A Little Personal Art History

My education happened in the Midwest.

Four years at Oberlin College in Ohio where I had gone to study to become a sociologist...I thought. Took a required art history class my first semester to get it out of the way and found to my surprise it was the only class whose lectures I looked forward to. They put you in a dark room and showed you picture- lots of 'em. Some were amazing. I took two studio classes my second semester, loved them and never looked back.

A year followed where I experimented with design and color, turning out a painting or two a day in rapid succession. My then girlfriend brought up a disturbing question however, "Phil shouldn't an artist learn how to draw?" My profs actually had given me a decent introduction to abstract design and color theory, but "drawing" in the traditional sense just wasn't on their horizon. After initial reluctance, I had to admit the girlfriend had a point. After all if I was going to be a great artist (no shame in aiming high) I figured I ought to learn everything about the craft.

So I started drawing anything and everything- plants, food, my shoes, and then increasingly the human figure. For two years while at Oberlin I organized a life drawing workshop, collecting money from participants to pay amateur models to pose for us for three hour sessions. One semester I had over fifty people sign up, an amazing number at a small college where traditional drawing was discouraged by the art department. It seemed to meet a need.

I moved on to Indiana University in Bloomington. After a few months of experimenting with some over-heated surrealist landscapes, one of the instructors there saw my work and said he thought I ought to try painting outside. I honestly have to laugh at it now, but at the time this seemed almost an indecent proposition. Maybe I even blushed. I'd never seen someone paint outdoors nor had I laid eyes on a portable easel. But I took a paintbox outside, used the lid to prop up the painting, sat on the ground and just began. Maybe there is an art god who looks over us, maybe not, but my first efforts were better than they had any right to be. Though I could see I had lots of rough edges, I knew I was finally onto something special.

Years later the Director of the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art in Iowa invited me to have a solo exhibition of my paintings. They had me come out for a week to paint during the show and sent me out to the Stone City, IA just northeast of Cedar Rapids. Grant Wood, a Cedar Rapids native had done much of his strong early work there. Above is his oil Young Corn. It's a beautiful painting. It and similar works by him I think are deeply impressive for the quiet drama he put into a gently rolling hillside.

I took a big lesson from this- art can take root in the subtle and easy-to-overlook. Keep your eyes open to the little surprises, slow down and look again, have faith in your ability to find meaningful pattern in even seemingly prosaic sources. For many East coast people Indiana and Iowa are synonymous with "plain" and ordinary. I can assure you they are anything but.


  1. Iowa? Out here we call it Ohio.

  2. Interesting journey--and even though I am an abstract painter I completely agree about the importance of drawing. It's the core strength of a visual artist.


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