Remembering Philip Sidney Field
Philip Sidney Field received his M.F.A. at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1965 and has been a member of the University of Texas- Rio Grande Valley Painting Faculty for over 40 years. Among his vast accomplishments, he has exhibited in Japan, Vienna, NYC, and Houston and has been instrumental in cultivating a generation of successful figure painters in the Rio Grande Valley.
Philip Sidney Field was one of my painting professors when I entered college at the University of Texas – Pan American in the Fall of 1991. From the moment he first walked into that Painting I class till my graduation in the Fall of 1996 (and during my one year of grad school beyond that) he would forever be my favorite professor.
It wasn’t just the knowledge that I would glean from him over those years (and he had a lot of it to share… theories in color and composition, technique… so much to impart!) but more than that he was the one to “give me permission” to be the artist I would become.
No one necessarily NEEDS permission to draw or paint what they like, but I was subconsciously handicapping myself in his painting class until the day I decided to paint a more cartoony canvas. The flood of praise, insight and direction that burst forth jubilantly from this usually silent character gave me all the impetus I needed. I was on my way.
Professor Field was an enigmatic instructor. At first glance this gentle giant seemed like a burned out hippy who had settled into a university teaching job. His paintings of people dancing to conjunto music hung in the University library. Those large canvases were a welcome sight over the five years I’d go in and out of that library working on research and term papers.
I was a horrible student as an undergraduate. Having been told by professors and friends alike that I had “talent” had gone to my young head and I tended to skip class or do the bare minimum of work, knowing that I’d still do enough to pass my classes. Even my favorite professor had to put up with it when I wound up attending his figure drawing class for the first two weeks and last two weeks of the semester. The drawings were good enough to get me a B for the class in the final meeting with him for the semester.
“I would have given you an A if you’d just shown up for class,” he told me. Ever the gracious and understanding man. Any other professor would have taken it personally and dropped me from class or given me a failing grade (and indeed there were a couple other faculty members that did). I took you totally for granted in those days, Professor Field, and for that I’m eternally sorry!
I have so many memories of this man. I would visit him during his office hours sometimes just to pester him about technique or to hear old stories about his student days. I remember him handing me a folded comic book from his back pocket one day before class… it was a copy of Mr. Natural #1 (first edition, mind you… with 2 color spot printing on the cover). He had carried around Robert Crumb’s work in his back pocket as a young man and now he was giving this crazy underground comix artifact to me! That first real taste of Crumb’s work was also a game changer for my young cartooning mind.
I remember Philip Field voraciously devouring my first attempts at grilled chicken at my engagement party in the large backyard of my first house. I still remember how enthusiastic he was about it, eating drumstick after drumstick. I had no idea what I was doing at the time. Wish I could have grilled for you later when I finally learned how to do it properly.
In the ensuing years, after I’d made my splash in the comics world as a “pioneer of webcomics”, Field would introduce his students to my work every semester as part of his discussion of digital art in some of his classes. I’m still flattered beyond words that he thought so highly of my work. He had such a huge hand in getting me there.
I was interviewing Philip over email just as he’d started his chemotherapy this past Spring. He was too weak (and indeed VERY private in his life outside of the university) to meet with me in person, so over email we started a back and forth dialogue. The interview was to be the cover story for the third issue of a now defunct local arts magazine. After the death of Richard Hyslin, another beloved professor from the same era of the UTRGV art department, it seemed imperative to interview Philip and publish some kind of tribute while he was still with us. Sadly, the folding of the magazine left me disenchanted and unable to produce that tribute before we lost Philip Field for good. Our last communication was an email asking about the fate of the interview and my apology for not letting him know sooner and that I’d get it done sooner than later and post it, publish it, get it OUT THERE as soon as I could.
Philip Sidney Field passed away Wednesday, November 9, 2016. He will live on in the hearts and minds of the students he taught in his 40+ years as a professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
Here is my interview with my old teacher, friend and mentor:
Please tell me a little bit about how you got started doing art and where you wound up studying art.
As a child I loved drawing and colored crayons. I watched and copied John Nagy’s drawings exercises on T.V. and learned and copied from Arthur Zaidenberg’s drawing book.
In the 1st grade I won an art contest and then started Saturday children’s classes at the Brooklyn Museum Art School. I loved wandering around the great collections of American landscape paintings, the Egyptian collection and the displays of American colonial rooms. It was then that I decided that I wanted to be an artist.
In junior high school I began taking oil painting classes with Evelyn Eisgrau, an excellent artist who taught me the fundamentals of mixing color and handling paint.
My studies were primarily academic, which might result in a professional career, possibly medical, as my father was a doctor and my mother a nurse.
Just after high school graduation and before going to Syracuse University I spent the entire summer in classes at the Art Student’s League of New York. I had some great teachers there – Robert Beverley Hale, Raymond Breinin, Thomas Fogarty Jr., Frank Reilly, and Charles Alston.
In my junior year at Syracuse I switched out of pre-med into art and in the next two years completed my Bachelor of Fine Art and by graduation I won a senior award in painting.
At Syracuse, at the Yale Summer School of Art, at my M.F.A. classes at Rhode Island School of Design, [during] my Fulbright Grant in Painting at the Academy of Fine Arts, and in Vienna, Austria I was lucky to meet and interact with so many brilliant people.
After you graduated from college, what led you to Pan American University?
