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  • by Ann Bennett

The Inimitable Art of Rick Phillips

Rick and Eileen Phillips' house on the West Side Road is a busy place. Busy in the sense that there are very few feet of unoccupied floor, wall, and ceiling space. The Phillips are collectors. Painted metal advertising signs adorn the walls, a merry-go-round horse stands its ground, along with a life-size wooden soldier, and furniture of all sorts fills the living room. A collection of antique gumball machines is gathered in the corner, and dispersed throughout are Rick's metal sculptures.

Actually, much of the stuff is slated to go into an antique shop Eileen and Rick plan to open in the spring, which will bear the amazing name of "Booven Klinker's Old Fashioned Gumball Emporium." In the meantime, the Phillips appear to enjoy their crowded existence, and in many ways, the assortment seems an embodiment of the mental images Rick forges into his intricate, three-dimensional sculptures. His well known biplanes come equipped with miniature telephones, life rafts, and an occasional umbrella. A racing car floats from a copper balloon. A copper dragon with an internal rib structure that would put the Hindenburg to shame, sports hundreds of shiny metal scales. All are the original products of Rick Phillips' obviously active imagination, and highly developed metal working skills.

Rick readily admits that he goes through dry spells, periods when inspiration simply won't bring together the diverse factions of his creative nature. Inexplicably, though, the pieces fall into place, and he'll disappear into his shop for hours and even days on end. "I work in a fever," he said, " and at those times I'm totally absorbed. When a concept comes together, I have to keep going until it's done. Creativity is everything, and for me it occurs in the process."

It seems that Rick has always set his own pace. "Even as a kid growing up in Boston, I had a sense of perspective different than other children, and could understand the relationship of size, space and depth of field," he remarked. "I wasn't much in math or reading," he added with a laugh, "but I was always interested in art." By his early teens, Rick's instructors had become aware of his natural abilities, and as a high school freshman, he won a scholarship to the Boston Museum School of Fine Art.

Painting absorbed his interest during those years, and Rick's work was strictly two dimensional. After completing a two-year stint at the Museum School, Rick attended Boston State College, at the insistence of his father, to earn a teacher's certificate, though he continued to pursue his career as an artist. Rick met and married Eileen while at Boston State, and managed to finish in spite of the arrival of their son, Jason. On a whim, he also began a night school course in welding, a decision destined to change his artistic form of expression drastically.

"Welding was instantly gratifying," he noted. "I'd scheme about pieces during the day, and be able to make them into reality during the night classes." Rick began to frequent the junk yards of Cambridge and Boston, salvaging brass, copper, and stainless steel, as well as learning the local trash schedule by heart. He'd then carry his finds to night school on the subway, the same way he transported his finished sculptures home.

After absorbing the basic principles of welding, Rick was soon constructing large, geometric mobiles. A fiend gave him a book of works of the world-famous sculptor Alexander Calder, which, Rick remembers, he found astounding. The intensity and scope of his labor increased, and customers in the greater Boston area began to seek him out to design mobiles for their homes. The similarity between his and Calder's work was great, and the fact that he showed in numerous exhibits with Calder, and the likes of Marc Chagall, is indicative of the quality of his mobiles.

Rick had reached a point of such professionalism that people literally were mistaking his pieces for Calder's, but he was also going through a period of self examination that eventually led to a drastic change in his style. "I realized that basically I was just putting existing elements together," he stated. "I had the ability to take metal objects and arrange them in a way that had the linear and spacial aspects of art, and there's a lot of skill required to do that. At the same time, though, I knew the form was limited," he continued. "I wasn't really sculpting, I was putting pieces together."

Rick ceased doing commissions, and instead started "distorting" metal, as he refers to his method of sculpture. "Altering the shape, thickness and dimension of metal to form new objects was a whole new thing for me," he noted. One of Rick's first projects was his classic biplane, a creation that had become a trademark of his art. He also mass-produced articles like brass flowers, and packed off to flea markets on weekends. His work was an immediate hit, and conversely, Rick discovered that he enjoyed the human contact as much as designing an exotic geometric mobile for an expensive house in suburban Boston. "I felt I was really beginning to touch people with my work, and that they appreciated the underlying humor of it," Rick explained. "I wasn't just making show pieces. They had a real worth to the people who were buying them."

As the demand for his more eccentric pieces grew, Rick began to elaborate more, and developed series of works, each more intricate than the previous one. Just as most of his sculptures pull together a disparate assortment of characters and ideas, Rick's technique is a combination of many aspects of metalworking. Most of his pieces incorporate welding, soldering, forging, and brazing, as well as advanced design concepts.

As time went on, invitations to exhibit in some of New England's major galleries began to arrive with regularity. Rick appeared on Boston's Good Morning Show, and was featured in Yankee, Better Homes and Gardens, and a number of other publications. With his reputation firmly established, Rick and Eileen decided to move their base of operation out of metropolitan Boston, and a year ago they settled in the Mt. Washington Valley.

Looking back, basically is not Rick's style, though he reminisces about his decade in the city, even the early years of struggling to get by, with a certain sentimentality. "I don't get into the what if's too much, though," he said, "because I'm always moving ahead. Sometimes I can't even finish one piece before I jump to another idea. Once you start reflecting and admiring your work, you lose your motivation." Rick added that he normally doesn't keep his work around when it's completed, since he becomes so dissatisfied, that he ends up cutting them apart and using the pieces in another project. "Intellectualization of art is something like that, he added. "When you dissect a piece verbally, you rob it of a certain quality and sometimes you can't make such things whole again."

Though his success has brought a certain level of economic security, at least when compared to the early years of his career, Rick acknowledges that he's a poor salesman, and he really has no desire to change. "If my work appeals to someone, that's fine. If not, I'm not going to convince them to buy it," he said. "You can talk about a piece all you want, but I'm not going to be at every show, or in every gallery with my work to explain its intentions. Either it strikes you or not," he concluded, "but in the end, a work has to be a whole statement and stand on its individual merits. It must be an expression of its own."

Postscript: For more on where Rick Phillips (now Rik Phillips) is now, here's a web link:

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