Category Archives: Ken Phillips

A Sketching Artist Observed

Recently, I was given a gift when professional artist and teacher David Wick contacted me to share some memories of long ago days when he experienced my artist father’s daily train trips to and from his work in Simpsons art department in Toronto. His words brought back my father’s zeal and devotion to his art, so, with his permission, I’ll let David speak for himself about the times when he and his friend Reid also were commuting to study art in Toronto and when they experienced my father’s passionate commitment.

…your father always found his window where he’d begin his drawings,..incessant drawings of so many things,..people and subjects that grabbed his thought and mind en route.

Reid and I just watched his hands flowed over each drawing with his magic pen,…a fountain pen with black ink and chiseled nib drawing and drawing moving to some hidden inner rhythm your father knew instinctively and with such interest in every object that captured his eye and heart.

Your father Ken would draw and talk little if either Reid or myself asked questions while we rode the train,…and sometimes Ken would enter this “zone” and his hand did all the talking …a blaze of movement back and forth capturing the gestures of people on the outside of the train walking with their bikes,..parking them or others in conversation at the train stops on the platforms, even people next to some buildings talking or moving into some space,..he seemed to be perpetually drawing and sketching. That chisel nib must have had it’s well past it’s replacement date,..or at least it’s warranty deadline!

***

Your Fathers grey suit,..with his bike sprocket protector about his ankle and wrinkled pant legs showed Reid and Me that drawing was his absolute love, and devotional focus, not his pants. Every once in awhile,..he’d look up but only to turn the page on his clipped paper pad or pile of drawing papers he’d combined to make into a drawing pad and turn them over as the journey progressed. The drawings where never large,..but smallish,..about 8″x10″ or so, that he seemed to carry with him everywhere. … When he did look up at us,…it was as though he was questioning what we where looking at,..he was simply lost in his drawing and referencing the everyday gathering of travellers and bystanders en route to Toronto. He simply lived for drawing!

At this point I replied to David with some memories of my own:

He was an ardent teacher and could hardly help telling people about his passion, often more than they wanted to hear. If he didn’t talk with you, two appreciative young men, I’m thinking it was because by five pm he was exhausted, having been up since five am. Only by clinging to his art after a day of sketching things like mattresses, could he survive by turning to subjects like clouds. His little cobbled-together pads and yellow thick lead pencils were designed to fit in the palm of his upturned hand so he could do caricatures without being noticed.

David replied:

Yes,…I do remember your father sketching with pencil in hand, and indeed they where stubs he’d sharpened with his penknife as they looked revealed by that procedure. When I mentioned your father going silent from time to time when we talked with him,..it was because he appeared lost in his wonder at what he was drawing and was caught up away in his enjoyments.

However,…I was always more impressed at your fathers ink sketches as they couldn’t be erased, they where immediately fresh and gestural,…loose yet concise. Reid and I where amazed at his drawing skill level, his perceptions and observations so clear about the subject he was drawing.

 

 

 

An Artist’s Despair

When my artist parents bought their land on Harborn Trail (then Harborn Road) in 1939, it was surrounded by several fine orchards with magnificent, tall, spreading apple trees. These orchards gave them joy in every season, and often appeared in their pictures. However, over the years they lived there, one by one these trees were torn up and the trees were replaced with subdivisions,

By the time my father retired only one small orchard remained, living on borrowed time. My  father felt his world was being assaulted from all sides. He was watching the surrounding woods and fields disappear with dismaying speed. Thanks to early retirement from his day job at Simpson’s advertising department he was free at last. But free to do what? With time to reflect he faced straight into the teeth of old age.

Panicky, despairing, he feared that the long-awaited opportunity to paint at will had come too late for him. Wrestling with complicated new glasses, fumbling to sketch with arthritis-twisted fingers, daily wracked by pain and in an agony of despair, my father had lost all hope for himself and his art. As he struggled to regain hope, he turned to the style of his favourite Group of Seven teacher, Arthur Lismer.

That autumn, when he heard that the last orchard, with its dying, uncared-for trees, was doomed he stumbled down there every day to paint his most elegaic tribute. As he did so, I believe he wrestled with his despair for the orchard and himself.

 

Artists’ Christmas

 

My parents, lifelong artists Ken Phillips and Marie Cecilia Guard, kept Christmas in a Dickensian style which gave me much joy as a child. They believed wholeheartedly in theatre and performance as an essential part of their celebration. In fact, one of the first elements they had introduced to their two storey studio in Mississauga was a small stage for the plays they believed would surely take place there.

