I’ll be honest. While reading your bio, I had to Google “Eritrea.” But I don’t think a profile of you could exclude your time in this country (on the Horn of Africa, east of Sudan). How did living there influence you?
Funny you should ask. Ana and I just got back from a reunion of people who worked there. Had a great discussion of what is happening today in Eritrea. A friend of mine, Solomon Kiflom, just returned from five weeks in Asmara, and brought back great photos and updated us on politics and life in North Africa.
My impression of Eritrea was that it is one of the most beautiful places on Earth and that includes the people who live there. The pace of life is much more conducive to a quality of life we rarely see here or in Europe. Being in Africa changed the way I look at most everything. In my painting, it changed how I use color. I use much more color now and am much more aware of it and how it affects people. I also see the beauty in tiny details, which is something I learned from a slower pace of life with less focus on “making money” and more emphasis on “living.”
And talk about a 180 from the first part of your life in Saskatchewan.
Saskatchewan was a winter wonderland for me. I played goalie for a hockey team, played soccer and did a lot of curling in the winter. Summer smelled like wheat fields, and I still paint scenes from my childhood that include the wheat pool buildings and “fields of gold.”
You started creating art very early. When did you really realize you were an artist? Did it hit you like a ton of bricks or did you have time to ease into the title?
My mom was an artist at Hallmark and my dad worked in the camera room there when they met. I figured being an artist was simply a genetic destiny. I was published by the time I was 7 and never stopped to even think about anything else. I sometimes did temp work during the early part of my career, but by the time I was in my late 20s my work was published in 70 countries as note cards and fine art prints.
The guy who introduced my parents to each other at Hallmark invited me back there to work for a year as a consultant on a new line of cards. Talk about finding your roots.
Talk about some of your most significant art projects in the course of your career.
The series of nudes I did that was published by Verkerke Reprodukties in Holland was a major event. To complete the series, I worked for almost a year without much income, just concentrating on painting the nudes. I even cut down on food – eating mostly rice and beans during that time. I worked with models and other artists, which kept it interesting. “Print” magazine included my work in their annual, which was quite an honor.
When I finished the nude series, I contacted Verkerke’s office in Holland while I was in the UK. They met me at the railway station and took me into see the great Engel Verkerke himself. His company was already the leading poster publisher and distributor worldwide and I was a little nervous – and very hungry from a year of eating rice and beans. I presented him with a portfolio of color prints. He flipped through it very quickly and my heart sank. He reached for the phone and called someone else to come to his office, but I thought I was doomed. I thought he was calling for a car to take me back to the train station.
The guy he called was the financial officer of the company, and he brought a check for $8,000 with him. Verkerke handed it to me and said, “Will this open negotiations?” I had a great dinner that night in Amsterdam!
And how did you wind up in the North State?
Came up here for a beautiful and inexpensive piece of property where Ana and I built an art studio. The Internet makes it pretty irrelevant as far as where my painting is done. And I like the peace and quiet of the remote location we have.
Strange though, I also like working in London and have done since the 60s. Thanks to my friend Jeannette Nelson, I have always had working space in central London. And I have painted or sketched the bulk of my life’s work while I am there. There is a kind of peace and quiet that I enjoy in London — as if, when I am painting, I am in the “eye of a storm.” The flat where I work is filled with the music I listen to. The room is floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides and I can see the city hustling and bustling — but I can’t hear any of the noise the city generates. It is a detached sort of peacefulness and I love watching the energy. After days of painting straight through, I immerse myself in the culture of London and have quite a few favorite pubs, cinemas and theaters now. I also enjoy seeing cinema from different countries and have made a habit of going to a film from a different country every time I go out during a stay.
The Red Bluff Art Gallery is a big part of your life now. Tell us about the gallery and how you got involved.
Ana and I noticed that there weren’t any “real” art galleries north of Sacramento, let alone any “galleries” that had an international group of artists. As working artists, we saw the need but underestimated the reasons behind the lack of galleries. Nonetheless, we made a commitment to ourselves to give it a go. Our plan is to manage the gallery for five years, then find a buyer who wants to own a decent up-and-running gallery. Gradually we’ve added services — like web design, giclee printing, art supplies and framing. These things have kept us going financially. The art itself is my main focus, and last year we put on 36 exhibits. This year we will do about the same and have added a permanent video installation. We hold literary and music events about every other month which adds to the interest of the gallery. All told, it is a high-maintenance gig. Ana and I both work about 60 to 80 hours a week. Good thing we love art.
Tell us about your most recent work.
I’ve got work going into four shows this month — in New York, Red Bluff and two in Redding. I paint in every spare minute I have. My new work, as always, involves multiple subjects and mediums. I just put on a very successful show (yikes, I have just equated “success” with a high volume of sales!!) with my “What’s in a Cat’s Mind” series. These were acrylic and ink on handmade paper. The subject was based on a creative approach to what I imagine the images are that pass through a cat’s head… you know, how they see other animals and people. It was a lot of fun. But simultaneously, I was working on canvas at different sizes, getting ready for shows this month. My subjects ranged from idyllic cowboy settings, to stylized nudes, to “fractured hearts.” The fractured hearts, to give you an idea, are about relationships and how I imagine the heart looks and feels as it passes through the stages of a relationship. Abstract art, to be sure.
What can we expect from your show for ArtHop?
I have a beautiful and spacious venue. It inspired me to a show called “Now and Then,” which could mean a lot of things. But mainly I chose the title because I have included work that spans a 25-year time frame. A photo serigraph like “Jackrabbit Ridge” was conceived in the middle of the desert during the 1987 Harmonic Convergence. The Golden Gate Triptych is a beautiful example of serigraphy that was originally commissioned by International Management Group for the San Francisco Marathon. It’s also a good example of a 250-color serigraph (silkscreen). Then there are recent pieces like “Waterhole,” inspired by my daily running on the local cattle range and a beautiful piece “Three Shastas” done in silkscreen style with handcut stencils. This piece, like the Golden Gate Bridge triptych were done with the assistance of my partner, Ana Nelson.
Well, among other things, I’m the director of an international art exhibit that plans to tour the world over the next couple of years. I’ve got 50 artists in the exhibit — and, wow, talk about “herding cats.” We kick off in New York this year, then the show is headed for Cairo, Manila, London and so forth. This takes a lot of time and energy, but it gives back energy as well. I meet incredible people, real working artists, as well as museum and gallery directors. It is a fundraiser for Doctors Without Borders, and that has made for some interesting contacts too. When I say, “It gives back,” I mean I get as much energy as I give. It stimulates my creativity, expands my world and thinking, and motivates me to paint. What else could an artist ask for?
Meet Phil and see his work during this month’s 2nd Saturday ArtHop, Saturday, Feb. 13, 6 to 9 p.m., GMAC Real Estate Professionals, 1647 Court Street, Redding.
Adam Mankoski is a recent North State transplant who feels completely at home here. He enjoys experiencing and writing about the people, places and things that embody the free spirit of the State of Jefferson. He and his partner own HawkMan Studios and are the creators of Redding’s 2nd Saturday ArtHop. Email your North State events to email@example.com.