I was in Los Angeles and a friend who was then getting her M.F.A. at Otis Parsons Art Institute accidently saw a post on a bulletin board advertising the position. I wanted to impress her and boldly stated that I could get that job. Also the money that I had saved up from three years of teaching, in Thomas Jefferson High School in New York, and from my first college teaching job at Juniata College, P.A., was almost gone. The idea of having a printmaking studio to work in was also a great incentive.
During the time you were teaching, you continued to work and exhibit. Tell us a little bit about the shifts that occurred in your working methods over the span of those years. Specifically, it seems you went from painting to printmaking and continued to do the two until the 90′s when you started to work digitally for the first time. Is that accurate?
In the 1970’s my intaglio printmaking moved from black and white into color.
This technique requires multiple metal plates to be registered perfectly in place on a dampened paper that is shrinking during the process. It requires great skill and is usually done best by a team of printers in a professional studio than by an individual artist. Each print can take over an hour to hand produce and the total effort, especially for an individual artist can be great, even to produce a modest edition of 25 prints.
I had success with my imagery, getting into many juried shows and winning awards, particularly ColorPrint USA, but because of time restraints and my own psychological makeup I was more interested in creating my next new image than producing editions. At that time at Pan American there was a very heavy teaching load of five classes. In addition to printmaking I taught painting, drawing, figure drawing, and art appreciation.
I was hopeful when I sent a series of color prints to a well-known New York print publisher that had agreed to distribute my prints, but then disheartened when they cheated me out of all the work I had sent them. I learned that this was a long standing practice of print publishers. Vollard while promoting Picasso prints had cheated many artists out to their work.
I was not interested of the very pixelated early computer work that was being done in the 1970’s. I got my first computer in 1996 and began digitally printmaking. I knew that even though there were trade-offs in image making and quality, the computer as an artistic tool had evolved exponentially. My belief is that as long as the artist is truly involved with the media he is using to create the artwork, what he is creating is original.
During the 80′s you moved away from surreal imagery to paint large paintings of people dancing to Conjunto music. Tell us a little bit about what lead you to that stylistic change and what you gained from the experience.
I came to the Valley in 1971 and by the mid 1980’s had evolved three of four modes of expression, primarily personal, symbolic and spiritual imagery. By then my contact to New York City and Europe had lessened, actually almost ceased, and my attention and life was now the Rio Grande Valley.
One of my strengths had always been figure drawing from life, and I was teaching it, but not actually using the figure in a gestural manner in my own work.
I had been visiting the Valley Flea market dances on and off for many years and seen the energy and movement of these dances. I also liked the strong beat and power of the Conjunto music, as its power suggested strong patterns of light and shade. Another entry point into valley subject matter were the myths and legends collected by UTPA Anthropology Professor Mark Glazer in his book Flour From Another Sack. One story in particular, the Devil in the Disco became my first dance painting.
At first I was reluctant to use Valley subject matter thinking I might be usurping subject from another culture. But with my very first paintings I realized that the people of the Valley, particularly my students who I imagined and later used as models, were actually a part of my inner experience, and that I could truly “be” every figure I represented.
I wove my own personal ideas and stories into these dance paintings so that I feel that these works are both particular to the Valley and universal. There is nothing so poignant and heroic to me as a man and woman dancing, trying to find happiness and express joy in an often hard and difficult world.
In the move to digital, what were some of the challenges that you encountered initially in working methods, how to display the work and with the reception of the work? It seems like the proliferation of dye sub printers and large format commercial printing over the last few years has lead to an explosion of possibilities for artists to print their digital work that weren’t available in the early years.
Since I began digital printmaking I have had some difficulties with program instability and printers, but in general there has been a constant improvement, and the digital print is by far more flexible and forgiving than earlier traditional methods. We must realize that all printmaking methods were developed for mass communication and their commercial ability, to create and distribute “exact multiple duplicates” in a faster and more efficient manner.
An incredible number of layers of a print are manipulated and adjusted and registered in a computer program like Photoshop, with an ease and sensitivity that far surpasses silkscreen and lithography. Now an individual artist has no difficulty with the registration problems I described earlier.
The digital tablet makes drawing and painting seem quite natural, pixels are no longer seen, and the computer’s color range is much greater than in previous techniques. The possibility for adjusting the size of the image and print during the creative process is a great advantage.
Importantly each image is now a digital resource that can be integrated with other digital images. The computer is not only a printmaking studio, but an animation, video, music and film studio.
I’ve had trouble convincing museums to let me display large banners. However, with the recent appearance of a Ron English banner in Brownsville and your own recent show LIFE WITH WRATH being printed on banner material do you see the acceptance of commercially printed work in the art world as time goes on?
The images for my LIFE WITH WRATH show all started as 4” x 6” pencil drawings, and while I’ve digitally colored and enlarged each work to 17.5” x 22” I have not gone to a larger or banner size, because of their original scale. I did have a couple of my previous show posters printed up to a width of 36” and they looked good at that scale.
In time digital art commercially printed will certainly become more acceptable as it will dominate fine art image production. The pricing of an individual work however may be lower and the art establishment equates scarcity with a higher price.
It is always up to the buyer of the art to discern quality. Because of technology there will continue to be more “art”, both good and bad, created than ever before.
Tell us about the LIFE WITH WRATH cycle and the significance of “Fast Food Frozen Mexican Style Art”
Professor Field directed me to this article written by Nancy Moyer, once head of the art department and a long time colleague (and another professor of mine from UTRGV!) in answer to this question.