A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I were invited to a meet-and-greet for a Baltimore City Council candidate, hosted at the home of a woman I didn’t know named Phyllis Brent. Miriam, the friend who invited us, told us that walking into Phyllis’ house for the first time would be a very special experience. The evening would be a twofer: art as well as city politics. Miriam was 100% accurate about the impact that first entry into Phyllis’ house had. It was like walking into Kubla Khan’s pleasure dome, although more accurate comparisons fail me. A few thousand words follow, so I will save a thousand with a picture:
The kitchen was even more jaw-dropping.
After the City Council candidate’s presentation (we now have her lawn sign planted in front of our house), I found myself delivering an impromptu exposition to another guest about the journey the eye and brain take when sorting out the patterns and variations on the patterns that Phyllis put into her work, which is what makes a design something you can’t walk away from. I particularly noticed and admired the way Phyllis had repurposed used materials for aesthetic effect. When I asked her where her inventive recycling had come from, she told me that in the little Virginia town where she had spent her early years “there were three kinds of people: rich white people, poor white people, and poor black people”, and as members of the third category, her father used to cart away the things the rich white people were discarding and she and her siblings would have first crack at them.
When I was getting ready for bed that night, the images of Phyllis’ house kept replaying on the back of my retinas, and I realized she and I have a similar approach to design in our respective media. I had to come back to talk to her about how she creates her art and how she became the artist she is. I visited her a few days later and recorded part of our long conversation, which I have edited for clarity and from which I have excerpted the parts pertaining to how she does what she does, her artistic influences, and her learning style. She told me when we were setting up our meeting that our mutual friend Miriam had mentioned that I had used trimmings from their community garden as dyestuff, so I brought my current work-in-progress, most of which is knitted from yarn I had dyed from plants I found or was given as trimmings. She referred to it several times during our conversation.
Abby: How much do you plan your work? First of all, when did you make all of this beautiful mosaic work?
Phyllis: My granddaughter must have been about 5 or 6. Now she’s 23.
A: So you did it about 20 years ago?
P: I guess. I never thought about it, actually. I put canvas or paper or something on the floor. I bought the tile at a place called Hechingers, and it was $23 for a whole box of tile. I bought it with no idea of what I was going to do with it.
A: The blue or the terracotta?
P: The terracotta. And she would sit on the floor and crack the tile with a little hammer and give it to me, and I would put it up there. I didn’t have any plans for it, it just happened.
A: So you had the grout, is that what it is? And you just put it on…
P: I didn’t grout it, I glued it on. I think it was Liquid Nails, I don’t know what it was, and then I just stuck it on. Whatever piece she gave me, I found a place to stick it, and then I put the grout on and it dried. We had a good time, and now she has lots of videos on YouTube on how to do your kitchen, and how to do this, how to do that.
A: And she learned it from you when she was a little child sitting on the floor.
P: It was familiar to her… She and her partner are minimalists.
A: You’re not a minimalist. You’re a maximalist.
P: But they decorate. I don’t decorate. I just… like, you’re not decorating that jacket, you’re building it out of the colors you love, right?
A: I’m building it out of the colors that go from one place to another place that make a progression and that contrast with the other set of colors.
P: But you use a whole bunch of other colors. I do the same thing. And [her granddaughter and her partner] don’t do things like that. [Phyllis digresses, but the point is she finds minimalism ugly.] She took all of my best paintings. I took some classes to learn how to do that Flemish painting, that does the leaves and the bugs. I turned out to be really good at it.
A: You mean the ones that have symbolism in them…
P: You know, the leaves that look like leaves and the water that looks like water…
A: And lots of symbolism that all means death?
P: Well, if it does, I didn’t know a thing about it. This woman was teaching us how, she said, it’s not hard. A lot of people like that Flemish style, with the bugs on the fruit…
A: Right, well, it all means death.
P: Well, I didn’t know that. Anyhow, I learned how to do it, and when my marriage broke up, I was really into it… and I just fell apart. I just stopped doing it. And I haven’t done any since. I promised [my granddaughter] I was going to do one with the dog but I’m not going to do it now.
A: So you don’t do any planning, you just fit things into spaces?
A: So that one up there that has these long strips [of blue tile]…
P: Well, no, I broke [indistinct] I like to put it in there, I like that, what country uses these arches?
A: That’s Middle Eastern, like Persia…
P: Well, I like that, that was something I like so I just made it. I don’t do any planning. It just happens. I see this, I like that, and I just do it. Just like you would meet somebody from some reservation or someplace in Africa and they are doing beautiful pots of something. Just do it. But you have to let yourself be OK with… Because I didn’t do this for a long time because I thought I had to do it right. And right is whatever comes out.
