John-Paul Philippe, Artist & Designer

10.3.14 Sharon, CT

"I don't want to move again, this is it. Upstate is where I intend to end up, and I need to make sure that I'm allowed to do that. They're going to have to drag me kicking and screaming away from here because I love it so much."

Interview & Photos: Kate Orne

John Paul Philippe embracing one of his loving Rhode Island Red hens

UD:  Your work at Barney’s had such a strong presence and felt so organically integrated with the store environment. What was the most amazing aspect of working with Simon Doonan, the Creative Director-at-Large?

JPP:  Freedom. Once he ‘got you’, and you had an understanding, there was an unspoken dialogue. Normally, people in my position have a lot of interference, similar to what film directors and producers deal with, people coming in and messing it all up. I never felt anybody messed with my work; Simon provided me with both freedom and support.

The circa 1840 cabin built by Scottish settlers

UD:  Did he give you some guidance or a little direction?

JPP:  He told me, "It's important to direct the gaze of the public." In a retail environment that's what it's mostly about, traffic and about directing gaze. One of the things that I always understood and that resonated in my work was that you wanted to include eyes. Subconsciously, not literally. I would include an oculus or a target, a false perspective, a void in the sculptures........people are hardwired to stare into the void.

UD:  Can you share a pivotal moment in your career?

JPP:  In Tokyo, Barneys took over a building, a former gentlemen's club, and they gutted it. I was commissioned to put a 47’ tall (14 m) steel monolith sculpture in the middle of it. I was producing it with a huge retinue of people behind me at a foundry in Hokkaido which 18 generations ago was producing Samurai armor. We had to figure out how to disassemble the sculpture and put it on a barge to float it into Tokyo Bay. Then it had to be transported from the harbor into the Ginza district of Tokyo.

One of several work stations with found objects

Another work station with objects of influence

Philippe doesn't need much to prepare his exquisite meals

Next to his wood stove, the place to be on chilly evenings

UD:  Quite a production!

JPP:  Yeah, made of ¾” (19.05 mm) steel — it just happened that one of the biggest pieces I did was really early on in my career. Today, I probably would have used 5/16” (7.9 mm) which would have been less of an ordeal on everyone.

UD:  You are a very multi-disciplined artist. What is your process for integrating large sculptures in the area?  

JPP:  It's important for me to go to the site and understand what it feels like and to find the spirit of the place. Sometimes I see places where giant sculptures are going to go very early on, and there are no walls but I can start to see it form or how it needs to invade the space and be a presence. I think that's rare in the world, but I've been fortunate to have clients that have been able to provide that for me.

And I've had pretty much free reign to do what I felt needed to be done, and mentors trusted me.

Much of Philippe's work is executed in his barn - one luxury of living Upstate

UD:  Has this ever happened to you; you do a mural and then after ten years you get a call that the client is moving?

JPP:  Why often they don't is that a lot of times my pieces are detachable, so they can take them away. I tend to prefer not to do murals right on the wall; they are painted on panels that are mounted because then things can be framed out properly. I prefer it this way because I don't have to be there, I can be in my studio and then ship it.

Also, the thing with my paintings are that, if you look at it, the work is not graded, so it has no shadow. It's all flat colors, so I can draw the outline to scale and then key the colors. I have a crew that goes in and installs if I can’t go to the site. And I've been lucky to find talented people that reproduce my work; I've never been disappointed. I've been overwhelmed, like I almost fall to my knees sometimes weeping because I only see this little maquette while I work in my studio, and suddenly it's manifested on a large scale. I mean that's a luxury.

The barn's 2nd floor with living quarters and studio

His chicken family has a long and peaceful life ahead of them.

One of his prototypes in progress

Pillippe tidying up the barn's living quarters

Gathering reeds for an arrangement

Feeding time for his family

The fire pit

UD:  Your place here is pretty amazing, how would you describe it?

JPP:  My cabin sits on five acres in a hollow looking to the north. To the east is a ridge along which runs the Appalachian Trail. My dwelling was found eight hundred miles to the south by the previous owner, nestled in another hollow in North Carolina..... he disassembled it and transported it up to where it now sits. That was forty-six years ago. As far as anyone can tell, it was built of the first growth chestnut and tulip poplar circa 1840... most likely by Scottish settlers. The logs are square-cut, and their interior surfaces still retain small remnants of newspaper.

