The Artist’s Compass: An Interview with Philip Koch and Ramsay Barnes

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Baltimore-based artist Philip Koch has explored landscape painting for four decades. A member of the painting faculty at MICA, Koch frequently travels to the Northeast United States to paint in the same environments that inspired Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer, and the Hudson River School artists he admires.

“Each generation” says Koch “needs a new image of what our earth looks like in our time. There will always be a need for landscape painters to show us where we live.”

Koch’s work has been collected by thirteen American art museums. His national travelling exhibition, Unbroken Thread: The Art of Philip Koch organized by the University of Maryland University College, has travelled to eight art museums and centers from 2008-12. In addition, Koch has just recently exhibited a second solo show at the George Billis Gallery in New York (Dec.11, 2012 – Jan.19, 2013.)

Despite an extremely full dance card, Philip Koch is exhibiting a variety of works in a unique show titled The Artist’s Compass  at Baltimore Friends School’s Katz Gallery through February 15, 2013. Designed to inspire students and to create a complete view of an artist’s working process, The Artist’s Compass at Friends includes the artist’s drawings and sketchbooks, as well as works in oil. In preparation for the opening on Wednesday, January 16 from 6-7 pm, Phil Koch and Friends Art Faculty Ramsay Barnes agreed to an interview about the exhibit.

Cara Ober: How did this exhibit come about? What is unique or appealing about the location, gallery, and audience at the Katz Gallery?

Philip Koch: A few years ago Ramsay Barnes was in the MFA Program at MICA. While there he was my Teaching Intern for a year and did a great job helping me with some of my Drawing classes. I remember thinking he gave really clear, helpful feedback to the Drawing students. There’s an art to that. He’s now on the Faculty at Friends School and invited me to exhibit in their Katz Gallery.

Ramsay Barnes: Every year we invite a new artist or traveling exhibition to show in the Katz Gallery here at the Friends School of Baltimore. The Visual Arts Faculty researches and selects artists/shows that reflect the galleries philosophy, in short “a space for teaching and learning about art and artists.”

I can’t stress enough the learning aspect to Katz Gallery in the context within the FSB program. We have several enduring understandings and expectations for the artists in our program that visit the gallery, such as: “Artists engage their work and the work of others with hearts and minds prepared, cultivating their empathetic engagement with visual art in and beyond the classroom. Artists are inquisitive viewers and active listeners and are willing to share their work with a broader community.”

We utilize QR codes readable with any smart phone that link to our Katz Gallery Tumblr blog during every show to expand on the experience of the work for our students and the community. This resource is both designed by the artist and FSB Faculty. An example from this show would be when Philip is writing about the work “West from Monhegan” he references both two artists influences and connections, Rockwell Kent and George Bellows. We have links to works by those two artists so that our students can understand the references and dig deeper. Ben Roach, Visual Art Department Chair at FSB did and amazing job on the Gallery Tumblr blog for this show.

Cara: At this point, what is your relationship with the Friends School?

Philip: Being part of the Friends School art program is new to me. On the other hand, years ago when I was an undergraduate student at Oberlin College I used to attend Friends Meetings, so the culture there is a bit familiar to me.

Ramsay: I teach full time in the Upper School, Visual Art Department. This is my second year at Friends School. This year I’m teaching Painting, Drawing, Experimental Drawing, and Sculptural Forms.

Cara: Phil has been doing a LOT of exhibits recently, in museums and galleries all over the country. I’m surprised he had any work left for this exhibit! How did you select works for this show?

Ramsay: After the initial studio visit with Phil and I, Phil, Ben and I had another studio visit to look at the work selected and discussed the function of the gallery. Once we had a rough idea of scope of work the theme and content fell into place very naturally. It was great that he pulled out a selection of work that had supporting sketches and multiple versions. Phil is extremely organized and this was a plus when developing the show. When visiting an artist studio for show consideration, organization is priceless. The selection was diverse with oils, pastels, charcoals, pen sketches and the sketchbooks. We selected more work thanwe could fit to allow us flexibility later when hanging the show. In fact four additional pieces are hanging in the Upper School. A total of twenty-five pieces are on display.

Philip: Early on I learned it took dirty hands to be an artist.

I went to a very academically oriented liberal arts college, Oberlin. People there had enormous vocabularies, which at first greatly impressed me. But sometimes in the art classes it seemed we spent way more time talking about the art we planned to create than we did actually making it happen. It was all too common for a painting student to finish the semester with just three or four small, unresolved canvases. I saw that verbal acuity could sometimes be an enemy of actual accomplishment in visual art. This is a problem that runs all through the art world, as if artists are worried they’re not smart enough and that ponderous discussions and readings can solve the problem. Truth is, we artists have as much in common with bakers and athletes as we do with philosophers.

