Artist Profiles | Visual Arts

Asking “What If…”: Stacy Phillips and the Creative Life

One of the most annoying questions you can ask an artist is: “How long did this take to make?” Stacy Phillips’ solo exhibit at Trove Gallery, opening Dec. 30, demonstrates the long gestation time it takes to bring creative ideas to life. In fact, it provides a glimpse into the nonlinear way an artist can, with a sideways glance at a messy shelf, ask a “what if” question and come up with a novel answer.

If there’s any one thing that ties this diverse exhibit together it’s Phillips’ lifelong drive to try something new. She admits there’s not just one, but several, bodies of work she has begun to explore here and the viewer gets to see the genesis of each.

Take, for example, [title to come], a piece Phillips says she’s wanted to do for about 10 years. “I took one of my journals from 1991, cut pages into flowers, dipped each in wax and sewed them to canvas with pink thread.” Though you can’t read to make sense of the journal excerpts, you can catch words here and there as they overlap and form a dense pattern on the canvas. The piece “is very personal to me,” says Phillips, “because it’s taking some history that I have, and the written language that I love.” The piece is then surrounded by a steel frame in contrast with the delicate color and feminine shapes within.

Another piece that has incubated in Phillips’ head and journal pages for a long time features a sheer, 18th-century dress someone gave Phillips. She turned it into an erotica piece by creating a collage of old drawings and erotic poems as the background for the dress. The piece is framed in a 4-inch wood, Victorian-style frame.

The Trove exhibit features both two-dimensional and sculptural pieces, and as she has prepared for the exhibit she has seen a collaboration emerge between her painting and sculptures. “I’ve been doing these abstract paintings and then going into the sculpture studio and doing these abstract forms that respond to the abstract paintings,” says Phillips.

Indeed, one can sense a conversation between the organic marks, lines and shapes in paint on panel and the bulbous, irregular shapes of brightly colored and patterned clay sculptures. Just as Phillips uses flat and glossy passages on her paintings, she varies the glazes on her sculpture for similar effect. The very setup of Phillips’ two studios (one for painting and one for sculpture) at opposite ends of the Poor Yorick complex of studios seems to support this way of working. She can spend a few months – “a semester” – exploring one medium, creating a visual language of shapes and marks, and then take that language to the other studio for the next semester. “I’ve just barely touched on this idea,” says Phillips, “because clearly that could be a body of work forever.”

Another innovation for this exhibit is a series of wall sculptures that look like fluffy flower-shaped pillows. Nine or 12 of them will work together as one piece. The others can be purchased separately, or perhaps in multiples curated by the buyer. These will have varied glazes and patterned transfers under glazes.

Phillips holds a fine arts degree from Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire. She has done graduate work at the University of Miami and Utah State University. But her most meaningful post-graduate studies have been those she sought based on what she needed to know next. She took workshops at Anderson Ranch, in Colorado, and later did a residency there. She did a residency in Italy for three months, and studied with Dave Pendell at the University of Utah for a year. She went to Mexico, where a friend has a studio, and “made more art in three months than in the whole time in grad school,” says Phillips. “I realized I had everything I needed. I just needed to get into the studio and do the work.”

Phillips was born in Sacramento. At last count she has moved 47 times, living all over the country. She moved to Park City in 1987 and purchased a framing store that she turned into the Flat Rabbit Gallery, which also did upscale framing. Though she employed six people, she had no time to make her own art. In 1993, she sold the gallery. “I didn’t want to end up at 65 not having made any art.”

Starting her art-making with sculpture and jewelry, she applied to and was accepted in the Park City and Sun Valley Arts Festivals in 2001. She invited the owner of Coda Gallery to visit her booth and was then invited to exhibit in all three Coda Galleries – Park City, Palm Desert and New York. Later, when Jen Schumacher and Scott Gutierrez purchased Coda and it became Trove, she continued her relationship with the gallery.

Phillips was perhaps best known for her “bodice” sculptures with beaded skirts. Though the bodice form is a repeated motif, each one is different, and she has made them as glazed ceramic pieces and cast bronze. Several of these, in bronze, are also part of the Trove exhibit. Though these have sold well, Phillips is not the kind of artist who can stick with just one thing she does well. She’s a restless explorer who cannot stop asking “what if…?” For the past few years she has focused primarily on painting. Her work combines charcoal and acrylic paints and sometimes oil pigment sticks on different surfaces. She adheres Kozu paper to panels. She covers canvas with layers of gesso and marble dust. She applies acrylic washes to limestone clay. “I’m a medium junkie,” she admits.

Her paintings are abstract and expressive with big gestural marks. “When I’m doing expressive drawing, that’s where my body goes – in circles,” she says of the organic curviness that characterizes her work. “Before I started working on larger surfaces, I had this desire to use my shoulder, my whole body, in my work.” One mark leads to the next, as she engages intuition, left-brain thinking about formal art elements, and that thing – maybe a button – she sees out of the corner of her eye on the shelf across the room. She may sand off or paint over areas of a painting, saving some small gem of a shape, or revealing texture from the layer below. If she gets stuck, there are signs around the studio that offer tips, or a sort of checklist, about texture, shape, and other design elements. These reminders get her unstuck.

Phillips’ painting studio is large enough to hold many works in progress on the walls or on her pegboard easel. She reminds herself not to rush, but to give herself time to stand back and consider what a piece is telling her it needs. As she works on one piece, another, partly finished, catches her eye and suddenly she knows what to do next.

Phillips has been the artist-in-residence at the Huntsman Cancer Center since early September. Every Tuesday she offers a workshop for patients, caregivers, and staff. It’s a place where you can decompress and forget about being sick or being stressed. Phillips creates projects that people can work on for a quick 10 minutes between appointments or longer when they have the time. “It’s really helped my work,” she says. “I approach my own work with a lighter touch and more joy. You cannot be in that environment and around those people and not be humbled. I’m so lucky to be able to do this.”

Phillips also has taught workshops through the book arts program at the University of Utah and will teach another one this spring. And in the summer she expects to teach a class on alternative printmaking on limestone clay at Saltgrass Printmaking.

There seems to be no limit to the creative life and work of Stacy Phillips. Though being an independent artist can be stressful and, she admits, leads to job-and-steady-income-envy, she feels very fortunate that she can live life as an artist.


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