“I have known Steve and Carolyn Phillips since my college days. They are both the exceptional and the exceptions. They are life partners, and both work in metals. They breathe, eat and live art. Carolyn works in her studio inside their beautiful dome home, which Steve built, and Steve works in his workshop separate from the house. Carolyn works in fine metals, mostly silver with intricate, original jewelry design; Steve sculpts imaginatively with mild and stainless steel. They are prolific artists who continue to pursue pushing their ideas and media.” Just like their art, they are inspiring to be around.” You can see more of their work at the www.studio47designs.com website.
Brian: You have both been doing art a long time. Let’s start there…how long?
Carolyn: I graduated from Indiana State University in 1969. I immediately started teaching after college. I taught in the Shakamak School District grades one through eight for three years but I had a desire to teach high school. I went back to ISU to get my graduate degree, then taught at Van Buren High School and, following consolidation, at Northview High School. We have been exhibiting and selling work at street fairs and art festivals for 30 years. In 2004, I retired from teaching and started doing art full-time.
Steve: I started out in Industrial Design at Indiana State University, but changed my major to art and sculpture. I liked to draw, but Industrial Design was too rigid for me, and art just felt better to me. After graduating, I farmed, drove a school bus for a while and started building dome homes. I built around 100 dome homes. I went to Ivy Tech to improve upon my welding skills and also attended the San Francisco Art Institute in San Francisco for two summers. Once I had mastered my welding skills, I was able to make my ideas turn into what I visualized them to be.
Brian: Who influenced you in your earlier years?
Carolyn: Miriam Brentlinger was my high school art teacher. She was so encouraging and knowledgeable. In college it was Robert Montgomery, Leroy Lamis, John Laska, Dick Hay, David Churces and John Cooper.
Steve: I had basic art classes in high school, but I was most influenced by the art professors at Indiana State University like Leroy Lamis, John Cooper, Jim Sampson and Dick Hay.
Brian: Who or what influences you now?
Carolyn: I guess I am most influenced now by Steve. We constantly bounce ideas off of each other. We talk about art all of the time and the business of art, which is something I never thought I would get into.
Steve: The other thing though is doing the art fair circuit you just see everybody’s designs, impressions and opinions of everything. Over a course of a year we see several hundred artists. Some we are good friends and others we only see once a year.
Brian: What are the differences between selling at art fairs and displaying in a gallery?
Steve:. If you are going to be in the art fair business and if you are going to make a living at it, then you have to decide how you are going to balance your work. You are going to want some things that will sell, but then for me, I have those pieces that I do that are pretty dependable things that I will sell some quantity of and then the big sculptural pieces I do for myself. I have been fortunate to sell several of those over the years. If you are going to depend on this for your income then you have to modify your approach. You can’t go after it with the attitude that “everyone likes my art.”
Carolyn: It’s amazing how many artists are out there trying to make a living. Occasionally, we run across a young artist who is trying to get into the business and they are still doing the wild teapot for example, but no one will buy their work. I try to tell them they have to make a decision. If they want to go into that direction their business plan has to change and they should be looking at selling their work in galleries.
Steve: You can find places to sell that type of work, but there are definite obstacles. It costs more to sell your work in larger cities and the competition is a lot greater because there are more fine artists selling their art. So, it can be done, but you just have to be aware of how to go about it. You have to get your courage up and be thick skinned enough to take your art into the galleries, and if they say no, you just have to get up and go see what the next one thinks of your work.
Carolyn: For art fairs you sometimes have to compromise what you create and you need to develop a line of work that is sellable. What we do to appease ourselves is to keep pumping new designs into that, not just doing a product. We see artists who develop a product that sells and they repeat it over and over again, year after year. They become a factory.
Steve: If you don’t want to go on the road to sell your work, then you are going to have to go through a gallery. The gallery will take a percentage. You have to decide between giving up a percentage and going on the road and put up with the travel, the weather and the set up. We chose to do this and it has its challenges, but we get all of the revenue.
