David Phillips: Sculptor to Nature

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THANKS to sculptor David Phillips, there are fewer stones on New England beaches. With an eye for the smooth, the round, and the patterned, Mr. Phillips looks for stones he can transform from works of nature into works of art.

Specializing in art that uses natural materials, Phillips mixes stones with art materials, usually bronze; balances them on twigs; even cuts them. "People gravitate toward a nice stone," he observes during an interview in his studio here.

"I'm celebrating something I've found. It's not like I'm coming up with a form that never existed before - this form has existed through the process of erosion and time." His first experiment with stones as art came when he placed ones he had collected at the beach onto paper and drew their natural design onto the paper.

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But that was more than 10 years ago, and now Phillips is gaining an international reputation "sculpting" entire outdoor areas, allowing his art to become a permanent part of urban settings such as subway stations, universities, and hotels in New England, and recently in Japan.

It is this permanence, and the opportunity to have his art interact with the general public, which Phillips says has influenced him to seek out outdoor commissions.

Phillips's latest creations obscure the line between traditional art and the natural world.

"I think of most art of the past as a framing, the painting was a framing - a very focused viewpoint of what art is, and in relation to what we might call the natural world," he says. "I think my more recent work is to make those boundaries between the natural environment and the art environment a little bit looser, a little less framed."

In 1989 he began the renovation of two gardens at the Fujiya Hotel in Kofu, Japan. Completed recently, the new look to the gardens is the result of a collaborative effort by Phillips and the Japanese architect Hideto Horiike. Phillips says his invitation to work with Mr. Horiike came after the architect saw his work in Boston and in Tokyo at an exhibition at Gallery Space 21.

Entitled "Garden of Deconstruction" and "Garden of Absence," the gardens are abundant with his trademarks: cut stones, some with portions that have been replaced by treated, cast bronze; the intermingling of grass, stone, and water; and square shapes moving through the entire design and even extending into the black granite in the garden's pond.

Many of Phillips's outdoor designs have evolved from his earlier work with small and medium-sized sculptural objects, which he still exhibits today.

"David Phillips is one of the three or four most important sculptors in the Boston area," remarks Meredyth Hyatt Moses, owner and director of the Clark Gallery, which has exhibited his early work with bronze castings of stones. Ms. Moses says that Phillips's sculptures, which are made of such durable materials, are meant to be touched.

At the gallery, "people were able to touch them and really get involved with them," she explains. "They were incredibly beautiful - they had rich dark patinas [surface colors]. You couldn't keep your hands off them."

Other of Phillips's gallery works include "Levitation," which was displayed until just recently in a group exhibition at the East-West Gallery in Chicago. Standing about two feet high, this piece appears to defy nature by balancing substantial-looking stones atop a handful of twigs made of bronze. Phillips says this type of piece provokes the response "it shouldn't be doing that - but it is doing that."

The pieces Phillips refers to as "Enclosure" demonstrate a recurring theme in his work. Here Phillips forms a shape, usually a square, by replacing portions of cut stones with identical bronze castings.

This idea of a geometric shape moving through nature, says Phillips, preserves the natural form while combining it with the bronze - the human element.

Phillips learned to cast bronze at Michigan's Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he received a bachelor's degree in painting and a master's degree in sculpture. He owns and operates the foundry at his studio and casts all of his own bronze works.

Phillips has also collaborated with architects and landscape architects on other outdoor works in New England. These include: "The Water Strider Fountain" for a outdoor site at Eastern Connecticut University in Willimantic, Conn.; and "Rachel Lowe Clopton Garden," a garden design for the Fitchburg Art Museum in Fitchburg, Mass.

Among the many completed outdoor works of Phillips are the "Megaliths" at the Porter Square subway plaza and "Bread" at Riverside Press Park, both in Cambridge, Mass.

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