Phil Savage and I are standing in a parking lot on a Tuesday evening. There’s a strong wind blowing, making it hard to hear, but I’m glad that for once this season it’s come without rain. This is the only time all summer that I’ve been able to get Phil to stand still long enough to talk, not that he’s stopped working entirely; his car is loaded down with fresh produce off his farm, and we’re occasionally interrupted by families filing in to collect their weekly veggie packs.
I’ve known Phil for years, he’s been one of my best friends for over a decade; a fact that I sometimes like to drop at parties, because Phil is honestly one of the coolest guys I know, and I like to think it makes me just that much cooler by extension. He’s also one of the hardest working people I know (which has had a negligible effect on my own work ethic, by extension); he is rarely without a healthy patina of soil, and his hands are a dull copper-brown from routinely beating the earth into submission. His days start at dawn, and often stretch on until midnight, and that’s just his summer job.
Phil grew up on a Darling’s Island flower farm, and ever since has been a fine example of being able to ‘take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy’; he and his brother Nathan worked landscaping jobs for years, turned their family home in Quispamsis into a suburban farm, and have since purchased a 45 acre farm on the Kingston Peninsula. When he took up wood sculpting it was clear where his influences were, “That was in 2009 when I had a show at the Saint John Art Centre, the Escape Pod series, which was a group of pod and seed inspired forms. As a gardener (and I’ve been one for a long time, both as a kid and professionally) you’re out planting seeds of all sizes. I’m into trees, so I would find seeds from trees in the fall, stick them in the fridge so that in the spring they would sprout. I was into propagating trees, so I was collecting a lot of nuts and seeds, I guess that was the inspiration for the seed pods.”
Phil also gained some notice a couple years back (and a nomination for the Saint John Originals 2012 Emerging Artist Award) when he began producing members of his herd, “I was at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the biggest museum in Montreal, and I saw some primitive carvings, I don’t even know where they were from. One was of a hippopotamus, a simple little childlike sculpture of hippopotamus that had a strong sense of the hippo about it, it was more than just a toy. I thought about that for a while, then started playing around with doing some animals, but making them so they were faster to do with my hand tools, and more about the shape, without the detail and also very vague as to what they actually were. The importance of that sculpture was the group, the multiples were important, one of them alone wasn’t significant, but a group of twenty, the group together was more the composition I always had in mind when I did those things. More than one. I just always wanted them in big groups.”
“The Japanese used to have these ancient style of carvings called matsuki carvings, they’d wear them in their belts, these tiny carvings of animals, extremely detailed, so they’d tie them on their kimonos, where they’d tie them up, roll them around, and it was a sign of prestige, the more you had and the better ones you had, and they could also fiddle with them when they were waiting or contemplating, and hang on to their little animals. So this is part of the idea with the little herd animals to be picked up and played with.”
Phil has also applied his style of wood sculpting to awards (there’s a whole wall of his work over at Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick) and furniture, which he tells me are easily his most popular pieces, and something he seems to enjoy all the more. “After doing wood sculpting for several winters I started to play around with a few pieces of furniture, hard wood, and people bought them because they were furniture, but also because they were art furniture. I would sculpt the edges, make curves on the legs of the table, give them sort of animation and life. Functional art, I like that part of it. It justifies all the hours you put into a piece if it has a function in life.”
More examples of Phil’s work can be found at Phil Savage, Sculptor in Wood.