“I’m not so sure you have to like art as much as be stirred by it; we’re so easily stirred by something we like, but can we find that emotion inside with something we question?”
That’s how artist and gallery owner Bonnie Phillips introduces abstract art to inquiring visitors at Phillips Gallery. Since 1968, Phillips Gallery has been a constant in Salt Lake City. It has become a fixture, representing hundreds of artists from across the state. And much of its success is because of the passion and devotion of gallery owner, artist and philanthropist Bonnie Phillips.
Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Phillips has had the fortune of associating with what many would call Utah’s finest artists. Although a recognizable artist in her own right, Phillips didn’t want to major in art. She put her political and social passions to work and focused on political science instead, but she took many art classes, maintained a studio and ran around in the circles of other great artists. One of those artists would become her husband. “When I met Denis, I had a studio next to his studio and sun shop where he painted grocery store banners and made sandals with a friend. It was Denis and all the artists I met after that that really helped me to understand how art is a language that I wanted to be a part of,” she recalls. “We’d sit around our kitchen tables, pass a tablet around and work on the same piece. It’s such a nice influence to sit with a group of people and make art and pass it around. We did a lot of that.”
Art became her career. “For a number of years I was actively involved in public art projects both here and in Nevada. I worked for the NEA for two years as a facilitator for the artists. When you’re bringing in artists and corporations and governments to fund an art piece, you really have to have a good facilitator so the different parties can really understand one another and respect each other. You want the artists to do the best they can for the whole situation. I really liked facilitating because I had a deep respect for all the artists we involved in different public art programs in Utah and Nevada. I respected them for their ability and their willingness to go beyond themselves. They knew what they were doing would make a difference for those who stood there.” Not only did Phillips assist artists in making a difference in the arts community, she has made a difference herself. “Ever since we had the gallery we’ve tried to be good members of the community whether we did Sub for Santa, worked on the Crossroads Urban Center, etc. The older you get the less time you can spend on that – you just don’t have the time.”
One achievement she is most proud of is the Golden Rule Project. “I recited the golden rule in school every day when I attended grade school at Rowland Hall. We’d recite the pledge of allegiance and then the golden rule. We had a few foreign students in our different classes and I never felt comfortable saying the Pledge of Allegiance because of the diversity in the school, but I could see how much more inclusive the golden rule was for all of us.” The concept behind the golden rule had such a profound effect on her that she incorporated it in her artwork. As she continued to work on the formulations she was familiar with, she went to a meeting and saw a little broadside of seven formulations including all the major traditions: Jewish, Christian, Hindu, etc. She was so moved by that, she did some research on the internet and found about 50 formulations. Her favorite has always been Ralph Waldo Emerson’s: “Each man takes care that his neighbor shall not cheat him. But a day comes when he begins to care that he does not cheat his neighbor. Then all goes well.”
Bonnie started using the different formulations in her artwork and then she and Denis had an exhibit at the Salt Lake Library. “A lot of students came and I noticed that they didn’t notice them because they were too detailed and fussy. We conceived of the idea of doing a broadside and bought hundreds of sheets of hand-marbled paper. We printed a diptych broadside of 20-some-odd formulations and many of our artists illuminated them. We framed them and donated them to schools all over the Valley and then we gave them a packet about how it could be used in their various courses at school. I just believe people need to ponder it. I think many of us believe in it, but we don’t practice it. It gives you a very good clue of what it means about personal responsibility and how we treat each other.”
Jane’s Home is something Bonnie’s mother left to the Golden Rule project. Her mother bought the home after her second husband died. “Denis and I had been up in Idaho and we come back and she shows us this big home that was in horrible repair. She spent two years restoring it. She started restoring it when she was 70.” Bonnie’s mother ended up marrying her old high school sweetheart who had taken her to her junior prom and spent many good years in the home. “Before she died I said, ‘Don’t leave me this home.’ So she left it to the Manners Golden Rule Foundation that she and I created. I started it after the Golden Rule Project, which ran out of funds after three years. We invite nonprofits and others in the community to use it for small meetings – only 20 people there at a time because of city zoning regulations. It’s busy almost every day. My mother was a wonderful lady and always welcomed people to her home and she’d love the way it’s being used now.” The home is managed by Michael Hall, a Phillips Gallery artist who lives next door to Jane’s Home.
