Artist Spotlight: Jay Phillips
Post Independent: Tell me about your relationship with the valley.
Jay Phillips: Part of my story of arriving in the valley is the classic version: I planned to spend one winter season here, and recently spent my 17th. The not-so-classic part is the fact that I didn’t come to ski or snowboard. I was more attracted to the prospect of moving on from the place where I was raised, and the incredible allure of the Rocky Mountain West.
As far as the journey west is concerned… I grew up in upstate New York, and in 1998 was working as a baker at a summer camp in the Adirondack Mountains. Toward the end of the summer season, someone came through the kitchen offering ‘work in Aspen’ to the staff. I took down a phone number and ended up calling it two months later. After a brief phone interview (with the wonderful Joy Hartman), I was hired on as assistant to the head baker at Gwyn’s High Alpine Restaurant on Snowmass Mountain. As fate would have it, my future wife would be working in a station adjacent to the bakeshop. Since then, we’ve started a landscaping company (Creative Endeavors Inc.), which affords us the luxury of spending six months in our individual studios each year.
During my time here in the valley, I’ve shown work at the Carbondale Clay Center, the Red Brick Center for the Arts, CCAH in Carbondale and the Aspen Chapel Gallery. I’ve also been a member of the board of directors at the Carbondale Clay Center since February of 2014, and act as chair of their Membership and Development Committee.
PI: When did you first become interested in art?
JP: Though the community I grew up in was primarily conservative, as a high school senior I was lucky to have an English teacher (Jed Ingersoll) who encouraged free-thinking and creative expression. Though I was not a dedicated student at that point, I remember feeling excited, impulsive and driven when working on short stories and creative writing assignments in Jed’s class. I also remember writing a stream-of-consciousness piece for a favorite uncle, and his emotional reaction to reading that piece. That was my first experience with the power of genuine expression to affect other human beings, even those that were idolized and held in high esteem. By the time I went on to university, I was telling people that my intention was to be a published author.
PI: What is some of the formal and informal training you’ve had in art?
JP: My time at university was brief — about three semesters. After a very sheltered upbringing, I had a terrible time adjusting to the complexities of ‘life on the outside.’ I was, however, exposed to wonderful cultural influences and social experiences during my time there. For example, I was introduced to the music of Lou Reed, Miles Davis and Leonard Cohen, and spent time with people my age who had a certain comfort level with social/cultural defiance.
As for formal education in the arts, that didn’t really begin for me until I moved west. My first teacher here in the valley was Steven Colby, who is still a good friend today. He had just arrived at the Clay Center as a resident, and likes to say that I was his first student. We connected immediately, and I still treasure his message of ‘learn the skills, then do what you feel.’ His faith in me as an artist was incredibly helpful at a time when I had very little of my own.
Sam Harvey has played a similar role for me during my time here. I studied with him for years at CMC in Aspen, and we’ve become very close. He has an incredible eye for aesthetics, and a great grasp of the historical framework of art-making. He’s also not afraid to give a fierce critique, which is extremely valuable, if sometimes hard to take. At one point, Sam orchestrated a one-day workshop for his students at CMC, with Paul Soldner. That was an incredible gift to all that attended, and very influential in my work at that time.
Another friend and fellow artist, Andrew Roberts-Gray, has also been a blessed ally in recent years. Andrew is a firm believer in the power of the ‘Idea Stream.’ We hang out and conceptualize! As a busy working artist, Andrew has been incredibly generous with his time and encouragement. He reminds me to be fiercely committed and clear in my intentions, and also to never mind the B.S., which there’s no shortage of in the art world.
Also, I can’t overstate the importance of Anderson Ranch in my creative development. They’ve awarded me numerous scholarships and provided opportunities to study in a truly transformative environment. That environment is also instrumental in bringing people together to share ideas, offer support and to collaborate in various ways. I think it’s especially important for someone in my position, who hasn’t been steeped in the networking opportunities that academia can provide, to have access to an artists’ community that’s so welcoming and supportive. During my time at the Ranch, I’ve studied with Andy Brayman, Jason Walker, Ralph Scala, David Hornung, Holly Hughes and, most recently, Craig Drennan. I have to say that Craig’s week-long Advanced Critique Seminar this past June has had the greatest impact on my work of them all. Recently, the whole foundation has shifted, in a good way.
PI: Tell me about the mediums you work in, and why you work in them.
JP: I’ve worked in the mediums of the written word (poetry, prose), the ceramic arts and painting, and most recently installation work. Originally, I was drawn to the written word by its open-endedness; the possibilities in fiction being limitless. Also, there is a power in the written word that’s similar to the power of music in its ability to encompass and even assimilate the psyche of the reader or listener. So many subtleties can be navigated with words and sounds.
