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Interview with Philip Koch, with images from The Unbroken Thread Exhibition at MICA

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MICA MFA Thesis 1: March 27 – April 5, 2009


Cara: Where are you from?

Phil: Grew up in Rochester, NY. My parents built a house on the then very rural shore of Lake Ontario in a wildly hilly beech tree and white birch forest. In a lot of ways my paintings now are about re-imagining that same childhood forest.

Cara: How long have you been teaching at MICA? What do you teach?

Phil: Started teaching at MICA in 1973 after teaching on the west coast. I just teach a 2/3 course load to save time for my own painting. Currently I teach Drawing I & II and Life Drawing.

Cara: Who are your favorite painters? Who has influenced your work the most?
Phil: Early influences were color oriented artists such as Milton Avery and Mark Rothko. Through their work they served as wonderful teachers when I was just starting out with painting.

But the biggest single influence was the painter Edward Hopper- it was seeing his work when I was an undergraduate art student that persuaded me I had to switch from working abstractly to following the realist path. I love the 19th century American landscape painters with their whole-hearted embrace of the natural world. These were people who let themselves really get carried away. Winslow Homer’s paintings and Rockwell Kent’s wood engravings are always favorites.

Cara: Why do you paint landscapes? What do your paintings add to the dialogue of contemporary art?

Phil: A romantic immersion of oneself in nature is one of the great themes that runs uninterrupted through art history. It is as relevant a question as any in contemporary art- after all we evolved out of the natural world’s seas and later forests. The landscape is always a self portrait for the artist and for our species.

On another level, it is a hoot to have such a great excuse to go outside to do one’s work when everyone else is stuck indoors.

Lastly, I think landscape painting of the great realist painting traditions (figure, still life, landscape) is the most fun in that it affords the artist a certain playfulness. Nobody really knows what trees or clouds look like, so the landscape painter can get away with murder in moving things around and changing their colors to the most implausible choices. When done right, even though one has profoundly changed the outer appearance of the landscape, the resulting feeling of the place can ring even more true to the viewer.

Cara: Do you paint on location? If so, where and how does this work? When and where do you paint?
Phil: For many years I painted exclusively with a portable easel in oils in the plein air fashion. It was great. About 10 years ago though I started doing a great deal more drawing in charcoal outdoors in lieu of oil paints. I wanted to loosen the grip the actual local colors of the landscape had over me. It is possible to be too beholden to what is actually before you. These days I do a great deal of work back in the studio based both on the black and white on location drawings. And more than ever I rely on memory and invention.

Where I paint on location is actually a critical question. I think it best if the artist is persuaded they have before them just about the best possible source in the world. It absolutely has to grab you. So I travel a lot and I drag my easel with me.

I get the biggest charge out of going to the places that inspired the artists from the past that have inspired me. Of particular fascination are the coast of Maine and Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Maine drew all the important Hudson River School landscape painters I love. Winslow Homer and Rockwell Kent too. And Cape Cod was ground zero for Edward Hopper who worked there half of each year for three decades. I’m very fortunate to have had 12 residencies staying and working in Hopper’s old painting studio in S. Truro on the Cape. Hopper’s studio is something of a ghost house, but I mean that in the best sense of the term.

Cara: You just exhibited work in two simultaneous solo shows: The Unbroken Thread at MICA’s Bunting Gallery and at The George Billis Gallery in Chelsea, NY. How did this project come about? Where is it going? How do you feel about exhibiting your work – and especially exhibiting in Baltimore vs. NY?

Phil: The University of Maryland University College organized the current traveling show of my work titled the Unbroken Thread and they have published a wonderful exhibition catalogue to accompany the exhibition that is now scheduled to travel to 7 art museums through 2011. The idea of the show was broached by Eva J. Allen, Ph.D, an art historian at UMUC who curated the show. Her idea was to look at how a modernist influenced painter like myself can re-visit themes and locations that have fascinated earlier generations of artists.

As for showing one’s work, I think many artists make a mistake of waiting for the “perfect” opportunity for an exhibit. But it is important to remember having a show is an opportunity for the artist to see her/his work in a different light when it is in someone else’s space. One’s learns so much about one’s work when you have a show. I think it is a critical part of being a professional artist just from an aesthetic point of view. Then too it is great when strangers respond with enthusiasm to what you’ve done. It you play your cards right, they will.

New York v.s. Baltimore galleries perhaps isn’t as big an issue as the particular personality of each dealer and her/his gallery. Every art dealer does some things very well- some have beautiful exhibit spaces and lighting, others have built a powerful network of collectors, and some have just plain old talents of salesmanship. It is a question of matching your work’s needs to the gallery’s strengths.

Cara: I heard that Dick Cheney offered to purchase one of your paintings, but you turned him down. Is this true or some kind of wild rumor that MICA kids are spreading?

Phil: Cheney’s office approached me to submit work for him and his wife to consider purchasing and reproducing as their annual Christmas card. I told them no.

Cara: What are the best and worst aspects of being a painter?

Phil: Best thing about being a painter is the chance to do something genuinely remarkable. Paintings are tools to recharge the society’s imagination and to help people see themselves more clearly. This is honest and important work. I am so grateful for some of the other painters who went down the road before me who left us their shimmering and exciting painting. How much more colorless we would all be without their achievements.

Worst thing about being a painter may be the isolation it requires from the artist. You absolutely have to spend a major part of your time alone to let your vision develop free from distractions. It can be lonely.

Cara: How much and how often do you paint vs. how much and how often do you promote your work?
Phil: I spend the bulk of my time painting- it takes a whale of a lot of time to get one’s paintings just right. “Do it over” has to be the serious artists motto.

Once one has a body of work one is genuinely proud of, it just seems natural to want to build an audience for that work. One sort of owes it to the work. So I do try to have shows on a regular basis to let people see what I’m doing.

Cara: If you could be reincarnated as any animal besides a person, what would it be and why?

Phil: Can I pick two? A well-fed and well-loved house cat. And also any kind of bird that can fly really high to get those views. I am aware these two totem animals wouldn’t really like each other.

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