A: So you have your spaces and you’re just putting things into spaces…
A: …and you have an idea, like, you have two similar lines there… [I’m referring to the pair of column-like blue tiling, contrasting with the terracotta tiling the wall, to set off the entryway from the living room to the dining room.]
P: There are so many things, if you do a lot of looking in books, you see a lot of things from a lot of people in the whole world, and they stay in your mind. And when you start doing things, patterns come to you and you just do it.
A: One of the things I’m really loving is that you use a lot of stuff that has already been used. I want you to tell me about how you learned to be resourceful.
P: Well, first of all, it was poverty. I grew up on my grandmother’s farm, well it wasn’t a farm, it was a farmette. They had a house and they had fields, and they grew all kinds of vegetables. They had a cow I think, and I know they had horses. I guess. I don’t remember. Anyhow, when you’re very poor… did you see the new show at the Jewish Museum where they had all this recycled…
A: Oh, I missed that! [Actually I didn’t, the exhibition will be in place until 26 April 2020. We have a date to see it together.]
P: When you don’t have money, or you’re excluded from society, you just automatically put things together. Why did the Indians use buffalo skins to make coats out of? Because that was available to them! You use what is available, and just because you don’t have money to go to Bloomingdales to buy a dress doesn’t mean that you can’t have a dress, and have a beautiful dress. It comes out of the need for things. Or just the desire to create. It was sort of drilled into me. They people I lived with lived through the Depression. I was born at the end of it in ’41, but they lived through the Depression and they were very poor, so if they wanted a coat or a blanket, they had to take pieces and make a blanket. And they may have covered it in pretty flour bags with colors and things so it became pretty. Life used to be a cottage industry. Everybody did what they could with what they had. And that’s what I did… I didn’t want to go to work and leave my children. I had a mother and my husband wanted a home, so being an artist was perfect. I knew how to make things pretty. I didn’t have to go to the store and buy it.
A: So you used what you had. You used your brain and made it pretty. When did you start doing mosaics?
P: I don’t know, 20, 25 years ago.
[We talk for a while about other subjects, and then I bring the topic back to Phyllis’ artistic influences.]
P: The Persian stuff, the Middle Eastern stuff, I love that!
A: Is that where the blue comes from?
P: No, I think the blue comes from… I don’t know where the blue comes from. I like blue!
A: Blue is very Islamic.
P: It is? See, I don’t have the education to know all about the cultures and things.
A: It’s a color that’s used a lot in the famous mosques.
P: Really? I didn’t know that because I’ve never been there. I’ve never been anywhere in the East. Charlie [a stained glass artist who was her partner after her marriage ended] and I went to Italy because I was in love with Italian paintings of the Madonna and I wanted to learn how to do it. And I did! I learned how to prepare the canvas and do the whole nine yards.
A: Did you take some training there?
P: No. Just went and looked. But what I really liked in the end was the Ethiopian iconography.
A: That’s very early Christian, from the very beginning of Christianity.
P: It’s so simple. They had a nice show somewhere, I think it was the museum over here [Baltimore Museum of Art}. I guess it was Ethiopian iconography they had borrowed from other museums. It was a long time ago.
A: Do you go to museums much?
P: Not anymore. My husband and I used to go every month, maybe twice a month. We would go to Washington, and I would go to whatever museum I want to go to. He was a marathon runner, so he would run. He didn’t care for the museums. Then we’d meet at the National Gallery and we’d have lunch, and then we’d come home. Then Charlie and I got together. He loved the museums, we used to go everywhere together! I used to go a lot. And when I was a kid, I never had any friends as a kid, and I used to get up on Saturday mornings and go around to the museums (in New York City) and galleries and looking at things. I’ve always done that. It was just normal for me.
A: What are your favorite kinds of art and your favorite painters? Who stays in your brain?
P: Well, they change over the years. I never cared much for the ones I was supposed to like. They were nice, but they never rang any bells with me. Right now, it’s Chagall, not so much his painting as his stained glass. And I like Lucien Freud. I went up twice [to New York] to see the show. It was a long time ago. He was a terrible person.
A: So many of them were.
P: Terrible. Terrible!
A: I’m sorry to hear that. Just look at the pictures.
P: Who else do I like? I like some of Georgia O’Keefe. Of course I like Van Gogh. And Gaugin. I like Matisse. I don’t really have… I just like things. Sometimes I like this one or that one.
A: Did you plan out the “Lick the Spoon” tiling?
P: I saw that in some book, and I thought, I will do that too. So that’s what I did.
A: Did you measure out the space for each letter? So that you could control the size and shape of each letter?
P: I did, in my head. I’m very good at measurement. I don’t really need a ruler for most things. I saw that and I thought it was such a good…you know, that saying, seize the day? Down in my grotto downstairs I have written on the wall “Seize the day!” I always thought it was wonderful. Like “Lick the Spoon!”
