Denis Phillips is every sort of artist: he flows comfortably between abstraction and realism, moves easily from the Renaissance of restoration work and making frames to the Space Age of creating his own computer-generated prints and synthesizer music. “I like the change,” he once told me of his genre switches. “It keeps things from getting too routine.”
He’s known for his abstract canvases, spaces where multiple techniques merge to create atmospheric works that give free rein to the imagination. But he can switch genres, bringing his supple brush to plein air painting, or to creating effective still lifes and realistic nudes. A trip with artist Earl Jones resulted in a twilight painting, just a cloud still in the sky, above a rustic home, dimly lit through a single window by a candle or lantern, fronted by a whisper of barbed-wire fence – a haunting image I actually dream about.
He’s also known as one half of the couple behind one of Salt Lake City’s premiere galleries. When he and his wife, artist Bonnie Phillips, started a gallery during their hippie days in the 1960s, they had no idea it would still be around 50 years later, representing so many artists, offering the rest of us a little museum with a show that changes monthly, “as always, free of charge.”
To celebrate this half-century anniversary, Phillips Gallery will exhibit hard-edge paintings by Denis Phillips and sculptures by the late Larry Elsner.
Art began for Phillips, now 76, when he was just 5 or 6, at his grandmother’s house in Murray. When he wasn’t playing her piano, he would copy N.C. Wyeth illustrations from Treasure Island and The Last of the Mohicans. Then in junior high, his parents gave him an art course called “Cartoonist’s Exchange.” “I still have the how-to books that were sent to me,” he says. “Then I did another one where you entered the ‘Draw Me’ ads [that appeared on matchbooks and in the back of comics and magazines]. “
His art teacher at Olympus Junior High was Jay Hennifer, a “watercolor man” and a good teacher. At Olympus High he studied under Lorin Folland, who was a fan of LeConte Stewart. “So any time he had a show somewhere, we’d go over and look at his paintings.”
His parents and grandparents were musicians who played in a Hawaiian band, with Islanders who had converted to the LDS Church. So Phillips took steel guitar and Spanish guitar lessons as a boy, riding the bus to Jess Kalawaia’s studio on Main Street downtown carrying his dad’s Rickenbacker steel guitar.
His father was a painter and paper hanger and Phillips used to paste paper and trim it Saturdays and summers through junior high and high school. “We’d mix a whole bucket of wheat paste and the brush was like THIS big,” he gestures, spreading his arms almost a foot wide.
Despite all this early artistic exposure, when he started at the University of Utah Phillips didn’t necessarily want to go into art. “I kept thumbing through the catalog trying to figure out what I wanted to study. I tried majoring in art education and graphic design, but I couldn’t stand either one of them, so I just ended up getting a degree in drawing and painting, not knowing what I could do when I graduated. I never even thought about being an artist but I do remember the first painting I sold . . . and thinking it was great getting paid for something I liked doing.”
His classmates were the likes of Earl Jones, Tony Smith, Steve Beck and Bob Olpin. They studied with George Dibble, Angelo Caravaglia (Phillips has a piece in the upcoming show that is a print of an etching —in combination with a painting— he did in a class with Caravaglia; he even still has the copper plate.) Ed Maryon, Alvin Gittens, and Doug Snow (he thinks the second painting he sold was “probably a Doug Snow knockoff).
While at the U he worked with Associated Food Stores in their sign shop. “There was another fellow there by the name of Mike Sullivan and about the time I was ready to graduate he found a sign shop for sale so he and I became partners and started painting all the paper signs for Albertson’s.”
They had 27 stores then so they painted all their banners twice a week, putting the out-of-town store signs on Wonder Bread trucks to be delivered. They eventually split up and Sullivan took the in-town stores and Phillips the out-of-town ones. He also kept the shop on 400 South and 900 East; and a good thing, because that’s where he met Bonnie Gile, who rented the space next door for her studio.
That’s also where the sandal shop was. “I had a friend who was in the architecture department and he and his wife were waiting to go in the Peace Corps so he wanted something to do. Back then, in the ‘60s, there were still some sandal shops in Berkeley. He went and looked them over and we bought all the leather and tools and supplies and made sandals. It was called The Good Sole Sandal Shop. That’s where the Village Inn is now.”