Because my father’s day job was in the Art Advertising department at Simpson’s in Toronto, he knew the decorators who created wondrous, elaborate decorations for the store. In those days such things were not available to buy. Because of his friendship with the decorators and his enthusiasm for their showy treasures, he often was given spares or allowed to rummage in the discard bins. This meant that often, when he arrived home from work on a December night, he pulled out of his magical shopping bags magnificent glass globes and tiny twinkling lights and sparkling swags, and gigantic scarlet velvet bows with which to garland our slender home-cut tree and the stout bamboo posts which delineated the stage. Over it all presided the brass fretwork oriental lantern from which light through the midnight blue stained glass panels pooled on the stage floor. For this special time only, the large paintings which loomed on their tall easels, stood in the studio background, taking second place to the elaborate decorations.

Yes, there was music: folk songs and carols from round the world, which brought us close to other peoples, but also the assorted cymbals, chimes, gongs and flutes which were part of the hoard he had gathered about him, sure they would be needed sooner or later.

And yes, there was entertainment. As a boy my father had been charmed by magic, and for the holiday he performed from his secret book of spells for my sister and me. And, as we sat before the dancing flames of the fire, he read “Christmas at Dingley Dell” to my mother, sister and me with huge enthusiasm, taking on all the voices to bring it to life.

As my sister and I grew older, he searched tirelessly for amusements for us. One which gave him particular pleasure was the Puffin Theatre, published by the British children’s division of Penguin Books. This became our version of the pantomimes which were a traditional part of British holidays. He created the handsome green and yellow theatre from a series of booklets. From the main book he cut out the parts of a theatre and formed the model by gluing the parts to stout cardboard and joining them together with his favourite brown paper tape. Separate books, such as Treasure Island,  included the trappings of an entire play, also ready to be cut out and reinforced. Each play came with a number of beautifully illustrated sets, the script, and even characters in costumes. These characters were slipped into tiny wooden blocks, which was glued to a piece of cardboard. By sliding the cardboard back and forth across the stage floor, we could put on our performance for our parents.

So far as I know, no play was ever produced in the small studio theatre, but at Christmastime, thanks to the tiny stage my father made, the drama he craved prevailed.

Puffin Collage

 

 

 

Canadian Artist Couple

313KMarie pink brushes

Ken’s portrait of Marie

Canadian artist couple, Ken Phillips and Marie Cecilia Guard, my parents, were unusual in that they remained profoundly in love with each other for more than 50 years, and each was supportive of the other’s work. No one, my mother said to me, was ever as interesting and exciting as my father. For all the vexations caused by his full-blown artistic temperament, this remained true all of their married lives. In turn, my father adored my mother for her exceptional beauty and graceful ways, but also for her intelligence. Both studied and learned all of their lives.

My parents shared a passionate understanding that art meant everything to them. There never was a line between living their art, whether by pouring over Turner paintings in a library book or studying Rembrandt’s treatment of lace in the AGO. Each artist valued the other’s opinion over anyone else’s. A picture was never complete without a thorough critiquing by the other. Each understood the other’s way of working and was supportive of them. There was no question of one advancing without the other.

Marie’s portrait of her Young Husband

What happens when such a complex, profound partnership disintegrates? During his last years, my father became ever more difficult to live with, so in some ways his sudden death from a massive heart attack must have been a relief to my mother. And yet, without her husband to critique her work, she seemed at a loss about how to go on. There was never any question that she would continue to paint, but without his expert assessment and suggestions, after such a long partnership, I don’t believe she ever clearly saw a direction for her work. Yes, she went among the canvases, so lovingly prepared by Ken, choosing one to work on. And yes, she hunted through the frames he also had worked up so they would be ready. As always, until her last year she rarely went a day without picture making. Occasionally, she would surprise me by asking my opinion, and it was then that I saw most clearly how much had been lost.

Frames My Artist Father Designed

One of Ken's frames, note combing texture in upper corner

One of Ken’s frames, for a painting by his wife. Note the decorative combing texture in the upper corners

The frames my father designed and made to enhance my parents’ pictures were a passion in themselves. As a teenager, occasionally I was enlisted with my sister to help in this complex, exciting process. These frames came about mainly because my parents couldn’t afford ready-made frames of a quality my father deemed necessary. Rather than seeing this as a chore, though, in his characteristic way, he poured thought and skill into them. I already saw my artist father as an alchemist, with his occasional cooking of vile-smelling rabbit’s foot glue on a hot plate, or the mysterious mixing of linseed oil and oil paint which brought my world to life. But it was with his frames, where he transformed the most ordinary wood that I could see his art in action.

