Clarksville man carrying on brother’s legacy through art
NEW ALBANY—Clarksville artist Derek Phillips, 34, started painting about a year and a half ago when his older brother died. That night, he created his first piece with watercolors, and since then, his artwork has become a major part of his life.
“I needed an outlet, basically,” he said. “I liked the way it turned out, so I painted another, and then another and then another.”
Derek’s first art exhibition opened Saturday at Cafe 157/Chestnuts and Pearls on East Main Street in New Albany. The show, called “Curative Compositions,” will run until Nov. 16.
His brother, Alan, was the true artist in the family, he said, and he is now trying to carry on that legacy in his own style. His brother mainly created charcoal sketches, but Derek says he doesn’t have much skill with drawing. Instead, he creates acrylic paintings on canvas, including abstract pour paintings.
His brother died at 35 after struggling with alcoholism, and when Derek first started painting, it helped him find some relief from the pain caused by Alan’s death. He said he frequently thinks of his brother while working on his pieces. Derek prefers to remember what Alan was like before his issues with addiction.
He said as he started painting, he realized that he could turn something negative into something positive.
Although he painted a little in high school, his artistic ambitions didn’t really take off until recently. He frequently pours acrylic paint on a canvas to create abstract images with contrasting colors, but he also paints some traditional pieces.
Before Derek started painting, he had studied programming, but he knew it wasn’t the right fit for him. Now, he is trying to turn his artwork into a small business.
Derek is self-taught, and he often watches instructional videos by artists such as Bob Ross to learn various techniques. He was educated by “YouTube University,” he says.
Still, he adds his own style to each thing he paints, even when he is following a tutorial, he said. He likes to use dark colors in his paintings, and his favorite subjects to depict in his traditional pieces include candles, trees and clouds.
Derek’s wife, Sarah Phillips, usually helps him name his paintings. She describes what she sees in the painting, as well as what she thinks he is trying to express, she said.
For example, one of his abstract pour paintings, “Rainbow Galaxy,” is a vibrant painting filled with shades of blue and purple that reminds her of a nebula. Another that she named “Fire and Brimstone” is a fiery, marble-like composition of black, white and orange.
Linda Williams, Chestnuts and Pearls owner, said she is impressed with Derek’s acrylic pouring.
“With his pouring, you can see that’s it not an accident, really,” she said. “He is letting gravity and the colors do their thing, but he is actually putting a lot of effort in it as well by his color choices and by the time that he takes to do it — it is a thought-out process.”
Derek paints just about every day in his one-bedroom apartment, causing their home to look like an art studio, Sarah said.
“It’s been nice to see him actually start from this complete amateur beginner and just be dabbling with different things and experimenting with what he likes and then graduating from that,” she said. “He has steadily gotten better and better … I feel like he has really found his style as he’s gone along.”
Derek has a condition called aphantasia, which means he is unable to voluntarily produce mental imagery.
“For example, if you ask me to describe what my mom looks like, I can’t do it,” he said. “There are certain things I can recall from sheer memory, like I can tell you she has brown hair and I can tell you she has white skin. These are things that you can memorize. I’m not able to tell you these things because I can visualize them.”
This condition creates some tension as he creates his paintings, he said.
“Every painting I do, honestly, it’s almost as anxiety-inducing as it is anxiety-relieving,” he said. “It’s like you have two different hemispheres of your brain that are competing over which one is going to win out. Is it more anxious, or is it more curative?
However, painting has become a useful outlet for Derek as he struggles with anxiety. It’s the most effective therapy he’s found, he said.
“You have a big, tangled web of synapses and neurons in any given brain, and they’re all arranged in seemingly random yet intricate ways,” he said. “Whenever you put something on paper or on canvas, it’s like you’re aligning those synapses in the way that you want them to be. It’s like a way of focusing that scarred or pristine psyche that whoever’s on the other end of that brush has. It helps to give things form.”
Usually, Derek uses his paintings to capture random ideas that come into his head. He has painted one line at a time to see how one leads to another, he said.
As he creates his pour paintings, there are some elements he has some control over, but it’s really up to gravity and chemistry, he said. His artwork is an “adventure in turning mistakes into successes” he wrote in an artist biography.
“Behind every brush stroke and underneath every pour there is a conflict between what my mind desires to immortalize and what my own limitations will allow,” he wrote. “Sometimes that means trying to get every detail perfect, sometimes that means deferring to the power of physics while I wait anxiously to see what fate will manifest when you give it a gentle nudge.”