Collaborative Artists Carolyn Healy + John Phillips

Collaborative Artists Carolyn Healy + John Phillips

What are you working on in your studio right now?

We generally create one project per year, which allows us to immerse ourselves and really get to know the site of an installation. For the last four months, Wheaton and “our” schoolhouse building has been our studio. Carolyn has been on-site for 4 1/2 months, first spending many days combing through box after box of somewhat random museum material stored in the “barn.” She roamed the Wheaton glass studio looking for objects that resonated with her, letting the piece develop through that process of exploration. John also collected glass chunks and rondels that he experimented with at a video art residency in New York last fall, and later recorded video and sound as glass was being crafted in the Wheaton studio, all raw material for the finished work.

When we finish a project we take a little breather and try to dig up another gig! We are searching for a new studio space right now where we can pursue ideas that percolated while making this piece, which might be useful in the next one…

Can you describe your working routine?

All of our installations are labor-intensive. First we select the space—at Wheaton we were immediately drawn to the schoolhouse, especially its proportions and the beautiful windows that bring shifting light and the colors of the surrounding woods into the room. We embraced the challenge of designing a piece to be viewed from the vestibule, something new for us. Next we planned changes to the room—new paint colors and special window inserts that help us control the ambience through films on the glass that both dim and reflect sunlight coming from outside. With the space clean and prepared, Carolyn brought in materials she had selected as “possible” and further winnowed them in a trial-by-error process of creation. She made the whole sculptural portion of the piece “on the site from the site.” Meanwhile John collected video images derived from manipulation of glass objects with light and made numerous sound recordings, all derived from glass, that he processed using computers in his home studio. His working method is to respond to the environment Carolyn makes and integrate his sound and video compositions by placing them in the most effective way. In this case he chose to keep the moving images off the sculpture, also new for us, to allow morning and afternoon sunlight to play with the objects in the room unimpeded. Together we work on the accent lighting as a finishing touch.

We were fortunate that: 1.) Wheaton Arts provided us a living space near the campus so we didn’t have to drive back and forth from Philadelphia too many times; and 2.) our work schedules provided the necessary art-days for us to do our best. It is always an intense period of concentration.

Tell me about your process: where things begin, how they evolve etc.

Our site-specific work begins with the process of absorption: what is the history of the site? What materials are inherent? What are the special architectural features of the space? All the senses come into play as a work evolves too: smell, temperature, sound, light all play a role in a fairly subconscious wrestling with concepts and possible directions. The physical work of handling, carrying, placing, hanging, listening, and watching also drives the ideas behind the work. In the Wheaton project we were fascinated to learn about the many uses of glass throughout history, and the scientific advances that were possible only because of the developments of glass making, such as mirrors, lenses, laboratory glass. Even the introduction of glass containers for food and beverages, and panes of window glass for dwellings, had huge implications for society. Not to mention the beauty of glass and its evolution into a pure art material—all very interesting.

Can you tell us a little about your early years and what led you to become artists?

John: I’ve always been playing musical instruments and drawing and painting. I won the fire department dalmatian coloring contest in the second grade and it’s been downhill ever since! I became an artist because I thought it was the only area of my life over which I had complete control. Someone may not like my creative effort, but it’s mine to make. The feelings of wonder and amazement that can come over me when looking at art (or listening) happen with works from all eras. Earliest markings to contemporary experiments, inspired by others, I can’t stop coming up with my own ideas. My art is making those ideas tangible.

Carolyn: I came later to art making, having first been a serious music student, but I was always visually sensitive to my surroundings, constantly rearranged my room as a child, and took a great interest in 3-D class assignments. I was an instigator of fun—house-building projects and shadow plays, many of surgical operations—I always loved hardware! Fortunately my parents took us kids to see a lot of “culture” and I still vividly remember certain exhibits I saw as a pre-teen. I really think I learned by looking. I hope so, because I didn’t go to art school and have no formal visual art training.

How did you get involved with WheatonArts?

We had been introduced to WheatonArts several years ago by friends who have participated in the Art Fellowship program or work at Wheaton in other capacities. Hank Adams and Kristin Qualls got in touch and we came down for a meeting and tour. We liked what we saw and heard, so we agreed to give it a go.

What about WheatonArts made you want to participate in this?

We like the combination of a well-run museum right next to a thriving studio art program. We loved the physical space of the school house, the slice of pine woods next to a pond with a gazebo, the museum with beautiful old glass pieces plus an interesting “barn” of under-utilized objects, the industrial history of glass making in the South Jersey area and at Wheaton. It all offered an inspiring starting point. The high caliber of studio artists working as staff and Fellows assured us that the quality of art being created and supported at Wheaton would be an advantage to our own efforts. The DIY ethos cultivated by Hank and the numerous “junk” yards he maintains, the Airstreams, the vegetable gardens, the campus dogs—we just responded to the overall vibe of the place!

What has been inspiring to you from what you’ve seen of WheatonArts?

We’ve enjoyed our time over homemade Friday pizza, talking with and seeing the young glass artists doing their almost renaissance-style apprentice work in the studio, watching Terry and his co-workers rebuild his kilns, interacting with the museum staff and facilities guys and Hank as they juggle so many balls. We work hard, and so does everyone at WheatonArts.

John Phillips and Carolyn Healy Bio