Philip Carpenter, Scissors, 2015, 28 x 20 inches, color pencils
Philip Carpenter: In Dialogue
with Elise Dismer
Philip Carpenter photo: TW Meyer
Philip Carpenter launched his career as an Atlanta artist in 1978 after moving from Alabama, where he completed his B.F.A in painting and drawing at Auburn University (1972) and his M.F.A. in painting, drawing and printmaking at the University of Alabama (1974). Since 1980, Carpenter has taught painting classes at the Chastain Arts Center in Atlanta while exhibiting his work throughout Georgia. Although he teaches painting, Carpenter’s preferred medium of drawing made him transition to colored pencils around twenty years ago after noting similarities in the processes.
For decades, Carpenter has captivated viewers with his realistic depictions of tools, toys and plants. From exhibitions at the High Museum of Art and the MOCA GA to the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Carpenter’s drawings have developed in complexity of color and concept.
Watching Carpenter work on a drawing in his studio is mesmerizing. With the rhythm of his colored pencil—the light, tight ovals adding depth with each swirl—you feel swayed like a charmed snake. Beneath his hand, gloved in white, a realistic peach practically rolls off the paper.
As a contemporary artist, Carpenter portrays the irony of “the prosaic and the precious,” often combining pop culture icons with traditional still life and portraiture. He also depicts well-used objects, careful to show their wear as a way of “honoring their unknowable histories.”
Philip Carpenter at work video by Daryl White
Elise Dismer: You had three exhibitions this year before Covid-19 shut everything down. The time in quarantine has worn on much of society, with confinements, riots and public dissention. Knowing that you care about portraying the wear of utilitarian objects, do you find yourself trying to depict the wear of the pandemic in some way through your art?
Philip Carpenter: I am particularly glad that the UNCA Drawing Discourse exhibition occurred before the pandemic. I was included for a second year with William Beckman selecting the work this time. My drawing was one of my small botanical studies.
I am overwhelmed and dismayed by our current states of political division and relentless pandemic. I can’t respond directly through my work even though I have strongly felt opinions. I realize that other artists are grappling with important topics like gender and race and I admire their drive. But I don’t think that my strongly felt opinions are unique enough to pursue in my art. For the most part, at the risk of seeming escapist, my recent work has not veered from its path: finding beauty in the ordinary.
Having said that let me immediately contradict myself by saying that I did take some time in the summer to revise a decidedly political 1995 painting of large recognizable political figures from then and now. “Hydra” is my depiction of our endless national nightmare: a multiple-headed beast that regenerates itself eternally. It expresses my dismay about how our situation has only worsened over the 25 years that it took me to finish the painting. To return to this painting I channeled who I was so very long ago and now with my catharsis complete, I have returned to my path.
Philip Carpenter, Amaryllis, 2017, 30 x 24 inches, color pencils
ED: During this unprecedented time, what subject(s) do you feel drawn to the most, and is this a departure from or an extension of your previous interests?
PC: Despite the Sturm und Drang around me, I am still drawn to my meditations on the simple and ordinary. Maybe I and we need a quiet place. I am still most drawn to making portraits of ordinary things, usually utilitarian objects. I hope to honor their often unknowable histories and I hope that for viewers, they evoke memories and associations. Isolating the subject on a page elevates the subject’s status like figurative portraits elevate the status of people. Beyond the subject, I also want to engage viewers with the aesthetic pleasures of color, surface and line.
During the lockdown and the suspension of my teaching, I have had time for diversions. I feel guilty saying that seclusion suits me. Off and on for about thirty years I have painted small portraits of friends and acquaintances with whom I feel commonality. Some are other artists; all are men. They are not for sale and I’m not for hire to paint portraits. I’d like for the portraits to remain together even after I’m gone. They are a last remnant of my figure painting that I otherwise ended twenty years ago when I decided that the drawings are what I do uniquely well.
Philip Carpenter, Paintbrush, 2016, 24 x 20 inches, color pencils
Philip Carpenter, Paintbrush, 2016, 24 x 20 inches, color pencils
ED: Do you feel you can trace your own personal history through your art, the way you can trace the use of a tool through its wear?
PC: I painted people in the 80s and 90s. They were personal in various ways. My paintings in the 80s were scenes of sunlit figures using my friends as models. They were painted with a cool detachment and they were received positively. By the early 90s the paintings had taken a dark turn in response to the mainstreaming of radical right politics and the AIDS epidemic. The paintings were ignored, or worse, they were dismissed and even mocked by Atlanta art writers and no one wanted them. I felt hurt to have revealed myself and been so roundly rejected. I retreated for a few years, devoting myself to my teaching, until my wounds healed. Shifting to the drawings was my way of reinventing myself and re-emerging: I again felt that I existed as an artist. I don’t think of my artwork since then as personal, though I want it to be meaningful to others.
Philip Carpenter, Hatchet, 2016, 24 x 20 inches, color pencil
Philip Carpenter, Yellow Snipper, 2015, 28 x 20 inches, color pencil
Philip Carpenter, Midsummer Orange, 2017, 8 x 6 inches, color pencil
ED: I admire your botanical illustrations, especially for the way you show the roots of each plant. I never considered how unique plants look underground until I saw your collection. What attracts you to botanicals?
PC: The earliest of my flower drawings were conventional still lifes, cut flowers in transparent vases. I did those for a while after my brother and his wife, and even my mother, were planning to buy art by someone else for their homes. I intervened by suggesting that I could create something better. Making them reminded me that I love botanical illustrations of past centuries and I think that sort of presentation is more in keeping with my portrayals of other subjects. I also visited an exhibition of Dürer’s works on paper and came away believing that his nature studies are his best work. This more than anything else encouraged me to pursue them.
Atlanta, Georgia 2020
Philip Carpenter has worked and exhibited in Atlanta since 1978 while teaching painting at Chastain Arts Center. He earned his M.F.A. (1974) in painting, drawing, and printmaking from the University of Alabama (Tuscaloosa AL), and his B.F.A. (1972) in painting and drawing at Auburn University (Auburn AL). Carpenter received a Southern Arts Federation/National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1989 and was a
Hambidge Fellow in 2001.
Elise Dismer is a writer and teacher who lives and works in the Atlanta suburbs.