Arts / Faith and Humanities / People of SU

The Gift of Art

Written by Tina Potterf

December 7, 2023

Nancy Mee and Dennis Evans in artsy chair at home

Image credit: Yosef Kalinko

Renowned Seattle artists Dennis Evans and Nancy Mee are bequeathing their considerable personal art collection to Seattle University. 

Seattle University is home to an impressive permanent art collection—from modern and contemporary art to large-scale sculptural pieces, paintings and masks to mixed media works—that is awe-inspiring. Throughout campus, from buildings—including the Chapel of St. Ignatius, which itself is highly regarded as a work of architectural artistry—to green spaces, art is all around us.

There are works by Jacob Lawrence, David Teichner, Roger Shimamura, Steve Heilmer, Amanda Manitac, Dale Chihuly and Hiawatha D, and Northwest Coast and First Nations artists Preston Singletary, Calvin Hunt, Susan Point and Andrea Wilbur-Sigo, among many others. There are striking sculptural pieces erected outside the Lemieux Library and McGoldrick Learning Commons and the calming and majestic Centennial Fountain, created by George Tsutakawa, the centerpiece of the Quad. SU’s art collection reflects its Jesuit and Catholic heritage, ethos and broad cultural values with themes touching on justice—social and racial—technology, innovation and the intersection of science and the arts.

Among the works that enrich SU’s arts scape are commissioned pieces by acclaimed Seattle-based artists Dennis Evans and Nancy Mee. Evans’ The Cosmic Code: Ten Cantos, in the Sinegal Center for Science and Innovation, evokes the evolution of the universe from the Big Bang. Mee’s monumental sculpture Themis (Justice) welcomes students, faculty and guests to its home, fittingly, in the School of Law. The couples’ artistic collaboration representing The Nine Muses (poetry, comedy, sacred song, love lyrics, music, dance, tragedy, history and astronomy) resides on the sixth floor of the Lemieux Library.  

Artists stand aside their work
Dennis Evans and Nancy Mee

And now, thanks to the generosity of Mee and Evans, SU’s permanent collection is growing exponentially and powerfully. The husband-and-wife duo are gifting their personal art collection—more than 250 pieces—to Seattle University. 

As part of the “Dennis Evans and Nancy Mee Collection Gift & Endowment” the artworks and objects will be displayed in appropriate areas and departments across campus and be used in an educational context such as to enhance a course or program that draws from themes or features an artist whose work is included in the collection. 

Roughly 150 of the pieces are Contemporary Northwest Art, with 85 different artists represented, many contributing multiple works. The artists include Alden Mason, Steve Jensen, Guy Anderson, Joseph Goldberg, Gene Gentry McMahon, Julie Speidel, Gloria DeArcangelis, Michael Spafford, Spike Mafford and Mary Ann Peters.

Along with the collection there will be a significant endowment to provide for the care of the art and to enhance academic opportunities in visual art, art history, curatorship and potentially a chair for the study of Northwest art. 

“We’re so grateful to you both for your gift to Seattle University, your gift of art and your gift for the curation of art,” President Eduardo Peñalver said during a video interview with Mee and Evans. “Art is a really important part of the Jesuit education model. If you go through campus you are surrounded by art wherever you go, including your art.”

The idea for this gift first germinated when Evans visited campus. A few years ago, he was contacted by Josef Venker, S.J., curator of SU’s permanent art collection, to do a commissioned work for the new Sinegal Center. While on campus Evans toured the existing art collection and was impressed with many of the works and how they were displayed. 

“In the course of that, I said (to Josef) that we were struggling with what to do with all of our art. Josef jokingly said, ‘Well … Seattle U would love to have it.’ He then said, ‘Why wouldn’t you just give it to a museum?’ I explained that museums cherry pick a collection and they deaccession a lot of it and then put it in storage,” Evans explains. “And museums change directors and with that the vision changes. Josef looked at me and said, ‘You don’t have to worry about that with the Jesuits. We have been around for 500 years and we change very slowly.’ Though he was joking, that profoundly impacted me. I love what the Jesuits are, who they are, what they stand for.”

In their own words: The meaningful connection to the Jesuits and Seattle University.

With this gift, not only is it assured that the collection will stay intact, per the artists’ wishes, but also that it will be showcased in an environment where it can be appreciated by many people who might not otherwise be able to experience art like this. 

“One of the great things about this gift is these pieces will be on the walls on all the buildings. Generations are going to look at them, learn from them. It’s a teaching tool as well as a safeguard of the art,” says Evans. “And I consider this collection like our ancestors, our teachers, our students.” 

Portrait of the artist
Dennis Evans with art in background

“Other institutions or galleries don’t necessarily have the audience (of Seattle University) that we know on a daily basis will see this work, that people of all walks of life will be able to view it. That was the impetus to keep it together,” adds Mee. “The art will keep living inside a community that birthed it, lived it. … Our true value in this collection is that it encompasses 50 years of creative-making in our region and celebrates local artists.” 

In their own words: Mee describes the thoughtfulness and contemplation that went into the decision to gift the collection to SU.

The vastness and eclectic nature of the collection is a celebration of art—the paintings, mixed media and sculptural pieces created by Evans and Mee alongside pieces they’ve amassed over the years, including a noteworthy collection of Indigenous masks from around the world. These pieces both complement and fit well into the university’s existing permanent collection. 

A work by the artists

Native art of Dennis and Nancy

In their own words: The significant pieces of Northwest Coast and First Nations artists.

What’s their advice for students and others who aspire to be artists? “Get a day job,” says Mee, with a smile. 

“I tell kids who know they want to be artists,” and there’s no dissuading them, that “you got to have the will of steel, and a heart as a big as a lion, to be an artist,” says Evans. “It’s a tough business, financially, spiritually, ego-wise. It is devastating but it’s the most fabulous job you can have. I would never trade a day of my life.”

A portrait of the artist Dennis Evans

In their own words: Evans talks about his journey to becoming an artist.

Check out the video of the artists in conversation with President Peñalver.


About the Artists

Born in Yakima, Dennis Evans attended Jesuit high school in his hometown and then spent his first year in college at Seattle University before joining the Marines. 

He subsequently finished his education at the University of Washington, where he studied chemistry and earned a BFA in Ceramics and an MFA in Design. Today, Evans is one of Seattle’s best-known and most widely collected living artists. He was selected for the 1978 Whitney Biennial exhibition in New York and his art is in many major museums and public corporation collections, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Evans worked as a teacher and a mentor to many young artists at Seattle’s The Bush School. 

Oakland-born and raised in Sacramento, Calif., Nancy Mee attended the University of Washington, earning a BFA in Printmaking in 1974. It was at the UW where she met Evans, whom she married in 1980. In 1984 Mee was invited for an artist in residency at the prestigious Pilchuck School, which she often states changed the course of her creative life. A decade later, was selected as one of seven international artists to the Center for Contemporary Art in Beychevelle, Bordeaux, France, to create a body of work using justice as a theme. Her sculptures incorporate a variety of materials, including glass, welded and forged steel, bronze, stone and photography. Her work is featured in several galleries across the U.S., and among many public and private collections nationally and internationally. 

Together Evans and Mee have written books on their art including Utopian Heights Studio: Portfolio Box and The Humbling of Indra: Works from the Book of the Cosmos. In 2022, Evans published Apocrypha: The Art of Dennis Evans, with writer Matthew Kangas. Femina Lucida, the Art of Nancy Mee, also by Kangas—with an interview by Sheryl Conkelton—will be published in spring 2024.