Upstate Diary
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Lost In Reverie

A day upstate with artist John-Paul Philippe, talking gardening, bears and solitude.

Words Paul Tierney Photography Martien Mulder

Originally published in No 7.

Troutbeck, in collaboration with Standard Space, is pleased to present ‘Hortensia,’ a new series of work by the artist.

On view Sept. 13th — Oct. 19th, 2019.

Upstate Diary presents a conversation between the artist & Paul Morris: Saturday, October 19th, 2019, 5–6 p.m at Troutbeck Hotel.

Hemlock cross-section stacked atop a heavy steel drum (work in progress).

Hemlock cross-section stacked atop a heavy steel drum (work in progress).


Strange but true: I only know seven people in the United States, and two of them know John-Paul Philippe. By some quirk of fate the acclaimed artist and I have mutual friends, and this serendipitous fact makes today’s conversation fairly bounce along with familiarity. Not that John-Paul needs any encouragement. He is garrulous and reassuringly amiable; and that Oklahoma accent — a lyrical sing-song — lures you in with its gentle inflections and homespun charm. 

He’s sitting outside his cabin in the wilds of northern Connecticut, a structure that once belonged to the pioneering ornithologist, John McNeely. It has history and provenance, and makes a handsome workplace, home (and virtual fortress) for the semi-recluse. After living in the UK for decades, then working as an artist in New York — formatively for Barneys, then showing in galleries and amassing private clients, Philippe has gone back to his roots. Up here he can create uninterrupted, feed off the land and ultimately return to nature.

The cabin.

The cabin.

But it’s a remote, occasionally unforgiving place devoid of real community. He has neighbours; the mostly forgotten actor, Rip Torn — “a big old drunk” — is not too far away, but he rarely sees him. In fact, he sees hardly anyone and this isolated existence is only sweetened by the environment, which is wild and beautiful, allowing him to blend into the background like moss on a wall. Whether painting, sculpting, or reworking nature into a kind of off-the-record personal art project, John-Paul is doing things on his terms, in what sounds like a little slice of heaven. If only he wasn't lonely.

Today, songbirds serenade him from high branches above, and all seems at ease in this bucolic retreat. “It’s not always this peaceful,” he laughs, surveying the land around him. “Last week I had a very rude visitor.”

Behind Philippe, a salvaged glass top (work in progress).

Behind Philippe, a salvaged glass top (work in progress).

Work space in the barn.

Work space in the barn.

Paul Tierney A visitor?

John-Paul Philippe A bear tore down the fence to my garden! I was really upset that it had done this damage, but then later on in the day I started to actually enjoy the fact that my fence was mauled. If people come over, I can show that to them.

PT I guess it’s a talking point.

JPP The very first night I spent here, about ten years ago, I had a bear on my front porch trying to tear it down. This recent one is about three years old. He’s not aggressive but you still have to respect them. The day before, I was on a hike and I was thinking, I shouldn’t really be on my own, and a bear comes over a little rise onto the same trail as me. I was surprised more than frightened, because you can never tell what their intentions are.

PT Did your heart stop? 

JPP No. It didn’t. I don’t even think it accelerated. I don’t know why. You don’t want panic.

PT It seems all the important stuff is happening on your doorstep. Have news and global affairs become less important? Are you shut off from the outside world in that sense?


JPP I find a lot of my focus is, in a very oblique way, about barricading myself somewhat, and I don’t want to sound like a survivalist or anything like that, it’s more of a conceptual thing. I have to do it to have some kind of peace or happiness, to erect barricades against the outside world. I think that’s largely why I’m here. There is static coming from everywhere. Either it’s a visual static — something you don’t want to look at. Or it can be just the outer world in general. There is no chain across my driveway, but there might be in the future.

PT Are you on your own up there?

JPP Well I’ve got my dog and two cats, but I’m on my own.

PT Was that your choice, the solitude?

JPP I’m not against sharing it with somebody but it just hasn’t happened. I haven’t been very focused on that at all. But I would love to have a sympathetic soul here to help because I’m overwhelmed a lot of the time. And I’d like to bounce my ideas with somebody that was a like-minded soul and who understands But the people that understand this are a very few and far between, actually. It’s a little bit too hard and gets a little bit too primitive for a lot of folk.

PT Sounds like you need an assistant.

JPP I’ve never had an assistant or even thought about getting one. The dreamy thing about here is that I’ve met a lot of artisans. I’m spoilt for choice for people to actually fabricate and help me realize things. I fabricate all my stuff up here now but I’d love to find a person who could second-guess me with my day-to-day needs.

Studio table with components for assemblages.

Studio table with components for assemblages.

PT Nevertheless, you seem very focused. And I see continuity in your work.

JPP In what way?

PT In shape, and form, and line.

JPP Well, I’m lucky to be able to access that within my own repertoire. Who knows why I’m compelled to make certain shapes, you know? When I was cleaning the barn the other day, I opened a box, and low and behold there were some juvenile sketchbooks, and It was actually really heartening because it was like an affirmation that I’ve always been pretty much true to my compulsions.

PT I’ve been looking at your work this week and wondering what it reminded me of.

JPP What does it remind you of?

PT I see elements of lots of different artists. Not in a derivative sense, just in vague style and influence. The idea of bringing natural shapes together with a sense of modernity feels very Noguchi for instance.

JPP Well, he was a genius. I’m humbled to think you could even reference me with him.

PT That’s very modest of you. You’re a very successful international artist. Do you not think of yourself in those terms?

JPP No, never.


PT Well you should.

JPP That’s a whole thing that is completely abstract. I never ever have a second thought, or a glimmer of thought, about that. No. I get none of those vibrations.

PT I was aware of you when I lived in London, as far back as the ‘80s.