I was drawn to the ceramic arts by a love of utilitarianism. When I first began throwing pots at a community college in New York, I was most captivated by the possibility of making an object with my hands that, previously, I had to depend on someone (or something) to provide for me. This type of self-sufficiency was very intriguing to me at that point. I think that was the main draw, as well as the aesthetic and decorative outlet that clay can provide, until I had the opportunity to study, just for a day, with Paul Soldner at CMC in Aspen. Paul’s approach to working with clay was both easy and fierce. We basically watched him work all day, and I was left with the feeling that he had transferred something intangible to us during that time. Immediately, my work began to change, and I somehow felt that I had received permission to create objects without regard to their usefulness or practical value. I could just play! And I credit Paul’s quiet defiance during that slow day in the studio with providing the necessary push. It wasn’t long before I was working in a mode of decorative abstraction, producing Raku-fired ceramic tiles for wall display, and feeling much more engaged in my approach to making work in general.
Toward the end of my focus on ceramic work (about three years ago), I was most interested in composition, color usage and overall visual effect of the pieces. The transition to painting seemed very natural, and as I like to say, I don’t have to set them on fire! When I committed to being a painter, I was surprised at my level of compulsion. Though I had always found a great satisfaction in working with clay, it paled in comparison to my attraction to the immediacy of 2-D work. Also, I find myself involved in near-constant research of historical and contemporary painting, and have begun to prioritize travel for important shows, both domestically and abroad. My wife, Eden, and I will be traveling to NYC this August for the Albert Oehlen show at the New Museum, and I can’t help but feel that these trips stand in for a nonmaterialized degree in the arts. There is truly no substitute for seeing work in person.
At the moment, I’m excitedly preparing for my first experience with installation work. I’ve been asked to participate in the ‘Square Footage’ show, opening at the Launchpad in Carbondale Aug. 14. The ‘shift’ that I mentioned earlier (ala Craig Drennan’s Seminar) has a lot to do with this piece. I’ve decided recently that I’d like to work from a place of defiance, to subtly expose accepted cultural truths as faulty, or perpetuated exclusively by their own momentum through time. As of late, it’s becoming much more appealing to me to make work that questions than it is to make work that pleases. The installation I’m preparing for the Launchpad is inspired by the ‘affluent mind’ and the questioning of our cultural definition of affluence in general. I’m very satisfied with the recent approach.
PI: What are some of the things that inspire the content of your work?
JP: Here’s a list:
My Grandson’s drawings.
The work of other (adult) artists, historical and contemporary.
The need of contemporary culture for constant reality-checks.
Beauty, decorative or natural, tangible or otherwise.
Music! Ranging from Husker Du to Beethoven string quartets (which really aren’t so disparate after all).
PI: Carbondale has a very collaborative art community — tell me a little bit about some of the collaborations you’ve done recently. Do you like that aspect of the local art scene? Why or why not?
JP: Yes I do! I feel no competition with local artists and would love to have more opportunity to collaborate. I have very little experience with collaboration, but something interesting always tends to occur when I get into it. It’s a terrific opportunity to chat with Mr. Ego, to be pushed or pulled here and there and to hang out with someone else’s ego or brilliance or whatever they’re bringing to the table. As I said, I’m new to collaboration, but the benefits are totally apparent.
PI: How long have you been a SAW artist? What drew you to the studio to begin with, and what keeps you there?
JP: I first held a studio at SAW way back in 2008, in the first incarnation of the concept. My first ever solo show was at that gallery, and it was terrifying and wonderful at the same time. Eden and I actually ended up showing together — her nudes in one room, my Raku tiles in the other. Never forget that opening, what a thrill and a great motivator.
Most recently, I spent the past winter at the new SAW facility, and had an incredible time. The group of artists in and around that space is incredible. People are really supportive and respectful, and open to collaboration. I also have a home studio, but find that my focus and concentration are different in a space with a single purpose that’s not attached to where I live. I literally cannot do the dishes or fix the whatever if I’m not there. The current plan is to divide my time at SAW seasonally, as another local artist has a schedule of availability that’s almost opposite to mine. If possible, I’d like to be part of the SAW community for some time to come.
PI: Where can people view your work locally?
JP: The show at the Launchpad is coming up Aug. 14 and is unique in its aspect of diminishing space. There will be a total of three openings for this show, each of which affords 50 percent less space to each of the five artists than the previous opening. So we have lots of space for the first two weeks, then things need to change, ideally in a meaningful way. To offer a hint, my contribution will feature vintage and everyday objects — thousands of them!
Other than that, I’m still interested in working with the Red Brick, and SAW holds two open houses each year. This fall and winter I’ll be working on new paintings and photo projects, and who knows where they’ll end up? There are several local galleries I’d love to work with, and I’m on the verge of casting a broader net in terms of representation, etc. Also, people can check out my website (always a work in progress): http://www.jphillipsart.com.
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