What Am I Talking About?
THE SET UP:
Like a curtain on Broadway, his lips separate and pull back toward his ears while he confesses, “I’m never, never, never, never gonna be super happy with where I’m at.” Philip Bennett Walker is an Atlantic Beach based artist, more specifically, a painter. I’m in his backyard to film Episode 8 of, “Road Beers”; the show where I ask people why they do what they do.
While we sat at his patio table, Philip told me, “I want to get everything out of me. I hope to leave behind thousands of pieces when my time here is done.” He loves to paint, has something to say, and believes the world is ready to hear it. All he has to do is master his way of saying it. Mastery is inherently unlimited; as long as there are areas to improve on, the person interested in mastery will look to improve on those areas. More important than the thing we do, Philip does art, is the mindset in which we do it. From talking to him, I’d say his mentality is his most valuable asset. As we talked, Philip unknowingly sparked the idea in me that it’s not enough to be a dilettante; no master ever took that route. Let me take you through our conversation.
What stands out instantly in Philip’s backyard is the above ground pool. It’s the coolest one I’ve ever seen. Railroad ties and two-by-fours are molded into steps that completely encase the pool; eliminating the notoriously ugly plastic walls from view. In the summer, the pool becomes an homage to the nine daughters of Zeus, reviving his artistic inspiration one plunge at a time. Next to the pool is a rock waterfall, whose base is filled with colossal goldfish-not Koi fish, goldfish. And of course, there is the small, paint fumy, cluttered shed where Philip does his painting. On the fringe of his property, old, beat-up surfboards lean against the rusty chain-link fence, as Dahliesque wet-suits melt over a clothesline near the outdoor shower. Once I’d gotten a tour of the spot, we popped two Stella’s, sat on his deck, and got down to business. I was antsy to hear his story; he was happy to tell it.
Philip, “always the artistic kid”, of his friend group, grew up designing surfboards and sketching tattoo ideas for friends in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Shy, and slightly embarrassed to show his work, he would paint and draw alone on small canvases or pieces of cardboard, rarely showing anyone. It was easy, and enjoyable, for him to design what other people asked him for. He didn’t like to reveal the pieces he made for himself. His own art was intimate, and meaningful.
At 18 years-old, he realized New Smyrna was not going to help him develop into the person he wanted to be; so he dropped out of high school, packed up what he couldn’t buy again, and moved West to Aspen, Colorado. What Aspen had going for it were the thousands of miles between it and New Smyrna, and the fact that it was void of people that knew him as “the artistic kid.” Better the devil you don’t know than the one you do, he figured.
Half way through our beer, I asked about what jobs he had in Aspen, curious about what options await a guy with no high school diploma. His days were spent trying on costumes; he was a bartender, a golf course staff member, and a furniture store employee, among myriad other things. He said, “My backup plan was always art; my first plan was whatever job I was doing. The older I got, and the more serious I got about my jobs, the more I was discovering that I didn’t like them, and how much I wanted to become who I always thought I could be as an artist.” That’s what you want to know. We view ourselves as works in progress; trying to master the ideal version of our life that plays out in our head. We are not always who we want to be.
Even though he took the courageous first step of moving to Aspen, and was motivated to pursue art, it took 20 years for Philip to really commit to it. He just started painting full time last year, at 38 years old. No solid paying job could get rid of his gut feeling that he wasn’t being true to himself.
Stuck between feeling embarrassed, and too personally revealed by his art, Philip spent those years in Aspen working on his artistic skills and ideas alone. Slowly, through “art parties” he had at his apartment, he began showing and selling some of his art. 8’x11’ pieces selling for $20 was how he started becoming the artist he always thought he could be.
Careers in painting and professional tennis are similar in the sense that it takes more than a couple “big wins” to forge a profitable career. I’ve beaten players ranked in the world’s top 300, yet I still play matches in near obscurity in Azerbaijan with a ranking in the 1,300’s. Philip, similarly, has had his art in galleries and shows all over the United States for years, yet he’s still pushing to get his name out there every day. Finally though, his biggest win arrived.
While working at the, “fine home furnishings store” in Aspen, Philip pitched himself to a buyer. A woman came into the store looking for furniture to put in some galleries she had just bought. Like a shark smelling blood in the water, Philip could sense the money this woman was just waiting to spend on the right thing, and he wanted it to land in his own pockets.
