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Lawrenceville exhibit looks at artist’s importance | TribLIVE.com
Art & Museums

Lawrenceville exhibit looks at artist’s importance

Kurt Shaw
| Friday, October 7, 2016 1:30 p.m
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Borelli-Edwards Galleries
“Blue Cat” gouache, size: 3 1/2” wide by 4 3/4” high
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Borelli-Edwards Galleries
A portrait of Esther Phillips circa 1925 by photographer Luke Swank
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Borelli-Edwards Galleries
Esther Phillips, “Coca-Cola” circa 1935, gouache, 13” wide x 11 3/4” high
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Borelli-Edwards Galleries
Esther Phillips, watercolor, 'View From Bellefield Street (Oakland) Pittsburgh,' 1920s, 12 1/4” wide by 8 3/4” high
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Borelli-Edwards Galleries
'Yellow Barge, Brooklyn NY,' gouache, 17” wide by 14” high

She may share the name of a famous American R&B singer, but Esther Phillips, who grew up in Pittsburgh, is an artist of historical significance in her own right, as evidenced by the 50-plus wonderful artworks in the exhibit “Esther Phillips (1902-83),” on display at Borelli-Edwards Galleries in Lawrenceville.

Born in Russia, she moved with her family to Pittsburgh in 1905, when she was 3. She began her formal art education, against her parents’ wishes, with Samuel Rosenberg at the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House on Centre Avenue in the Hill District and took classes at Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon University.

Developing as a painter at the start of American Modernism, she was drawn to New York City, where she moved in the 1930s.

“She arrived in Greenwich Village and began to paint the world around her that was expanding in all directions,” says gallery owner Joy Borelli-Edwards. But sadly, Philips died in obscurity, failing to get the attention of critics and collectors.

Her niece, Milly Silverstein of Evanston, Ill., remembers visiting her in 1980, three years before her death. Phillips’ last known residence was in Greenwich Village. Still, says Silverstein, “nobody in the family could find her.”

“A friend of hers contacted my mother (her sister) when her health was failing, and I went to meet her for a weekend when she was in the Roosevelt Hospital, suffering from diabetes,” Silverstein says.

It was then that Silverstein says her aunt gave her a fascinating perspective of being a female artist in New York City in the 1930s and ’40s. “She knew many artists, poets and writers. And had wonderful stories about her friendships, especially with (screenwriter) Ben Hecht and (poet) Maxwell Bodenheim,” Silverstein says.

“She would take her art supplies outside every morning and paint street scenes — the Gowanus Canal, and even did a series of Coney Island scenes — all in casein, which she said dried fast,” Silverstein says. “She hoped every day to sell enough to pay for rent and food. Otherwise, she lived communally or with friends.”

The earliest work on display is a watercolor, “View From Bellefield Street (Oakland) Pittsburgh,” that Phillips created in the 1920s. With its skewed architectural perspectives and rounded figures walking the street, the picture is a precursor to the artist’s modernist-inspired visual shorthand to come.

“The industrial and landscape forms are simplified and geometric,” says Borelli-Edwards. “Her figurative work is peopled with rounded and curvy forms and even when these figures are depicted in a static pose they seem to be spiritedly dancing.”

By the 1930s, these stylistic characteristics dominate Phillips’ pictures, with bold lines and shapes being matched with equally bold colors.

Here, works like “Yellow Barge, Brooklyn NY” and “Coca-Cola,” both circa 1935, match the dominant artistic trends of the moment.

“It was a difficult time in America for the arts, the WPA (Works Progress Administration) was created to help artists through the Great Depression, but art was an ultimate luxury,” says Borelli-Edwards.

In the 1930s, Phillips struggled to make ends meet, selling her paintings (and even some ceramic work for a time) to a small coterie of friends and collectors, as she would not take on another job to pay the bills.

“She was often destitute as she chose to live a life as a professional artist,” says Borelli-Edwards. “Her family at the time had forsaken her, not supportive of her chosen profession. They did not offer her any financial or emotional support.”

By 1942, Phillips’ physical and mental health was diminishing. Borelli-Edwards says Phillips ate little — save for a few crackers and ketchup packets she’d taken from cafeterias — and drank alcohol “a little too much,” but she would not relinquish her desire to pursue her chosen career, requiring her to live a bohemian life on the streets of Greenwich Village.

Her physical condition became so bad that she was hospitalized in Hudson State Hospital north of New York City.

Silverstein says her aunt’s best years were at Hudson State Hospital. “They kept her for seven years, gave her art supplies and she would go out and paint the farm landscape around the hospital and the interior scenes. She told me she was happy then, not having to worry about food or rent.”

A black-and-white photo of Phillips circa 1925 by Johnstown photographer Luke Swank shows a young, vibrant Phillips before she moved to Greenwich Village. But the remaining works on display, such as the moody “Blue Cat,” tell a different story.

“The fact that her gender was female at a time where a bohemian woman on the streets was not acceptable plus the inequality that pervaded the society at the time, especially a woman of no means, kept her from the fame and fortune of her contemporary male colleagues,” says Borelli-Edwards. “She also chose to be single, eschewing any monetary or emotional support but also the confines that are implicit with a relationship in favor of her self-expression.”

Even though Phillips’ single-minded passion for her art and her achievement as an artist evolving with the modernist movement in New York were recognized by her fellow artists and writers during the 1930s through 1950s, today she is still relatively unknown among art world cognoscenti.

“Time will give us another opportunity to re-evaluate her with an informed knowledge, placing her in the history of art in America. A place that has been long over due,” Borelli-Edwards says.

Kurt Shaw is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

Categories: Museums
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