Sometimes he bought simple frames, as in the example above, treating them until he thought they did justice to the pictures they were designed for. Later, he snapped up discarded old ornately sculpted and gilded frames or ones of handsome fruitwood from Toronto second hand stores. He hunted through books of antique techniques, and  fabricated strange tools, taking over pieces of comb with which he made dragging, wavy lines in half-set gesso. Sometimes he had my sister and me distress plain wood with nail holes, in which he trickled India ink to imitate worm holes.

Most magical was the process of burnishing gold leaf, though even my father seemed scandalized by the expense of this technique. In the many steps of this process, first he covered the frame with a base, which he coated with an terra cotta color. This, in turn he wiped with a rag, to create an irregular effect. Next he flipped through his little books, selecting delicate sheets of copper, silver or even precious gold, almost light as air itself. I watched as he took his agate burnisher, a tool made of a real, semi-precious stone, and polished until the leaves mysteriously melded onto the frame. After this, after turning his creation thoughtfully between his fingers, he might have second thoughts about the rawness of the new color, in which case  he might take up a rag to soften the effect with an uneven rubbing of thin white paint.

“People don’t appreciate them,” my mother sometimes protested, exasperated by the good painting time he devoted to his creations. Eventually, age and the suspicion that he was indeed casting pearls to swine, would force him to abandon such elaborate procedures.  It was about this time that he turned to buying mouldings from which he constructed much simpler, if less charming, frames.

Skunk Cabbage Painting Sequence

Skunk Cabbages-Ken Phillips

Skunk Cabbages-Ken Phillips

Every year, in earliest spring, when the skunk cabbage thrusts out of its swampy muck, I remember how my artist father, Ken Phillips, prized this wild, unusual plant. He used to take me down to the splendid swamp beyond our Mississauga home to admire these harbingers, which rose so mysteriously out of the ooze. So  fascinated was he by this strange wild plant, heralded by its mysterious mahogany spathes, and followed by huge, vividly green leaves, that eventually he made a series of six small oil paintings of them which I believe are some of his finest works. Unlike any other paintings, to me they evoke energy that blends the erotic and the spiritual in a stunning whole.

Skunk Cabbages-Ken Phillips

Skunk Cabbages-Ken Phillips

 

Circus Art

It was only after my father retired that my parents came to consider the artistic possibilities of circuses. One Spring day, in search of new subjects, they scouted the arrival of Circus Vargas in Brampton. As they sat in the parking lot on their stools that morning sketching the build-up, they became increasingly excited by the many subjects that presented themselves. Nothing else was available for them of that caliber and glamor. They decided to attend the afternoon performance and immediately were enchanted by the color, movement and character of the entertainment.

Circus by Night Marie Cecilia Guard

Circus by Night Marie Cecilia Guard

Later, reflecting on what they had seen, they recognized that the arrival of television would make it difficult for circuses to continue.  Here was yet another dying art for them to record while there still was time, and they decided to return as often as possible. It wasn’t long until the circus people noticed how they and their doings were being magically captured on paper. Intrigued in turn by the artists’ own performances, they began to open up to them. As my parents got to know the entertainers, they were invited inside the splendor, heartbreak and sometime tawdriness of their world. Because the performers were gypsies and also aliens (as my artist parents sometimes felt themselves to be), they were glad to welcome people they saw as fellow performers and to offer them friendship.

A family of jugglers with a bicycle act invited them into their trailer for tea, and this was the beginning of a number of circus friendships, which lead to letters back and forth, a commission for my father to do a painting for the owner, and even invitations for the pair to visit the troupe in their southern winter quarters.

Unfortunately, by this time, the artists felt too old for such an adventure, but over the next few years, my parents searched out circuses, and particularly Circus Vargas, whenever possible and created series of pictures based on their sketches.

Ken and Caricature

At the same time that he was searching out interesting architecture to draw, my father began his caricature sketches of Toronto’s people, partly as notations for figures he could later add to his pictures, and partly as a warm-up for his more serious work, but mostly because he found gesture irresistible. At last he had found a way to come close to them without their even realizing he was there.

Image (87)Furtively sheltering his small, homemade notebook in the palm of his hand, in the forties he began a candid, rollicking Tristam Shandy-type of sketching everywhere he went. One minute he would be chaffing with the wreckers, or delving into their equipment, the next he would whip out the sketchpad. (He showed me how he rested it on the inside of his wrist and flattened the angle of his favorite pencil so that he could work unnoticed.)

