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Artistic evolution comes full circle

October 02, 2003|by Chris Copley

chrisc@herald-mail.com

SHIPPENSBURG, Pa. - A strong-willed, self-taught artist has reappeared - by way of his painting - in the south-central Pennsylvania hometown he left more than 80 years ago.

"Holmead Returns," at Shippensburg University's Kauffman Gallery, is an exhibit of 50-plus paintings and drawings by the late Clifford Holmead Phillips, the only child of Shippensburg industrialist John Clifford Phillips and his wife, Anna.

The young Phillips was born in 1889 and apprenticed in his father's furniture factory in his late teens. His life took a sudden turn when he accidentally ran over a chicken in 1912. German art collector Alfred Moeke, who helped organize the exhibition of Phillips' paintings, says Phillips vowed never again to eat meat or own an automobile. He sold his auto and bought an ocean-liner ticket.

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During a six-month journey around Europe, he spent much of his time in art museums and determined to become a painter.

The exhibition at Shippensburg University shows pieces from Phillips' lengthy, varied career. Among the early work is a realistically-painted orange sunset, painted in 1915 near Shippensburg, and several impressionistic pieces painted in the early 1920s.

Bill Hynes, recently retired chairman of the art department of Shippensburg University and co-organizer of the Holmead show, says Phillips continually evolved as an artist. He lived in Europe from the mid-1920s to the outbreak of World War II. In the early '30s, Hynes says, Phillips lived in Munich and met artists working in the German expressionist style.

Moeke described the change in style: "With impressionism, the image comes to me from outside me and I reproduce it the way it comes to me. With expressionism, the image comes from inside me."

Phillips began using a palette knife - a mini-spatula - to apply paint, leading to paintings with more abstract qualities and flat planes of color. After World War II, this was the style he worked in. He also changed his professional signature, painting under his middle name, Holmead.

In the 1960s, Phillips developed a style of portraiture that became known as "shorthand painting." He painted quickly, in broad planes, and used his knife to apply and scrape paint, revealing the colors underneath. Moeke says he likes the technique.

"This is wunderbar, this is sensuous," he says. "You need the whole life to learn to use the spatula."

Moeke's favorite of Phillips' paintings is "Girl with Black Braid," produced in 1970. The painting is a heavily-worked, textured simplification of a young woman in three basic colors: cream-colored skin, black hair and dark red background.

Landscapes, portraits and paintings of buildings and ships are simplified into heavily textured, layered blocks of color. These dominate the "Holmead Returns" show.

This is the style for which Phillips is known. It is strongly European, unexpected for an American born in small-town Pennsylvania. That contrast excited Hynes about the Phillips show.

"Europeans always had these strong art movements. All artists go through this stage," Hynes says, indicating Phillips' early, realistic-styled sunset, "and some of them hang at that stage.

"I think what's so exciting is that this gentleman, painting in his early 80s, was willing to change. He said, 'No I am not satisfied with painting a photographic image. Art is more than that.'"

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