While keeping the two businesses going, Denis was also busy making art, though he wasn’t showing much. “There wasn’t really any place to exhibit,” he says. “The shows were few and far between.”
He and Bonnie ended up moving the sign and sandal shop to a new space, the former United Grocery on 9th and 9th, and opened a gallery. “It was a big space, way bigger than we needed, so a gallery was perfect,“ he says. Abstract artist Lee Deffebach, who lived kitty-corner across the street, was willing to make frames, a trade she had learned in New York City, so they added the frame shop, and then decided on art supplies, which Steve Beck ran. “So we just kept doing stuff.”
Their first artists were Tony Smith, Lee Deffebach, Francis Zimbeaux, Don Olsen and Steve Beck. “We were all friends so it was great. We were painting, being productive, and showing.”
“I think the first year we were in business we sold a Tony Smith for $300.” Galleries were so new that Tony Smith recalls when he was told a commission would be taken, he said, “A commission? What, on sales? You’re kidding.”
Fifty years later, Phillips insists the gallery is pretty much the same now as it was then. “We’re selling more work. But we can have a couple of shows where we don’t sell much and then one where we sell a lot. It’s not a predictable business. It’s unreliable. That’s the life of an artist, also. You can’t count on a paycheck. But framing and art supplies have always been steady. Not so much art supplies now because of the internet. But I keep it because it’s convenient for me – if I need something I can just go out there and get it,” he says with a smile.
Denis and Bonnie married in ’66 and though they had hoped to buy the building on 9th and 9th, the owner didn’t want to sell. “Bonnie’s mother kept telling us to come down here and look at this [their present location] and finally we made the move.”
The couple gutted the two existing apartments and turned them into one, living upstairs for a while. The back building, now Denis’ studio, was rented for a while to the Junior League for its thrift store. He didn’t take it over until the ‘90s, first having worked upstairs where Bonnie’s office is now. Studio space is vital to this artist. As he told a visitor to his 2012 show in Huntsville: first you have to have a dedicated place to paint, then “you will go there.” He has a combined sitting area and gallery, with a rocker and several other comfortable chairs, a large studio to the east with plenty of light, room for a computer and large canvases, and storage to the west.
In Phillips Gallery itself, the frame shop is in the back, the art supplies are in front, to the west, and the gallery is in the much bigger space to the east. The Main Gallery initially was twice as big as it is now, but they needed more room for framing and storage, so reduced its size. The upstairs holds offices, more gallery space and an inviting outdoor sculpture court on the roof. In the basement is the popular Dibble Gallery, where shows are regularly held. “We shuffled things around until it worked,” says Phillips.
The couple keep up a regular working schedule. They get down to the gallery in the morning and feed the two feral cats that always manage to finagle tuna fish for breakfast. “I get the coffee in order and then look around to see how the work is going framing-wise. I can usually tell by how much we’ve got going in the shop if I need to do some framing or whether I need to do some work in the art supplies. Once I have that under control then I’m free to come back here to the studio. If I have the time, then I paint.”
When he first got out of school Phillips was painting in an abstract sytle, and his non-objective works remain his best-known. Though he thinks narrative art is a valid form, he’s never been interested in telling stories. “The level of painting I’m doing is just a visual exchange — between me and whoever looks at it, that’s all. I’m not trying to say anything in these abstract paintings. I’m not trying to tell you anything. They’re there for you to look at.”
He believes a lot of people think abstract art has hidden meanings. “Sometimes that’s the case maybe, but most of the time it’s either an abstraction or it’s a landscape or it’s a still life. They’re not telling stories in that sense. So it’s not Norman Rockwell or N.C. Wyeth. Just look at it and try and enjoy it.” As he once told me, “Abstraction allows your mind to wander around and think things that may or may not be accurate.”
At some point he also started painting the landscape. “It was a way of getting away from the shop and going out somewhere and having the afternoon free of framing and all the rest of it,” he says. “But then as the city grew and you had to go further and further to find stuff to paint it got to be too big of a ride.” Still, he says, “Those are the kind of paintings where I didn’t mess around with imagery. I just painted as well as I could see it.”
