The sculptures of Phillip Stern:
Articulating our hidden relationship with nature
As people, we tend to set ourselves apart from nature. Standing at a distance, we view nature as the object of artistic study, scientific inquiry, or preservation—and at times with mistrust and fear. As a sculptor, I am looking for closer contact, almost inside nature looking out, where I can cultivate a reciprocity between nature and craft—between phenomena and artistic intention. I believe that whenever we talk about and act on nature, nature is in some sense talking about and acting on us, and in my work is to bring to awareness, question, and celebrate this most primitive mutuality.
For many years, I have practiced a style of sculpture that uses open forms—spirals, waves, and parabolas—to unfold the energy of the human figure. This is a departure from the idea of using closed geometric volumes—cylinder, sphere, cube and cone—to describe nature. My figures reveal both interior and exterior surface, retaining some sense of the closed shape from which they are derived, like peel separated from an orange, or a seashell that is a record of how the animal grew. They are symbolic and hypothetical, intended to stand-in for reality in a greatly simplified way, so I can speculate about what I haven’t seen yet. Let’s suppose you elongate and reshape parts of the figure independently; make masses hollow rather than solid, open rather than closed or contained; combine aspects of different species; or substitute a found object for part of the body: then where does that take you?
I begin my work by looking for natural objects that I can invite into a visual conversation, letting them stay largely unchanged as I build a work of art around them. 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. Rather than carve or texture or polish, I let the objects be, 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.
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, and what is that figure doing? I propose answers to these questions by bending and assembling copper tubing to form the outlines of a figure person, bird, bat, tree or perhaps some combination of multiple life forms. Each figure solves a problem by creating a special relationship with its found object—incorporating, nesting, growing or jumping off.
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 tape and 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, 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 a touching new twist on the old question of what it means to be human in this bewilderingly complex universe.