Thursday, 12 October 2017 09:59

Maple Creek artist focusing on unique prairie plant life in solo exhibition

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Maple Creek artist Geoff Phillips speaks during the public reception for his solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of Swift Current, Sept. 29. Seated behind him is Art Gallery Curator and Director Kim Houghtaling. Maple Creek artist Geoff Phillips speaks during the public reception for his solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of Swift Current, Sept. 29. Seated behind him is Art Gallery Curator and Director Kim Houghtaling. Matthew Liebenberg

Maple Creek artist Geoff Phillips is using his first solo exhibition in Saskatchewan to create more awareness about the diverse plant life of the southwest.


The large oil paintings in the exhibition “Plantscapes of the Prairies” are currently on display at the Art Gallery of Swift Current. A public reception and talk by the artist took place at the gallery, Sept. 29.
“I wanted to challenge myself to focus on the plants found in southwestern Saskatchewan to learn more about them and to share that with others, because I think conservation and the environment is important to me and to get others interested in it is one of my goals,” Phillips told the Prairie Post.
The paintings will provide visitors to the exhibition with a new perspective on the natural environment through his detailed view of each plant scene and his distinctive painting style.
“I just hope that they come in to experience it one on one and have that connection with the environment, to see it in new ways, and to see art making in new ways too, because I feel like I’m using my own unique way of representing those themes,” he said.
He explored natural areas in southwest Saskatchewan to produce these art works. Most of the paintings were created after visits to the Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, but he also went to the Grasslands National Park and the Great Sandhills, and one work represents a scene in a Frenchman River Valley pasture land.
“I started focusing on the parks because the parks are really where you find interesting things growing,” he said. “They conserve the environment. I was just looking for things I hadn’t seen growing before, interesting species I hadn’t painted yet, that sort of thing.”
During these excursions on his mountain bike or on foot he carried a backpack with a folded-up canvas and a can of brown acrylic paint.
“Then when I find my subject matter I actually just lay it right on the ground and weigh it down with rocks, and I take my brush and a tin of brown acrylic paint and I just draw with that what’s in front of me,” he explained. “Then I fold everything back up and bring it home, and stretch it on stretchers at home, and start the painting process with oils there.”
He took some close-up photographs of each scene in the field, but these images are only used during the initial phase of the creative process.
“They get crumpled up and paint on,” he said. “They’re just for reference and then I throw them out halfway through the painting process.”
As an artist his goal is to interpret each natural scene in a unique manner through the use of his own stylistic approach.
“I’m influenced by the graphic styles of the Group of Seven and native artists as well,” he said. “It’s very graphic and I’m interested in line making and structure and colour and balancing them all. … It’s painterly, it’s not just verbatim. I try to represent it in an artistic way that’s interesting and engaging and different.”
Phillips, who is from Lumsden, completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a focus on intermedia at the University of Regina in 2005. He was an artist in residence at the Toronto-based Canadian Film Centre’s Habitat New Media Lab and he worked as a visual artist in Calgary, where he painted at the Untitled Art Society and Art Central, and also met his wife and fellow artist, Connie (Gibbens) Phillips.
They moved to Sask. when they were invited to be artists in residence at Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park (Centre Block). They are raising a family in Maple Creek, where they operate The Art House, an initiative to provide art classes, studio space and art exhibitions to the public.
Art Gallery of Swift Current Curator and Director Kim Houghtaling feels this exhibition is a significant achievement by the artist.
“I’m impressed by this artist because the abstraction that he developed has become a real expressive vehicle for the kind of messages that he’s getting across,” he said. “He’s really taking us and sharing the experience of the places that he’s visiting and the experiences he’s had. He’s able to do that through working the light and the colour so excellently, but also his very smart sense of a dynamic composition.”
He noted that each painting can be enjoyed as an individual work of art, but the works together also have an impact on viewers. A prominent stylistic feature of these works is the use of line, which is inspired by cubism and abstract styles of painting.
“This method of using the graphic kind of abstraction of the natural shapes that he’s finding and then also the use of the contrasting tone and backlight that he achieves through the outlining of forms and the kind of dark spaces between the highlight forms just makes this plant life and the subject of his work really visible to us and easy in a sense to read, but also it has a greater impact,” Houghtaling explained. “The way it hits you has real sensuality and then the light that he achieves through very accurate colour. He’s able to form the light across the scene, but then also his ability to intensify the light within each form is quite unique. … This complementary contrast used to exaggerate colour is something that goes right back to the impressionists, but the way Geoff is using it is brilliant.”
Phillips is already working on his next artistic project. He joined the Canada C3 expedition on Oct. 9 as an artist on the penultimate leg of this 150-day expedition from Toronto to Victoria via the Northwest Passage on a Canadian research icebreaker. He will travel along on the ship’s journey from Bella Bella to Campbell River.
“I’m taking a bunch of canvases with me,” he said. “I’m going to draw on them and bring them home and produce my next series of art works. So it’s going to be west coast based. It will be really exciting.”
The exhibition “Plantscapes of the Prairies” will be on display at the Art Gallery of Swift Current until Oct. 29. Exhibition viewing hours are Monday to Thursday, 1-5 p.m. and 7-9 p.m., as well as Friday and Saturday from 1-5 p.m.

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Matthew Liebenberg

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