Phil Arrington’s “eureka” rush arrived like a door banging open, bringing in a blast of fresh air. He was living in chilly Minneapolis, working in network-TV marketing. For years, he’d channeled creative expression strictly through poetry and short fiction. But now he wanted to show, not just tell — sharing his words via visual art.
“I’d discovered that the American Midwest is one of the most fertile and productive places on the planet for outsider art,” says Arrington. One inspiration was Mari Newman, whose felt-tip-on-board drawings have long been familiar to the city’s art lovers.
“I dove right in,” Arrington recalls. “My need to write and my desire to share my writing with others converged, and I decided that I could communicate with more people if my words were hanging on a gallery wall.”
His own style, a fusion of painting, collage, and sculpture, echoes the mixed-media works of Lonnie Holley and the late Jimmy Lee Sudduth (both of Alabama) and North Carolina’s own renowned “critter artist” Clyde Jones. These self-taught, much-collected icons demonstrate what Arrington calls “the simple honesty” of the genre. His own work, however, shows more compositional depth and a generally brighter palette, shading in modernist exemplars such as Paul Klee and Cy Twombly.
An even louder influence, though, is the beat-inspired prose and poetry of Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti — in Arrington’s artistic universe, there’s a tight bond between words and pictures. “I suppose if there’s any sophistication in my art, it comes from my having studied the craft of writing,” says the painter, a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he earned his MFA. “I continue to write poetry and short fiction, but I rarely read in public anymore … this makes it more likely for my poetry to in some way inform my art, and not necessarily have a separate and complete life of its own.”
Arrington’s early work, produced before he moved to Hendersonville seven years ago, hewed closer to the traditional folk-art ethic in its use of found objects, unusual media, and blocks of text, with sparing paint. Everything from vintage silverware to body parts salvaged from mannequins found their way into these pieces. But the exposure to Western North Carolina’s rich literary life drew more of Arrington’s attention to his own writing, with a corresponding effect on his visual art. The result was the blossoming of both his written and painted output, and his growing conviction that any separation between the two was illusory. He could avoid, as he puts it, “being the servant of two media masters.”
Now the artist, who turns 70 this year, works mostly in acrylics. Text and images blend and complement each another, nestling together on the cradled birch panels. “I could say [the wood] somehow seems more organic, like stone walls were to cave painters,” Arrington says. More practically, “it’s less fragile, and I can scrape and push and pound on it when I think I’m showing it who’s boss.”
He admits he rarely sketches or even under-draws a new piece: his process leans more toward the intuitive than the technical. Each work is inspired by an external stimulus that touches on memories and dreams. “I believe that we each carry some sort of internal file cabinet loaded in our subconscious,” he says, “with all the emotional and intellectual stuff that makes us who we are as artists.”
Whether it’s a festively colored abstracted landscape or a heavily worked and visually aggressive figure, the end product encourages an intimate relationship with the viewer — attracting first with a straightforward presentation, then inviting a deeper engagement with form and meaning. “It simply cannot be a one-sided experience,” insists the former marketing professional. “Otherwise it isn’t art. It’s an ad, or a commercial, or whatever.”
Phil Arrington is represented by Art on 4th gallery (125 4th Ave. West) in Hendersonville. See arton4thave.com or call 828-393-5755.