture and the only woman among the 11 founders of the American Society of Landscape Architects. Professionally active in the early part of the 20th century—she died in 1959 at the age of 86—Farrand had over 200 commissions. Among them were such prestigious creations as the East Garden at the White House; the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden in Maine; Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C.; and the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at the New York Botanical Garden. Evans has won five Emmy Awards for her documentaries, including three for her 2000 production African Americans in Connecticut: Civil War to Civil Rights, co-written with historians Jeremy Brecher and Frank Mitchell. In over three decades, Evans has produced and directed video projects on both the east and west coasts, including several documentaries on the African-American experience in Connecticut for public television. She specializes in work for public television, educational and arts institutions, museums, hospitals, and non-profits. Evans said her new film was an effort to assess whether Farrand’s work “was impressive enough that we should be paying attention to her. Was her work spectacular? By the end, I concluded it was,” Evans said in an interview at her home. A survey of some 40 gardens by Farrand, the documentary blends historic images,
Beatrix Farrand. Image credit: Jeanne Ciravolo.
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architectural plans, and Evans’ current photos and video along with interviews with scholars of Farrand’s work. “Not only was her work classic in design, but she also had an extreme interest in nature and the natural contours of the land, which is much more what we are concerned about now—native plants, using water—so that’s timeless,” Evans explained. “And the fact that there is ongoing restoration of her work.” Reviewing Evans’ film The Rise and Fall of Newgate Prison: A Story of Crime and Punishment in Connecticut, CCSU Criminology Professor Stephen M. Cox wrote that, judging by the title, one might “conclude that it is simply a historical documentary about a long-closed colonial prison. Yet it is anything but simple, or purely historical.” Contemporary relevance in her works is an important issue for Evans. “I think you do understand your environment much better if you know what happened before and can build on that knowledge,” she said. In that regard, Evans hopes that the film can be an effective argument for the campaign to restore Farrand’s gardens at Yale University. Farrand—née Jones—was married to Max Farrand, a Yale historian, and was the consulting landscape architect at Yale for 23 years. Among her projects for the university, she designed elaborate display gardens for Marsh Botanical Gardens at Yale. “All over the country people are seeing her relevance and the caliber of her work and are restoring her gardens,” Evans said. “Why shouldn’t we restore somebody who was operating at the highest possible level of that particular art form?” What ingredients make for a successful historical documentary? According to Evans, they are clean production values, an accurate story, and the time investment to procure strong interviews and arresting visuals. Evans believes it starts with the technical qualities: well-recorded sound, great looking interviews. “It brings credibility to your work for everything to look and sound really great,” Evans said. Accuracy is key. Evans said she will not “guess” at something being right. “I have to document it in primary sources or have a scholar do it,” she said. In wrapping up the Farrand documentary, Evans felt “like a kid in a candy store” when she took a trip to the University of California at Berkeley Beatrix Farrand archives. Gardens being ephemeral, Evans wanted to photograph Farrand’s architectural plans for the sites being included in the film. “I was looking for plans to verify for me that, yes, indeed, what I thought she had done at all these places she really had plans for,” Evans explained. “Without her plans, anybody can say, ‘Oh, yes, that was a Farrand garden.’ I felt it was due diligence.”
Karyl Evans with her Emmy for Outstanding Director in 2016. Photo courtesy of Evans.
When it comes to visuals, Evans has a hierarchy of three levels of images. At the top is finding “the exact footage or still that corresponds with what’s in the script.” At the next level is finding an image that is era-appropriate. “I’m not going to show you a ship from 1900 when I’m talking about ships from the 1840s,” Evans said. Finally, if primary images or footage are unavailable and she can’t find anything circa the time period, Evans digs up visuals “that are illustrative but I’m not trying to say, ‘Oh, this is exactly that thing,” Evans said. “I love the treasure hunt of finding things that actually make it a fuller experience,” she said. In the case of the Farrand film, “gardens and landscape architecture are inherently visual and beautiful.”
It was working with writer/director Judy Chaikin on the 1987 PBS documentary Legacy of the Hollywood Blacklist that defined Evans’ trajectory as a documentary filmmaker. The film explored the impact the blacklist had on the families of those barred from working in television and film because of their alleged previous or then-current Communist Party affiliations. “Once we got to the place where we were talking to real people about real things that happened to them… just to hear real stories, that was it,” Evans recalled. “Okay, documentary is for me. I’m almost more of an educator so I liked the realness of it.” n Information about purchasing a copy of The Life and Gardens of Beatrix Farrand or requesting a screening is available at beatrixfarranddocumentary.com.
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