Whimsy in bronze

Remembering Philadelphia sculptor John N. Phillips

5 minute read
Germantown’s John Phillips was a sculptor like no other. (Photo by Gina Michaels.)
Germantown’s John Phillips was a sculptor like no other. (Photo by Gina Michaels.)

John N. Phillips left his mark all over the city: in the fountain on the east plaza of the Philadelphia Museum of Art; in the gilded bronze Joan of Arc statue on Kelly Drive; in an exterior balustrade at North Philly’s Church of the Advocate.

Phillips, a Germantown sculptor who died last month, didn’t create those sites and statues. But for decades, he was the go-to guy—in Philadelphia and beyond—when fountains, building facades, or statuary needed conservation or repair.

For the American Philosophical Society, he recast the larger-than-life marble statue of a toga-draped Benjamin Franklin in a more weather-resistant polyester-reinforced fiberglass. He designed and fabricated an attachment system for the base of bronze lions (one awake, one asleep) in front of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.


Phillips was also a poet, a photographer, and a longtime University of the Arts teacher. He described his own sculpture as “wild, informed, plodding-ecstatic meditations in silicon bronze, aluminum, ductile iron, clay, plaster and plastics made any which way I could.”

In 1982, he started Phillips Casting as a decorative-molding restoration business. Today the foundry occupies a former machine shop in Germantown, a vast, high-ceilinged space filled with welding and casting equipment, brushes and gloves, armatures and jars of patina.

Phillips lived in the adjacent apartment with his wife, sculptor Gina Michaels. When he died on February 20, he left poems, paintings, photographs, bronze busts, a series of vertical totems—a body of work that speaks of both mastery and playfulness, the creations of an artist so certain of his technique that he could render 2,200-degree molten bronze into whimsical collages.

The first take

“In his work, there was always a sense of immediacy and spontaneity,” says Michaels, who credits Phillips with teaching her the technique of open-sand casting—essentially, pouring liquified metal into molds, freehand, in a bed of sand.

Fresh metal: Gina Michaels (left) and John Phillips work together on open-sand casting. (Photo courtesy of Gina Michaels.)
Fresh metal: Gina Michaels (left) and John Phillips work together on open-sand casting. (Photo courtesy of Gina Michaels.)

“He liked the first take. He didn’t spend a lot of time revising. For photography, he was very good at composing in the frame. And the sculpture was all about engagement with materials and what comes out of that. Nothing was fussy. Everything was very fresh.”

Phillips started out as a writer, then studied sculpture and casting techniques at Fleisher Art Memorial in the 1970s. Later, he apprenticed at the Johnson Atelier Technical Institute of Sculpture. He taught mold-making and casting at the University of the Arts from 1988 to 2016.

Devotional and irreverent

Paige Miller studied with him, then worked with Phillips and Michaels after she graduated from UArts in 2014. What she learned from Phillips is how deeply experimentation is rooted in a thorough knowledge of technique, and how planning and play can merge in a work of art.

In Phillips’s totems, for instance, bronze replicas of familiar toys—a Barbie figure with a blood-red patina, a xylophone with keys in rainbow shades—are collaged into a column that feels both devotional and irreverent.

Phillips studied Buddhism, maintained a meditation practice, and led a study group for the Natural Dharma Fellowship. Michaels says the totems, with their human figures climbing and reaching, “are very clearly about spiritual progress.”

The blobologist

As an artist and a person, Phillips embodied contradictions: generous and stubborn, disorganized and diligent. Sometimes he called himself a “blobologist” who would scrape bronze spatters from the floor and form them into something new.

One of those pieces, Lady of the Foundry Room Floor, is composed entirely of such blobs, welded into an abstract, dynamic figure, the metal evoking both fluidity and strength, the title more than a little tongue-in-cheek.

Fresh metal: Gina Michaels (left) and John Phillips work together on open-sand casting. (Photo courtesy of Gina Michaels.)
Fresh metal: Gina Michaels (left) and John Phillips work together on open-sand casting. (Photo courtesy of Gina Michaels.)

No calls back

His restoration work included repairs to a nine-foot Alberto Giacometti sculpture, Grande Femme Debout I, which resided in the foundry for six months while Phillips figured out how to straighten the figure’s posture and redo someone else’s botched attempt at a fix. When the Giacometti left, the Rocky statue arrived, needing a new, reinforced mounting system so it wouldn’t collapse when tourists climbed on it.

“We went from the sublime to the ridiculous,” Michaels says. But no matter the restoration job, “he never once got a call back saying, ‘This faded, that cracked, or this fell off.' He was so conscientious about making sure what he did was structurally sound and safe.”

His last restoration, at the Church of the Advocate in 2017 and 2018, involved climbing several flights of scaffolding in the middle of winter, shoveling snow off the balustrade, and keeping rubber molds warm with space heaters so the material would set. Phillips had already been through chemotherapy for prostate cancer, but the complicated, multistage restoration “got him strong again,” Michaels says.

Beyond the craft

Miller worked with him on that project, as well as on a solo retrospective exhibition at Germantown’s iMPeRFeCT Gallery last November. As they cast the totems with their toy figurines, learning by trial and error how to make patina that would give bronze a purple hue, Miller says she gleaned lessons that went beyond craft.

“He wasn’t selfish at all,” she says. “If he taught you something, then you might be able to go off with that and teach him something.”

At 72, Phillips was still learning: about Buddhism, about history, about his own reasons for creating art. Whether in poetry, photography, or sculpture, he wrote, "My principal goal throughout is the realization of the human. . . . Another critical concern for all my art is spontaneity . . . based on years of study and practice of the different forms . . . not letting it get overblown, but at the same time making sure to play it as it comes. And making sure my art doesn’t fall over and injure somebody."

What, When, Where

A public memorial celebration for John Phillips will be held on Sunday, April 7, at 4pm at Germantown Friends Meeting, 47 West Coulter Street, Philadelphia.

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