During morning coffee breaks in Simpsons cafeteria, he caught secretaries gossiping. In Kensington Park he drew tramps arguing, or a portly, puff-cheeked tuba player marching in a small parade. In Grange Park (the hub of his territory) he captured clusters of the down-and-out gathered around a picnic table gesticulating over cards, or children gleefully splashing each other at a drinking fountain. On the train ride home he penciled in an exhausted stockbroker sprawled yawning across his seat. In this way, as his pencil groped for their truth as a blind man’s hands might read a face, he achieved an extraordinary intimacy.

Art and Theater

skgi_2944925_24810 K theatre 1Stage within, stage without. Not only did my father love the grand old theaters of Toronto, but he was forever searching for ways to include performance in his own life. When he built their studio in 1940, it seemed natural to him to include the beginnings of a small, curtained stage between the giant yellow-varnished bamboo pillars which upheld the balcony part of the staircase to the upstairs bedrooms. The long landing half-way up the stairs doubled as a balcony, and he had entrances planned to each side of the little stage area itself.

Art-making was performing. He knew that. Ever since the days when he had been a boy magician on the stages of church halls, impressing his audiences with the quick sketches which changed a cat to a boy to a tree all within a few strokes, he had understood that. It seemed as necessary for him to have a theater in the home as a meditation center might be for others. Although my father could fiercely guard his privacy, he was conscious of a responsibility to entertain and inform the crowds that inevitably gathered when he was sketching in Toronto.

skgi_2944857_22054 K Toronto 3At the time that he built his Harborn stage, he still anticipated that friends and associates from his Toronto experiences would be a part of his life there, likely improvising charades or acting scenes from his beloved Dickens. Sadly, he never found a way to create the entertainments he envisioned. Still, so intrinsic were dramatics to him that when he was in his late sixties, his plans for his later home in eastern Ontario quite unjustifiably included a massive stage in one of the outbuildings.

 

 

An Artist’s Unique Christmas Cards

One way in which my parents reached out to people was by designing their own Christmas cards. The first year that my mother had been back at art school after her marriage, she took a commercial art course, which included illustration. O.C.A. students then were encouraged
to integrate art into their daily lives. At Christmas all of them were assigned a project making a linocut Christmas card. My mother was pleased to find that the other students were impressed by her effort, and thus began a sequence of Christmas cards which
continued all my parents’ lives. At first, the cards were hers. But once she had babies to care for, she let my father take over the job. He bought a hand-turned printing press at one of the second-hand stores he liked to frequent near the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto, and he
began to take production of the annual card seriously. More than just a greeting, it was intended as a message that both artists were continuingly faithful to their art.

Card 1Every year, my father followed a complex process. This began with copious sketches and consultation with my mother. When they were satisfied with the design, he carefully transferred the design (in reverse) onto a linoleum block, which he then cut with gouges. Because he had so little time to work, often it was perilously close to Christmas by the time my father made his way to the chilly cellar where he kept his press. He mixed the glossy thick ink to the right consistency and rolled it onto the carved lino block. With great care, he placed the heavy paper on the block and set them under the press. For each of the hundred cards, he had to hand-cranked the press to imprint the design and then release it, being careful not to shift the paper before the image was set. Inevitably, in this uncertain process, there were failures which demanded that my father work even longer into the night. Even then he wasn’t finished. Frequently he was tempted to touch up the cards individually with white or vermilion paint.

Toronto Subway

Toronto Subway

Gathered together, these special Christmas greeting cards tell the story of an artist’s shifting focus, and his joyful sense of place. There is a woodcut of my parents’ newly-built Mississauga home on a snowy night, and then a picture of me as a child, tilting upwards
on a swing, followed by one showing two small daughters admiring the stars through the ivy‑wreathed studio window. Next come the Toronto cards, spirited reproductions of the fascinating buildings he loved to sketch in his noon hours–the old Arcade, Loretto Abbey, a Christmassy scene of Kensington Market piled high with spruces, and even a depiction of an old post office, designed to appear like a cancelled postage stamp. Later, about the time that my parents started to travel abroad, commercial reproduction had become sufficiently accessible that my father was able to give up the time-consuming lino cuts and switch to professional reproductions of pen and ink sketches.

These later cards told of their travels, adventures which earlier would have been beyond
their wildest dreams. –A page of airily sketched caricatures of band players from Petticoat Lane, the sweeping rooftops and sky of Bellinzona, the graceful interior of Ste Chapelle du Palais, each card was a small gift of art for the recipients. And finally there were designs which told of their move to a handsome limestone house in eastern Ontario where they could be near their daughters and their families.Bellinzona