Carolyn: We didn’t go the gallery direction because you have to be good at self-promotion and we’re not very good self-promoters. We have artist friends who are excellent self-promoters and they can get themselves into galleries and get the big commission work. While not for us, we are able to make a connection at the art fairs on a one-to-one basis, because we are excited about making what we make. I think that people who go to art fairs are buying a connection with the artist. They remember you when they look at it or wear it.
Brian: Tell me about how you work.
Carolyn: In March of 2003 I became a certified instructor of Art Clay Silver, and I have been working with it almost exclusively since then. The tactile nature of metal clay allows my hands to be the primary tools for creating organic forms with intricate textures. I was trained in the traditional metalworking of construction, soldering, forging, raising and casting. For me, metal clay is a more versatile and direct way of creating jewelry. The creative possibilities are endless.
Steve: I use a plasma torch to hand cut original designs from steel plate, stainless steel and reclaimed metals. I create sculptural and functional metalwork for the home and garden. The metal itself is often the major influence as to the direction my work will take. I don’t work in the same way found object artists do. I am more influenced by the surfaces, colors and shapes of what is available from the salvage yard where I get my metal. I give the old metal a completely new life and purpose, charged by my imagination. I like working large. Larger sculptures take on their own presence and impose themselves on the space where they are placed.
Brian: What’s it like to be an artist and being married to an artist?
Carolyn: Sometimes I’ll ask about a piece and he’ll have a suggestion on a solution, and I will see it as a long way around or a more complicated solution, and I’ll think, “no I don’t want to do that, I’ll just do it the way I thought about it in the first place.” I do appreciate being able to talk to him and for him to understand what it is that I’m after.
Brian: The two of you work in different media, and you have separate studios. Are you influenced by each other?
Steve: Not really, because when I fabricate pieces, I work in hard, flat sheets and large sculptures.
Carolyn: Well, except for the sculpture with the bracelet.
Steve: Carolyn’s jewelry is all clay-based and her work is much more flowing and fluid. So the styles don’t interchange very easily. When we look at things from each other it usually from a design standpoint. Does it look better this way or is it better to do this? I have been working on a series of figures that I started last year and we have been playing with some things together. One of the large figurative pieces, ”Glenda,” has a bracelet that is out of quarter-inch steel. It is heavy but it has glass beads in it.
Carolyn: He comes in and gets glass beads out of my studio. Recently, I asked Steve if I could use one of his figures called “Ard” in my jewelry and he said sure. I made three necklaces with “Ard” on them and put them in a show in Louisville next to the cash register in Steve’s booth. Some of our friends came in and said, “you’re selling jewelry in your sculpture booth!”
Brian: So you have to have two booths when you go to the shows?
Carolyn: Oh yes, we have double entry fees, double booths and two tents because we are two separate categories.
Steve: That’s why the big red trailer is out there.
Carolyn: It’s a lot of work and sometimes it rains when you tear down. That’s the part I didn’t investigate when I said, “let’s do art fairs.” When I first started, it was just a card table with a tablecloth. But now, when you send in your booth picture, it is supposed to look like a gallery.
Steve: When you go into the big city markets how you present your work really comes into play. And, they can be very competitive. You have to go through a juried process, and it includes how you are going to display the work. It’s an interesting business. You don’t know your work schedule. You don’t ever know what your income is going to be, but we just keep going back and doing it.
Carolyn: Steve built display cases that are open for my jewelry, and you can touch the pieces and see the prices. Many jewelers display their work under glass and you can’t touch the jewelry. I think that is what sells my work because people can touch the pieces.
Steve: I use a steel grid wall to hang pieces because they are so heavy and I will always try to have two to three freestanding pieces. It takes three to four hours to set up.
Carolyn: And most people don’t understand that we pay to be there and we were judged to be there.