So he told her he was an artist who could produce better art than what she was showing in her galleries. She gave him until the end of the week, before she flew home to Atlanta, to prove himself. Every night that week was spent creating 8’x11’ pieces to show her. He had no art to his name yet; every piece he showed her was an original.
She loved his style, and gave him a month to create as much art as he could; she wanted to fly him to Atlanta and feature his work in her gallery. All but one piece was sold on the trip, and his mindset began to shift. Finally he had shown his work and been rewarded for it. Although this big moment was not monetarily life changing, it showed him that he had “the goods.”
When we went inside for our second beer, I walked into Philip’s dining room; a quasi storage room for some of his finished, but not yet sold, pieces. On the nearest wall, as if in an old fashioned duel, two cowboys draw their guns in the foreground, as a faded, grey version of Times Square sets the background. On the opposite wall, against a solid, gunmetal grey canvas, an army tank filled with sun-faded bright colors, patterned with straight lines stands alone; going nowhere, but ready to roll.
Then, most powerfully, on the ground leaning against the wall, there is a sorrowful, multi-colored elephant whose body is cut in half at the torso by the edge of the canvas. It has a neon red head, and a light blue body which both pop off the midnight blue background. On its torso is a bright white peace sign, cut in half by the edge of the canvas, which instantly draws our eyes attention. Nothing says, “we’re almost the society we want to be”, like half a peace sign. On Instagram, Philip posted this picture, and captioned it with, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” That combination of words and imagery is about as overtly political as Philip gets.
Most of his art has bright colors, straight lines, and some kind of movement. Sometimes that movement is portrayed through animals; sometimes it’s Princess Leia from Star Wars with “HOPE” tattooed on her forearm as she holds an assault rifle. Still other times it’s a tie-dye ship with nowhere to go.
To me, Philip’s messages are clear and constant. Animal lives matter. Preserving our environment matters. And that war shouldn’t have to be one of our options for solving a conflict today. When I asked about the meaning behind his pieces, he said that he, “just likes to paint”, and leaves the interpretation of his work for the person interpreting it. He knows people will come up with their own ideas about his pieces, but claims that most of their ideas are really just their own and have nothing to do with what he actually paints.
At Royal Palms Tapas Bar, where we had dinner after our interview, he showed me a piece of his that was hanging on the wall; it was his rendition of the British band, “The Smiths”, 1985 album cover. The band used a picture of a frail looking soldier with the words, “Meat is murder”, written on his helmet; imagine the world’s worst headshot. Philip turned the soldier’s face into the face of a robot, and kept the writing on his helmet. I guessed that the painting was a critique on soldiers, and how they’re mindless robots incapable of making their own decisions; and of course that “meat is murder” was a nod to his theme that animal lives matter. Philip told me that for a long time he had wanted to switch out human faces for robot faces; he thought that imagery was cool. To actually do that, Philip said, required that the human face have certain dimensions; the Smith’s cover art just happened to have the right dimensions. I didn’t buy it, but he said he doesn’t even like the Smith’s. He likes to paint, leaving people like me to interpret his work how we will.
A person’s desire to improve typically runs out long before their potential has been reached. Philip is not one of those people; it took 20 years, and countless hours of contemplating whether or not he should bail on his dream of being an artist, for him to finally create a firm artistic style of his own.
Philip will tell you, “Selling art is a blessing, and I’m happy the person likes the piece. But at the same time, I see a million little flaws in it that I want to get right on the next one.” His livelihood depends on the sale of his art for money, regardless of how his inner artist views it.
It’s not for everyone, the mentality Philip harbors; it keeps him motivated and creative, but also denies him the feeling to true “arrival”, as an artist, in his own head. This inner tumultuousness his thought process creates is what makes him think he will, “never, never, never, never be super happy,” but it’s also what pushed him through those 20 years of painting alone in his room, and got him to where he is now. Without the up and downside of this “mastery” mindset, who knows if he would still be loading trucks at the furniture store in Aspen.
For Philip, the intrigue of being a painter lies in one day producing that ultimate piece. That one piece that displays both his full mastery of art, and the full expression of the man he is. He’s still trying to become the person that young tattoo sketcher once imagined 20 years ago in New Smyrna Beach, so that final piece is on the way.