"Red River Road (Manitoba)"
Walter J. Phillips, "Red River Road (Manitoba)," 1923, colour woodcut, 8.5 x 8.75 inches.
WALTER J.PHILLIPS, Essays in Wood II
Pavilion Gallery Museum, Winnipeg
October 2005 — March, 2006
By Amy Karlinsky
Walter J. Phillips was born at Barton-on-Humber in north Lincolnshire in 1884. After training in art and commercial design, and exhibiting at the Royal Academy in London, he emigrated to Canada. Arriving in Winnipeg in 1913, he taught himself etching, bought a press, and began experimenting with wood block printing in 1917. By 1920, the National Gallery in Ottawa began purchasing his woodcuts.
Walter J. Phillips: Essays in Wood is a two-part exhibition which celebrates Phillips's achievements in wood block printing. The first staging of the exhibition was held September 29 to November 1, 2005 at the Martha Street Studio, the exhibiting venue of the Manitoba Printmakers Association. Elegantly installed and curated by Calvin Yarush, the series of original watercolors and subsequent prints provide a rich glimpse of Phillips's adroit handling of line, perspective, and contrast. While some of the prints were familiar to Winnipeggers, the studio's vivid orange walls and the sparseness of the installation were a refreshing change from the chronic tendency of the Pavilion Gallery Museum to show as many Phillips as can be crammed on the walls. Along with Ivan Eyre, the wildlife artist Clarence Tillenius, and sculptor Leo Mol, Phillips is one of only four artists who have permanent installations at the facilities in Assiniboine Park. Meeting some of the best of Phillips so far off the habitual beaten path was indeed a treat and a coup for the small Martha Street facility.
Part two of Walter J. Phillips: Essays in Wood at the Pavilion Gallery Museum is a less literal interpretation of the exhibition's title and features his Christmas cards, watercolors, and other graphic work. It looks like a permanent installation, and in a way it is, since the entire collection owned by Winnipeg resident John Crabb is housed in this facility. Curator Peter Heymans has worked hard to retain the sparse placement of the first showing at Martha Street; nevertheless, there is a lot of work on display. Although it requires several hours to assimilate it all, the visual pleasures are numerous and include endearing portraits of his children and some humorous West Coast views from Phillips's travels in 1927.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Phillips was a one-man "Picturesque Canada," seeking out the significant topographical and cultural features that distinguish a sense of place. During the 28 years he lived in Winnipeg, he made frequent excursions to Manitoba's Interlake region, resulting in portfolios such as the Gimli and Hnausa series. The publication of limited edition portfolios of his colour woodcuts — from his summer sketching trips and twenty years of teaching summer school at the Banff School of Fine Arts — was a regular occurrence throughout Phillips's life.
What's remarkable about Phillip's woodcuts, as well as his other graphic work, is the confidence of line, the subtle combinations of unexpected colours, and the utter fidelity to a convincing representation. Some of this can be attributed to his rigorous training in draughtsmanship; others to influences from Japanese wood block prints, commercial design, and the Canadian landscape painting of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. However, where others of his time and generation in the Canadian avant-garde were passionate and bold, Phillips is sedate. Never coy or sentimental (think of his contemporary Norman Rockwell), expressive elegance was Phillips's keynote, lending his prints enduring popular appeal.
It remains now for the Pavilion Gallery Museum to animate their permanent collection of Phillips's works by developing educational programs and other, perhaps even more significant, cultural and historical connections.