His upcoming exhibition at the gallery will feature hard-edge abstractions, something he’s been doing since the ‘60s. “When the [Utah Museum of Fine Arts] was on the top floor of the Park Building, I remember this guy’s paintings, and they were so different, so refreshing compared to what I’d been doing and I think we all liked it, we all just started doing hard edge. Steve Beck, Don Olsen, Lee Deffebach, we all kind of got into it. So I’ve been doing it off and on ever since.”
He recently discovered two large but damaged Steve Beck hard-edge paintings and spent some time restoring them. “It had been awhile since I had painted hard edge and I remembered how much fun I always had painting them. And I got back into it because of that. So this whole show is pretty much going to be hard edge. It’ll be a good mix because Larry’s got the three-dimensional works and I’ll have the walls. I’ve always liked Larry’s work and we’ve sold it consistently over the years.”
If he’s outside doing landscapes, Phillips uses oil paint. Inside doing abstracts or hard edge, while he has done those in oil, he says he likes acrylic since “you can paint more recklessly with it.”
Sometimes he will work on two paintings at once and sometimes he starts a painting and does restoration jobs while he’s waiting for paint to dry. “I like working on old things, cleaning, touching up, repairing tears, whatever needs to be done. Plus, you see a lot of interesting stuff.”
As far as process goes: “Sometimes I work on a little sketch, then I get the painting started and, once that happens, you just react to what you’re doing. A sketch only goes so far and then I’m on my own as it develops. So they’re not always planned. Actually they’re more fun to do then because the more precise your idea is, just sticking to it from beginning to end is taxing. You don’t have the freedom to make changes if you actually stick to a plan – but I never do. I get halfway into it and start to think, oh well, change that and do this.”
Next to his canvases, brushes and jars of paint, you’ll also find a computer. He says it’s something he could live without, but he’s using it more because he can do things differently than before. “Here’s one I kind of worked out in the computer,” he says, walking into the studio. “This little painting here is at home and it is 5 feet square. I have it in the computer so I can turn it, I can change the color. And then this was another painting that was 5 feet square and just a circle and so I combined them in the computer and I printed this and started the painting. I got along so far and then I deviated and started taking liberties and now it’s this [an extremely large hard-edge painting].” He starts pulling very thin strips of masking tape off his work, with some difficulty, and it’s amazingly cool what’s beneath – truly beautiful. “I still have to paint the painting; I still have to think first about what I’m doing, so the computer is just another tool, like a brush.”
“Another thing I’ve been doing lately,” Phillips continues, turning to a tabletop, “is using some of my images that I’ve been putting together in the computer – combinations of previous paintings. They’re like collages: cartoons, drawings – there’s a pastel. So I can make these arrangements of images. I’m getting 10 of these framed up for the show. It’s a change from the big paintings. The computer allows me to do that kind of stuff.”
Phillips has always been one to experiment, whether it be starting a new business (sign painter, sandal-maker, gallery owner), or developing new tools for expression. For fifty years he’s watched Utah’s art community grow, nurtured in large part by the work he and Bonnie do in the gallery. And as this month’s exhibit will demonstrate, he has been and continues to be a part of that growth, a touchstone for artists of all stripes.
He has no idea where art is headed in Utah. “It’s not like it was back in the ‘70s when there was a much smaller group of people involved in the gallery and the arts and now it’s getting so much bigger. If there is a direction, I don’t know what it is. Sometimes you can’t tell directions until 10 years after the fact . . . it’s so varied and wide open. And that’s great. Artists need the freedom, if they think of something and they want to do it and put it together, they should. Let’s see what happens.”
Denis Phillips & Larry Elsner, March 20-April 10, 2015, Phillips Gallery, 444 E. 200 South, Salt Lake City, Opening reception, March 20, 6-9 pm. Dibble Gallery: Liberty Blake. Hours: Tues-Fri: 11 am-6 pm, Sat. 11 am – 4 pm.
A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was the 2018 recipient of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award in the Literary Arts.