Rickety, Rackety

Photos by Matt Rose
Portrait by Matt Rose

“At first glance, you think they just might work. But any engineer will tell you that they won’t,” says Asheville artist Kathryn B. Philips. But an engineer’s view of Phillips’ “Contraptions Series” might be missing the point. After all, the technologically sophisticated are not often drawn to the aesthetic complexities of tractor equipment.

Philips can often be found in graveyards of machinery, lugging along life-sized pieces of sketch paper. Valves, coils, and wires dance playfully before her, all demanding attention in her composition. She is not interested in illustrating any one piece of equipment in its functional state. Phillips simply uses the machines as an artistic inspiration for experiments with form and color, merging unyielding steel with organic growth.

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To those unfamiliar with farm equipment, Contraption #28 might possibly appear like a valid representation of a vital tool in this industry. A blue seat catches the eye, with handlebars nearby to drive the machine. A green tank sits below, presumably containing water or fertilizer. The gadget is precariously balanced on two “wheels” which are reminiscent of striped gourds in odd colors. While the science-minded might be searching for the on-switch in the foray, the art-minded are likely drawn to the playfulness and questions that the contraptions conjure.

While Phillips has worked with a variety of subject matter, including florals, her love of painting merged with deeply personal concept in this Contraptions Series. The daughter of a soybean and cotton farmer in Arkansas, farm equipment is a familiar and comforting sight. A return visit to Arkansas in 2010 was the impetus, driving through the fields, making an important reconnection with the landscape of her youth. “Farmers take land, break it up, move it around, extract it. I do the same thing, except with paper and paint,” she says. After a short incubation period, the bulk of her Contraptions were executed in 2012.

Encouraged by a creative family with musical leanings, Phillips attended Louisiana Tech and earned a BFA degree in Painting in 1976, learning basics about balance, shape, and design principles that would eloquently ground her work in the years to come. Through marriage and family, she found herself still making art, although moving to Asheville 12 years ago inspired her in ways unprecedented. While she had fellow artists to talk to before, “the lids weren’t off the boxes until I moved here. The creative energy of Asheville is completely unique.” She learned to be able to speak about her work, feel comfortable asking feedback from others, and grow as an artist.

Her earliest Contraptions were earthy and muted in color, with white negative spaces scattered throughout the compositions. As they have evolved, they fill up the paper in a busier way, breaking off the edges, suggestive of overgrown crops. Their colors have also shifted, shunning any one specific color theme, but accepting bright blues, reds, greens not present in the actual forms that lay before her eyes. The mental image of rusting, aging equipment, along with the concept of the disappearing American family farm, contrasts successfully with the saturated playful hues.

Another pleasing contrast comes from watercolor, her chosen medium. While the shapes that comprise the Contraptions’ forms are clearly delineated from each other against portions of solid white background, conveying a sense of flatness, her particular technique in watercolor provides an opposing sense of depth. She paints the watercolor onto dry paper within each shape, allowing the pigment to travel wherever it wants. Before the paint fully dries, she experiments with adding in water, or blotting away portions of the paint. The resulting tiny universes of organic shape and alternating value provide small resting areas for the viewer to study, before being whisked away to another part of the composition by a carefully placed tube or cog.

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While many find watercolor a challenging medium because of its unpredictability, Phillips admits she doesn’t find it difficult at this point, but rather a fun challenge to reign in its chaos. The process is much the same as taming crops, or just living life. “The process of painting simply mimics life,” Phillips states. “You are just trying to create order out of chaos.”

Life is a little less chaotic these days for Phillips. With her daughter’s recent marriage and an empty nest before her, she is ready to fully devote herself to her artwork. Previously hovering between studio locations both in and outside her house, she found a home at Wedge Studios this past March 2013. She is thrilled to be a part of this artistic community, making her studio available for visits on weekday afternoons.

For details, visit www.kathrynbphillips.com.