All the artists I’ve admired over the years Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer, Charles Burchfield, etc. maintained an enormous productivity through much of their lives. Their example convinced me that while sheer numbers alone don’t automatically lead to quality, they radically increase the odds you’ll end up doing important paintings. I have been painting away actively for over four decades in the landscape direction I am doing now. If you paint every day, you build up quite a body of work.

Ramsay Barnes and Ben Roach, the Chair of Friends Art Department, came to my studio and selected the work for the exhibit. They both had a special interest in selecting work that would reveal as much as possible of an artist’s process. So they looked to include more of the preparatory works on paper I’ve made than is usually the case in exhibits at commercial art galleries.

Cara: How is this exhibit different than other recent shows?

Philip: I actually do many more drawings than oil paintings, working in vine charcoal and soft pastel chalks. Drawing historically is how artists figure out where they’re going. Since the big majority of art collectors favor oil paintings with expressive color, which I totally love to do, commercial art galleries naturally show mostly oils. For example my current show at George Billis Gallery in New York is almost all oil painting. A nonprofit space like Friends School provides a chance to show more of my drawings in charcoal and even my initial sketches at postage stamp size in my studio sketchbook.

Cara: How does the title of the show, The Artist’s Compass, reinforce the theme?

Ramsay: The title was Philip’s creation. After the work was selected and he knew what was going in, I gave him the basic idea and a few possibilities – thinking about his process and he came back to us with several variations using “compass.” Out of those, The Artist’s Compass: Drawings and Painting by Philip Koch, came out on top. I thought it was very succinct.

Philip: I used to be a Boy Scout and they at one point made us find our way out of a dense and creepy dark woods using only a compass and a map. That made big impression on me. So the title of the show, The Artist’s Compass, was a good tip of the hat to drawing as a tool I use to guide me as I work my way gradually forward towards finishing my more ambitious and elaborate oil paintings.

Ramsay: A “compass” can point people in different directions but all compasses’ hold true to one’s own direction. The title might imply to some that one has his or her own compass to follow, that artist’s might have a different compass to guide them, or even to student who doesn’t particularly like Philips work realizes their own compass is different from his. The title really fit Philips work in the show. During his gallery talk to students last week he shared how he returns to paintings and still continues to change them and reconnect with them, sometimes five to ten years later. This idea was particularly eye opening for beginning painters in my class.

Cara: What has the student reaction been to the exhibit? What opportunities does the art department or classes develop for students to react to or learn from the work?

Philip: One thing I loved seeing when the show first opened and I was giving some informal talks to art students was watching so many of them flip through my studio sketchbook that’s affixed to a pedestal. Small as the sketchbook is, I think it intrigues students to see things in their very first beginning stages, see possible alternatives sketched out, dead ends abandoned.

Ramsay: The reaction has been wonderful from both the student body and faculty alike here at FSB. Philip also gave a gallery talk and presentation to the entire Upper School last week with great reviews. Both were well received. The students particularly responded to Philip’s color palette and sketchbook on display in the gallery space. Philip was generous and trusting of the space to allow us to display one of his real sketchbooks for the students to read through and see his preliminary process notes and sketches. I cannot tell you how valuable this is to us as teachers, to have an artist share their process so openly and allow it to be accessible helps us reinforce that art making is a process of working through ideas, lots of discovery and reimagining through revisions, notes and sketches.

Sometimes getting students to use a sketch book can be intimidating, especially if it’s the very first one they’ve ever been asked to start before, but here they see how Philip uses his and how it guides him in the studio after he leaves the physical landscape. I’ve asked my painting students to write or paint a response to either Philip’s content or color palette as the final assignment for the 2nd semester. I can’t wait to see how they turn out. I will post these on our Tumblr blog when completed.

Cara: How do you see the artist’s role in education vs. exhibitions? In your opinion, how do education and exhibitions come together to create unique opportunities for learning for students, artists, teachers, and the public?

Philip: Well the whole point of art is to teach us how to enjoy our eyes.

I can’t think of learning to be an artist, or even just learn how to fully enjoy my life, without going to exhibitions. A great painting is always a record of someone having seen more than the usual. It’s a recording of an extraordinary moment. That’s educational right there.

There’s nothing like seeing a show you think is great and then viewing another exhibit you think is a miserable failure. It’s a way to begin trusting your own emotional responses as valid for you. Of course over time one is likely to find one’s taste changing (I cringe remembering some of the things I used to like- I remember when I first started out making copies of terrible cheesy fashion model illustrations with eyes where you could see every eyelash. I thought I was a little Rembrandt. A year later I cam to my senses and into the trash they went).

For any artist seeing their own works up on some else’s walls can’t help but be enormously educational. Every time I see another one of my exhibits I learn something. Sometimes it’s discovering something I did well I want to do more of, sometimes it’s noticing a pothole I fell into that I’ll steer clear of next time. Every art student remembers the first time they saw one of their pieces up on display in an exhibit of student work. I sure do.

More info about the exhibit is available at:

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