The hedgerows that separate fine art and craft are lowered when observing the diverse works of Dan Phillips. Phillips was formally trained in the traditional ways of cabinet and furniture making at the renowned craft and trade school of Boston’s North Bennet Street School. Since graduating from the program in 2005, he has made furniture for clients utilizing hundred-year-old hand tools to create classical designs that have roots in eighteenth century designs out of his Dallas, Texas studio. Simultaneously, he creates drawings and paintings on paper that share a similar aesthetic approach. Portraits, landscapes, whales, and trees are created using skillfully applied calligraphic lines completed by delicate washes of color pigment. Phillips’ furniture and preparatory drawings are simple and elegant with astute attention to detail.
In his Cell Series exhibit, Phillips presents both his art and craft together, with an installation of furniture, drawings, and paintings, allowing the viewer to observe how his creations share and benefit from their mutual art forms—creating a “Victorian meets modern” aesthetic.
The 2016 Cell Series is sponsored in part by Susie and Joe Clack, Tom Jones Fine Art, Amy and Patrick Kelly, Juli and Mac McGinnis, Talley Dunn Gallery, Kathy Webster in Memory of Charles H. Webster, and Anonymous.
The Cell Series presents living artists and their work. It offers a rare opportunity to encounter work that is attempting to interpret and translate the world we universally experience in unique and surprising ways. The founders of the Old Jail Art Center were passionate about supporting and showing living artists and their work—the museum continues this important mission with the Cell Series.
Patrick Kelly, the Old Jail Art Center’s Director and Curator, email interview with artist Dan Phillips. (August 2016)
PK: When did you first become interested in designing and making furniture?
DP: That would be after I was in furniture making school. I wanted to learn all the woodworking tricks so that I could make art. Once I was there, I became infatuated with furniture. And that became my focus. Since then, I think I have made four or five sculptures.
PK: So if I understand, in 2005 you went to Boston’s North Bennet Street School in the hope you would learn specific skills to make sculpture?
DP: More or less. I wanted to make wood sculptures and I wanted them to be skillfully made. One of my favorite artists is HC Westermann. The pieces of his I like the most incorporate fancy woodworking. So he was sort of my inspiration to learn and use all of that stuff in my artwork.
PK: I saw a retrospective of Westerman’s work years ago that was fantastic. I can see his sculptural work as an influence. So you learned the craft and perfected skills; what kept you on the track of primarily making furniture and not applying those skills to “art” sculpture?
DP: Frankly speaking, I could make furniture for a living. And it feels like art. There is a lot of “art” that goes into making furniture. Drawing for one. Which is one of my favorite parts of the whole process. And then ultimately turning that drawing into a real thing. I'd still like to make sculptures but in the meantime this will do.
PK: That’s one thing that intrigues me about your work…that you don’t differentiate between what some people would call craft (furniture making) and art (your paintings/drawings). Even your preparatory furniture drawings have elements incorporated that you would not normally see in a technical drawing. Do you consciously mix disparate elements or does it just naturally happen so that each has a dialogue with one another?
DP: I definitely get more artsy with my drafting than is necessary. I think that's just me wanting it to look cool as well as be functional. But really it's all coming from the same place in my mind. So I think it's natural to see the parallels between the two.
PK: Are there particular furniture makers or styles that influence your furniture designs and creations?
DP: I'm into the crudest of things and the highest of style and everything in between. I look at every piece of furniture I come into contact with. I can't really pin down a group of styles or designers that influence what I come up with. It really is all of it. Plastic lawn chairs all the way to federal period secretaries—I love it all.
PK: I know that on many of your furniture pieces you use traditional “hand” tools like chisels and planes rather than power tools. Is this the sculptor in you manifesting or are there other reasons you use them?
DP: They do scratch that itch but more than anything they are the right tools for the task.
PK: Regarding your sculpture, I can recall a walnut whale (a repeated image in your work), a small house about 6 feet wide, a wooden battleship, and a large cabin you created in the Webb Gallery in Waxahachie, Texas. Can you talk about the cabin and what inspired that work?
DP: The cabin was inspired by the period rooms at museums. Inside I made a bed, a chair, and a blanket chest. I wanted to make an environment like that. The wood for the cabin itself came from a house my dad took down. All of the wood now is enjoying its third incarnation, on a mountain top, as a totally different cabin than what we built in the gallery.
PK: You also installed some of your drawings and paintings inside, is that correct?
DP: Yes. There was a triptych of whale paintings.
PK: The whale image is often used in your work…what is its significance?
DP: I think it stems from my love of scrimshaw. Also, I tend to repeat images or themes over and over. So for a long time I was going whale crazy. I love their organic shape. It's a fun and relatively quick silhouette to paint or draw. I carved one once. That was not quick.PK: I can see scrimshaw as an influence in your line work. I can see an influence of Shaker “gift drawings” as well. I am sure you are aware of these?
DP: Absolutely. I love them.
PK: Ha! OK, why?
DP: Hmm. What's not to love? Color palette. Symmetry. Imagery. How cryptic they can be. Et cetera.
PK: I notice you are drawn (as I am) to non-high-art type works. In other words, things that were originally intended to record or communicate spiritual or personal ideas/thoughts vs. something made to be “consumed” by a market. Do you approach making your own things the same way?
DP: I think I don't really think about it at all. I make it because it's something that I want to see. And I enjoy making the paintings or drawings. Of course it's nice when other people like them too. As for furniture, I am definitely making it because someone is buying it. But all of the furniture I make are designs that I have drawn and that I want to see in real life. So...sort of the same thing.
PK: Your paintings for the most part have a 19th century feel. They draw you in because they seem familiar in a kind of Victorian (mixed with Shaker) way, but they can seem a little sinister or surreal upon closer inspection. Is this the result of a stream of consciousness approach to image making or is the image predetermined in your mind prior to starting a work?
DP: It's just how they come out. I'm actually not a very good painter. So that “folkiness” could just be the same thing that’s going on with the styles you're talking about. Also, I do love that stuff. So that could be where my bar is set. As long as it looks as good as that stuff, I’m doing OK. Even if I try to do something super-nice and high-end it still looks like naive art to me.
PK: Can you describe what you have planned for your OJAC Cell Series exhibit?
DP: Little bit of everything. Furniture and furniture drawings, paintings, drawings, a couple of sculptures.
PK: Is there a common theme or will it be more of an overview of all the types of work you do?
DP: I don't think there is a theme across the board, but I'm sure some things will carry through from piece to piece.
PK: One last question. You are also in a band. Would you tell a little about it: name of the band, type of music, instruments played, etc. But more specifically, do you see a connection between your visual work and your music?
DP: I play the guitar and sing in a band called True Widow. Describing the music is too hard to do. I'm not sure I can draw any direct parallels, but I can say that it all comes from the same place in my head, so I'm sure there is some crossover somewhere