Germantown: Artists of the Furnace

Phillips creates wax molds in this room.]

John Phillips has been a part of Philadelphia’s landscape for 30 years, but his work is best when you never know he was there. From working on the Washington Monument and Rocky statue in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to The Great Mother and The Great Doctor at the High School of the Future, Phillips has been using his molten metal expertise to restore the hallmarks of the city we take for granted.
Phillips creates wax molds in this room.

His partner at Philips Casting and wife, Gina Michaels, sculpted the bear claw necklace for a Native American in the Washington Monument, which until recently was only a disk on the statue’s chest. Phillips also remade the seven-foot-tall Benjamin Franklin statue above the doorway of the American Philosophical Society. “The marble had disintegrated over the years because of the acid rain. It looked like it was turning into a lollipop and it was melting,” Phillips said. He filled in details of the enormous original with clay, made a mold and cast a copy in polyester resin and fiberglass.

Phillips has had an interesting road to his fiery career. His sculpture ranges from the humorous, as with Joe Bubblegum, a bust made of chewing gum that somehow evokes the hopeful dreamer, to the surreal, like Monument to the Intangible, one of those amorphous sculptures you stare at for five minutes trying to understand.

Phillips' assistant lights the furnace.

In the 1960s Phillips ditched a stint as a biology major at Temple University for his first love: art. He met other artists at Temple, including a draft dodger determined to create a poetry masterpiece. “This fed into my photography, this fed into my painting…I was in this mix of art which I loved intensely,” Phillips said.

At the advice of a friend’s father, Phillips began art lessons at the Fleischer Art Memorial, the free art school in South Philadelphia founded in 1898 where he later worked as a student teacher. “They had top-notch teachers there…men and women who really knew what art was all about, and they loved it. Profound love of art and people there,” Phillips said.

Phillips earned his foundry experience at the Johnson Atelier, a division of the Sculpture Foundation Studio that trains artisans to create metal sculptures from an artist’s vision. Beginning as an apprentice in 1979 for $2.50 an hour, Phillips said, “If you were a sculptor it was like being in a Candyland.” He went on to teach foundry, and is now a master lecturer at The University of the Arts. “Whatever you practice is what you know,” Phillips said.

Michaels assembles a new hand plant sculpture, which she later welds and colors with a patina.

Gina Michaels developed her signature motif of splicing human and plant anatomy at a sand casting party Phillips held at sculptor Isaac Witkin’s studio in the late 1990s. Inspired by a theater improvisation class, Michaels pressed her hands into the sand. “We poured it…I turned it over, and I was totally blown away. And my work completely changed. It had such impact. It was so direct,” Michaels said.

Michaels specializes in large-scale hand plants where human hands and feet act as leaves and roots. Her sculptures, which reach up to 10 feet, are installed in potting squares with gravel to complete the effect. The two utilize open sand casting, an ancient technique which makes their work oddly modern. The molds are sand, bentonite clay, and water. Because the specific gravity of the sand is higher than that of the molten bronze, the metal sits on top and holds its shape. Though people have used some form of sand casting since the Bronze Age, sculptures at Phillips Casting are a great departure from the mounted soldiers you see around the city.

Until the middle of the last century, Michaels explained, bronze statues were made from a soft alloy and hammered together with sleeves and hollow tubes. There was no welding and the process allowed for little spontaneity.

In the early 20th century artists like Julio Gonzalez and David Smith used oxy-fuel welding and cutting to fabricate sculptures from rods and beams. With open sand casting, Michaels and Phillips can create a variety of textures and surfaces.

More variety comes with the use of patinas, chemical compounds which fuse color onto the pieces. Red feathers on a bird are achieved with iron patinas, and blue and green from copper compounds. This means their pieces have some of the flexibility of sculpting in clay, a highly unusual trait of metal sculpture.

Michaels and Phillips try to be good to the environment by reusing clay, green electricity, and often spare bronze. “Bronze is an infinitely recyclable material,” Michaels said, “In the end…over time, nobody wants this stuff, they can chop it all up and use it for something else. I’ve had a good time.”]

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