I do not see any neighboring houses; at night, there is no sign of man-made light —even to the far horizons. I am so much more aware of the sky now.

Philippe and his "hairy daughter" Roxy, a Brussels Griffon

UD:  How long have you been living Upstate full time?

JPP:  Only a year, on July 1st, I moved up here full time. I did it quickly, where I just decided to get out of the city. Because if I would have thought too much about it, I might have talked myself out of it; I would have been afraid.

During hot nights, the screened-in summer porch is the perfect place to sleep. No air conditioner required.

UD:  Do you think that creative people miss out living outside of the city?

JPP:  I’m pretty emphatic about how I feel about this. Yeah, of course, we miss things because we're not there in the real physical sense. But I'm not deprived culturally at all. I feel more cultured and aware of what is important now that I'm up here in the countryside. I'm not bragging; just that's how I feel. I feel more human without the urban static. 

The circa 1840 cabin, heated with a Jotul wood stove, is connected to the barn with a path made of  planks

UD:  Do you think that living in nature versus the city affects our creativity?

JPP:  Yeah, I have a whole urban output, and I have a rural output given what is in my mind and what I'm experiencing at the time. So there is an effect to my surroundings —whether you're in the middle of Gotham or the middle of the forest. You put your antennae up, and you let it tell you how it’s going to affect you. 

"Time To Cash In" — inspiration of the day

Always handy, a beautiful selection of Japanese Washi paper

UD:  What got you started with your personalized Type-O-Tag’s you post on Instagram?

JPP:  I remember a specific moment that it occurred to me to do that. I was up in the loft at the barn; it was snowing and I was pretty much in prison there. I was trying to use Instagram as a way to reach out to people. I think that the situation I found myself in spurred me to have an idea. Not just liking their photo or whatever or hoping they like mine, but to put something out there that is personalized to them. But I did maybe 30 in one day, the first day it was like a flood. I mostly made them for people I didn’t know.

Philippe working on one of his personalized Type-O-Tag's for Instagram.

UD:  What is it that makes you pick a certain name?

JPP:  Sometimes I see the possibility in the title or the name. Sometimes it's just a literal thing that I like the name, sometimes I love their work, sometimes I love — I think I love them. I think, "Oh he's beautiful," or, "She's beautiful" I'm going to give them a gift.

UD:  That's lovely. I have not seen any other ‘creatives’ give away personalized tokens.

Process of creating a Type-O-Tag

Ready to be documented.

JPP:  Right, and sometimes people then send a comment, "Can I buy it? Can you send it to me?  I go, “No, it doesn't exist anymore. I wrote it down on some typing paper and photographed it with some other stuff that was floating around, and now it's gone."  It's a gesture. 

UD:  What kind of stuff have you been working on recently?

The barn's summer porch

JPP:  Before the winter starts, I need to do some giant paintings that won't fit upstairs. So they're going to be worked on, propped against the wall of the barn downstairs. The weather is going to motivate me to finish them, and I don't have much choice.

UD:   Leaving your assistants and studio in Soho behind and moving up here, of course, it must be a completely different work environment.

JPP:  Yeah, having assistants gets you up in the morning, because you have these people that are waiting there to be told what to. That's an issue that I'm wrestling with here. It's just me, and I don't necessarily want it to be just me, but that's the way it is now. So, I haven't successfully motivated myself with producing a lot of concrete work, because I don't have to get up and say, "This is what we're doing today." For good or bad.

I'm perfectly happy to just paint, and something tells me right now that I just want to paint.

Philippe is a true green gardener, using only non-gasoline tools to shape and care for his beautiful garden and land

UD:  Instead of doing the sculptures?

JPP:  Yeah and the logistics of getting it made and everything. I just need to step back a bit and settle — I'm still settling in.

UD:  So we are talking about the different options we have up here, choices and stuff like that.  

JPP:  Well, if you're getting real about the experience up here, you have to take all these issues on board and not gloss over it. We're figuring out how to fund our existence up here. Like, for me, I don't want to move again, this is it. Upstate is where I intend to end up, and I need to make sure that I'm allowed to do that. They're going to have to drag me kicking and screaming away from here because I love it so much.