One of Phillips’ current projects that occupies much of her time is editing and publishing a series of books about Gurdjieff – a Russian spiritual leader who claimed that people cannot perceive reality in their current states because they do not possess consciousness but rather live in a state of a hypnotic “waking sleep.” Gurdjieff claimed we can “wake up” and become a different sort of human being altogether. In addition to publishing the books, Phillips is also creating illustrations for them. “The illustrations give the same message as the text,” she explains, “but they provide a visual that is of a different language.” Bonnie doesn’t consider herself to be a very good painter, but rather a doodler. “I would decorate all my school assignments – that is what my art is about. It’s sort of like a path to what I’m pondering. The paintings reflect that and I can look at one for a while and I can get back there and talk about why I did what I did. They’re nice pieces.” So what she’s doing for this series of books is right up her alley. Her sense of balance and color and translating thoughts from texts into a visual concept map is just what the books need.
Of course, Phillips Gallery is what most think of when they hear the name Bonnie Phillips. The gallery first opened its doors in 1965 in the 9th and 9th area before relocating to its current home along 200 South. The 1960s was an exciting time for art in Utah, but there was a shocking lack of galleries and artist representation. Bonnie and Denis established their gallery just one year after meeting each other. “When we opened up there was a small frame shop/gallery and another gallery that handled one artist’s work and then a frame shop that handled European prints. The only time I got to see art was when I went to the Salt Lake Art Center or the library. It’s such an important part of the impression of the community.” Some names that inaugurated their stable of artists include Don Shepherd, Tony Smith, Earl Jones, Don Olson, Lee Deffebach and Larry Elsner. “We had such great shows,” she recalls. And that wasn’t all; Phillips Gallery also hosted poetry readings and a film series. “We of course started the gallery and represented numerous artists – some of whom were more socially responsible.” She recalls many artists who were involved in anti-war work with the Vietnam War and the peace and freedom movement. “They showed us this new language in our visual world that really transfers information in a different way toward something. I always admired the artists that had a purpose. When I could see an artist with a commitment beyond themselves, I was much more excited about them.”
Phillips Gallery became somewhat politicized in 1967 when a chemical was sprayed out at Dugway and killed a good number of sheep. “Some of us got together and painted a billboard of a dead sheep and it got on the front page of The New York Times. Seymour Hersh came out and covered the story about the Dugway incident. When artists can get together and use their skills for something more than saying ‘I’m a fine artist,’ that makes a difference in how artists approach their work.”
After 45 years of running Phillips Gallery, Phillips never tires of the art that surrounds her or the conversations she has with visitors. “I walk around this gallery every morning. I get here about six o’clock in the morning and I look at about two or three pieces just to be fed,” she says. “In the early years, we’d get the artists and the collectors together for a cup of tea and a conversation about art. We handle so many artists now we don’t do that kind of personal help anymore, but that’s how you really build good collectors in the valley. If the museum should come in and buy a Tony Smith and the collector knows the museum is going to buy one, they want to buy three – not because they are greedy, but because their purpose is to donate works around the state or to make sure their corporation or law firm has this work up because these nonprofits have them in their collection. Those connections and that education are important.”
Phillips Gallery has definitely been a labor of love. “Denis and I have had to fund it 80% of its life. It looks big and successful because we were able to buy this building and work on it. Much of the early work we did ourselves…now we only do a little bit of that. But the real reason this gallery has succeeded is because of the artists. Out of the hundreds of artists we’ve exhibited, they’ve all been just swell. They’re the ones that give this a sense of joy of coming in, just being able to visit art. I’m just happy to be a part of the art that has blossomed in the past 45 years.”
Laura Durham is the Director of Programming and Engagement for PBS Utah. She curates projects and plans events that utilize local and national media to provide entertainment and meaningful dialogue beyond broadcast. Prior to PBS Utah, Laura worked at the Division of Arts & Museums for 15 years, served as Vice President of the Salt Lake Gallery Association, Program Director for the Salt Lake Gallery Stroll, and was a board member for the Utah Cultural Alliance.