A: And you have a tile that says what’s most important is imagination. Not so much training. [See the yellow tile just above the “Lick The Spoon” tiling.]
P: I think it was Einstein who said that. And imagination is everything! That’s your life, that’s who you are.
A: It’s nice to know some stuff.
P: Wherever your imagination takes you, you will go there and you will learn. Just like you didn’t go to nursing school or whatever…
A: Art school. Or nursing school.
P: I meant, to do this [the knitting project I brought with me]. One thing led to another.
A: I tried not to be too consciously influenced, but I saw for a second once, in a painting by Klimt, it had all of these brown squares on a yellow background and vice versa, and I knew I was going to use that. I tried to avoid [the painting] ever since so that I could take that thing at the back of my head and make it go my own way.
P: Well, that’s what I’m struggling with now. You know Chagall’s windows? The blue ones? His paintings never did anything for me in my whole life.
A: The paintings are a lot like the stained glass, aren’t they?
P: Oh, no, no, no, nothing like the stained glass.
A: No? Well, the stained glass windows have the light to make them turn into magic.
B: But he uses a lot of blue, and he didn’t use a lot of blue in the paintings. Not the kind of blue that’s in his windows.
A: That’s because they have light behind them.
P: Yes, but he does red windows… I don’t know, they’re just color. And he sticks in other colors. It’s nothing like European stained glass in the cathedrals. Right now I want to do a little one, just to see, just to use the color. I’m not going to use any leading. I’m not going to put the lead around. He did painting on the glass, and he used acid to pull off the colors and things like that. I can’t do all that because I don’t even know how or even where to start. But it’s in my mind, I can see it, like you said you could see it in your mind. It’s in my mind. I can see the blue.
[Long discussion of where she gets scraps of glass and salvage for her stained glass work. Then we talked about gardening a bit, and then I started talking about math for some reason.]
A: … I like the spacial and numerical relationships between…
P: I would never be able to do that. I have dyslexia, and when I was a kid back in the ’40’s, who knew about dyslexia. Nobody knew about dyslexia. You were strictly just dumb. And I got labeled as being dumb. Maybe about 10, 20 years ago, I stopped taking courses and said, I am what I am and it didn’t matter if I was dumb, what difference does it make if I’m dumb. It doesn’t bother me anymore.
A: I ought to be stopping you from calling yourself dumb.
P: That’s the way people were in the schools we went to. You were punished for having dyslexia. It wasn’t called dyslexia, it was called stupidity, and that you didn’t care. Or laziness. So you got whipped on your hands with a ruler, you got put in a corner with a hat on. No! How else would you feel if somebody told you that and everybody else could do it and you couldn’t do it. You get labeled and you accept the labels that are given to you until later in life.
A: I know what you’re saying, because I used to think I was terrible at math.
P: But you’re not, are you?
A: Mmm, no. I’m not actually. But it’s the way that I learn.
P: You needed the math to do something that you wanted to do. So you learned it.
A: That is true. I learned it because I had something that made it make sense, and fitting design or shape into the amount of space I had, numbers were my best friend then. But I had to have something tangible in order to learn. I couldn’t learn math theoretically. I had to do it with my hands. I’m an experiential learner.
P: Well, having dyslexia and seeing myself as just totally stupid…
A: Ouch. I’m looking around and going, this [Phyllis’ artwork and extensive library] is not stupid.
P: But that’s the way it was then. I went to live with my aunt, and she was an uneducated woman but she was brilliant. And she knew that… I don’t know… being around books and things like that, I always wanted to know what was in them. I lived not too far from a library, and she took me to the library and she introduced me to the librarian, and the librarian must have known that there was something wrong with me, as far as not being able to read and not understanding, so she took me under her wing and she let me know that I could go everywhere and learn anything. There was this whole wonderful world in books. That’s why I always have books and my own library. They’re the subjects that I like. This wall is all art books, the other part is cooking and the culture of food. I love foods from all over the world and how people grow it and how they cook with it, I love that. And I have a lot of stuff on the black people in America. Because I wanted my children to know the history, so I saved all the books that I had… But anyhow, even being dyslexic and being treated like that created in me a desire to know more. And how do I get to know more? It’s like, you had learned to count. I learned to read so that I could experience all this whole world.
A: That’s beautiful.
P: Life is so exciting. And you would say, well, I’m almost 80 and it’s supposed to be over.
A: It’s not over till it’s over.
P: My mother, she just died, I mean, she didn’t just die. As she got older, she lost … she was supposed to die. That’s the way she thought about it. Because she wasn’t willing to try anything new. With her second husband, when he died, she died. Not literally. She died to the world.
A: That might happen to me, if my husband died.
P: No, that won’t happen to you. You have something you’re already interested in.
I guess I should just trust Phyllis about that. She has a lot more life experience and wisdom than I do.