The sculptures of Phillip Stern: A garden of impossible plants
We tend to see nature and art—along with so many "human" activities—as separated by intention or the lack of it. The more I think and read about natural systems, the more I understand that we can't do anything which is unnatural, and intention is besides the point. My own life is a natural system of sorts, and art plays a role in it. When I walk into the studio, I don't think "this is about me and what I am trying to say about nature". I think this is nature doing its thing, through a human consciousness. In a sense, art is nature, with a particular function: Tapping imagination and trial and error to explore unlikely scenarios. My job as a human creator is to put options out there for the system to arrive at solutions to complex problems.
Sounds like math, right? Well I've always loved doing math. But this math is not that rigorous. It's more of a noisy conversation between seemingly unrelated quantities that is looking for a "here here!" It takes a long time.
As I go about my life, I am drawn to peculiar objects. I see things like oddly twisted and ingrown tree trunks or the myriad crisscrossing of waves on the beach. Fragments of tree trunks cut or downed by storm, wrinkled birch bark festooned with fungal blossoms, hollows finely tunneled by insects, exposed growth rings—all this tells a fascinating story about the lives of trees, and of the creatures they supported.
In the moment an object catches my attention, there is an inkling of recognition of old friends, and I begin to imagine a new story. I might imagine that this piece of birch bark with elliptical knotholes is a face, this cutting of a trunk is a goat’s head. What kind of character could endure the ravages of storms and wood-boring insects? Whose face is that mask, papery white on one side, copper on the other? I propose answers to these questions by bending and assembling copper tubing to form the outlines of a figure—a person, bird, bat, tree or perhaps some combination of life forms. Each figure solves a problem by creating a special relationship with its found object—incorporating, nesting, growing or jumping off.
Rather than carve or texture, I let the objects be mostly what they were when I found them, and look for new purpose in the sheer ingenuity of their forms. I trust nature, let it shine, and riff off of it. I borrow nature and cultivate respect for it. But I'm not the only one calling the shots. The work is a kind of nature, a growing thing that would otherwise be impossible.
My work is greatly influenced by readings in science and nature. I apply what I learn about things like prehistoric bats that have an eerie humanness, the massive coordinated flocking of starlings, the heroic monogamy of the albatross, and the way trees communicate through their roots and become homes for many animal species. But I am also thrilled that each artwork is an opportunity to open the door to the unknown. I understand how the fundamental laws of nature say that many things are possible at any given time—you just have to “do the math” to figure out what the probabilities are—and I choose which way to go, over and over again.
A few words about my studio techniques: I begin with a quick sketch on paper or the studio wall. Based on the sketch I bend copper water tubing to create a structure—both a drawing in space and an armature—tied together with stainless steel screws and epoxy. The contours can be moved or reshaped in response to new information and unfolding possibilities. Fleshing-out surfaces between the copper loops using metal tape or mesh layered with polymer-fortified cement, I create surfaces and volumes that fade in and out of anatomical reference. Finally, the surface is selectively painted or glazed and sealed.
No matter how much I speculate on our connections with other natures, my work always comes back to people—with a way to make room for those other natures in our expanding sense of being human. Open, vulnerable, stretching, not all that steady on two feet; full of wonder, passion, and ecstasy; deeply curious, attentive, and receptive—the list of descriptors for us grows. Are we not in a dance with other natures, intricately entangled in a grand cosmic conversation? In the end, my creative process shows me what it means to be human in this bewilderingly complex universe.