JPP I lived there for nearly two decades, Paul: Islington, Peckham, Camden. I met some very interesting people in London. I knew Peggy Angus very well.

PT Peggy Angus?

JPP She was an artist in the grand bohemian sense. When I met her she was probably in her mid 80s. She was my neighbour in Camden. Very lefty. They used to call her Red Angus! Anyway, we’re going to diverge if I start talking about Peggy. We’ll talk about her another day.

PT I did something this weekend not too dissimilar, something that I thought you would enjoy: I went to visit Virginia Woolf’s house in East Sussex.

JPP I know it! Monk’s House, in Rodmell.

Japanese ‘boro’ cloth hanging on the cabin front porch.

Japanese ‘boro’ cloth hanging on the cabin front porch.

PT Have you been there?

JPP I went there with Patti Smith.

PT You went there with Patti Smith? That’s a very good answer.

JPP I was living with Simon Watney, a Bloomsbury scholar, and he knew all those people. He didn’t know Virginia but he knew Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. I spent a lot of time down there in that area. I love Lewes. I spent months and months out on the Downs. It informs my work and feels so profound. I don’t even know how to put it into words.

PT So what about Patti?

JPP Patti is not a friend. I adore her, but we don’t hang out. I just had the opportunity to meet her. She did a benefit concert for Charleston House, in a tent there, in the pasture. It was a windy night, with the tent flapping, not even a hundred people in the audience, cows coming up and mooing in the middle of songs. I was with Simon, staying with Olivia Bell. We got a phone call from one of Patti’s minders, saying she understands that we know the area and, if she showed up in a car, would we show her around?

PT Nice.

Plywood chair , 1975, and a tasseled brass partition (work in progress)

Plywood chair, 1975, and a tasseled brass partition (work in progress)

JPP I know! Patti wants to go to see Virginia’s house but it wasn’t open, it must’ve been off-season, but Simon got the keys and we let Patti in. There’s a famous photo of an impression of her body lying on Virginia’s bed. Even though you’re not supposed to do that, with Patty I guess it was okay. So she laid out on the bed, which had a white coverlet on it, and then got up and took a Polaroid. And I was there!

PT Incredible. I was there yesterday, standing next to that very bed. I also loved the shed in the garden, where she wrote A Room Of One’s Own. I couldn’t help thinking of you and where you are, and how creatives need to have a space of their own.

Wood stacks.

Wood stacks.

JPP Well it’s a great privilege and luxury to have it, you know? I do wish, because I don’t want this to sound like a total idyll, but I do wish that I had some sort of support, because a lot of the time it’s feast or famine. You don’t know when your next buck is coming from, basically. I can be overwhelmed with the amount of labour here.

PT You strike me as a philosophical kind of guy, John-Paul.

JPP Yes I’m probably too philosophical for my own good. This goes back to the idea of reverie, and the path you’re on, and what it all means. Are you on the right path? How do you be happier? All this kind of thing.

PT So it’s quite existential?

JPP Very, and sometimes gardening and so forth seems like quite a futile pursuit. Because it’s fleeting. It’s an experience rather than a result-orientated thing I think, at least for me. It takes up a lot of my day, so at the end of the day I have something pretty to look at, but I haven’t done a painting.

PT What do you get most out of — being in a gallery or garden?

Steel candelabrums  (with leaning driftwood), 2015.

Steel candelabrums (with leaning driftwood), 2015.

JPP In the garden! I didn’t have to hesitate. I am at ease and comfortable in the garden. Being an artist you’re often thrown into gallery situations and I’m not comfortable or at ease, although I can kind of fake it. That’s not my milieu really. I don’t have many artist friends and I don’t hang out with a lot of gallery people or anything like that. Most of my friends are landscape people who excavate. They go out with big diggers and landscape. The gardeners around here are my dearest friends.

PT What’s the most difficult aspect of life?

JPP Without any hesitation I would say providing myself with security. Because it’s not cheap to run anything anymore, and how do you fund your project, to put it bluntly? At the end of the day when you’re drifting off to sleep you would hope to still have some integrity intact. That’s been my struggle.

PT Does it worry you, what other people think?

JPP Oh yeah. Judgmental judgment is a hugely stressful thing for me. What people will see and make a judgment on. I wish I could get rid of that within myself, it would make my life so much easier.

Work space in the barn. Vignette in homage to Derek Jarman.

Work space in the barn. Vignette in homage to Derek Jarman.

PT What would it take?

JPP I don’t think it’s going to happen. If I knew what it would take I would’ve done it because I don’t like the stress of impending judgment.

PT That’s quite a difficult thing to have as an artist, surely?

JPP You’re throwing your guts out, you know? Like a painting. That’s why I’m not so comfortable in galleries, because the build up is like, Oh my gosh. I just don’t handle that very well.

PT But if you get a commission or a purchase?

JPP Yeah, you’re validated (laughs). That helps, but you know, the revealing of myself is always going to be difficult. I wish I coped with that better than I do.

PT I see you as a Renaissance man doing multiple things at once, and all very well. Have you thought about what it is to be a polymath?

JPP No. I haven’t, because it’s all the same thing to me. I don’t have a lot of demarcation between those areas. Whether it be sculpture, painting, design, aestheticizing a life — it’s all the same to me, all part of a package. Gardening would be included in that, the aesthetics of how you make a fence. It’s the same thing. It’s all blended into some kind of crazy millstone that spews it all out. It’s all part of a piece. I just have to be careful not to just drift off into constant reverie.

John Paul Philippe @johnpaulphilippe

Paul Tierney is a contributor to The Independent, the i, the London Evening Standard, Another Man and Neue Luxury. @paultierneysees

Martien Mulder contributes to WSJ, 10, Wonderland and W Magazine among others. She is represented by