David Philpot

Artist – Master Staff Maker, Carver, Mosaic & Collage Master


David Randolph Philpot

November 21, 1940 – June 28, 2018

David Philpot was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1940, the son of May Ruth and James Philpot, who preceded him in death; he attended Chicago Public Schools, graduating from Dunbar High School, eventually attaining an Associates Degree. He was a masterstaff carver renowned in “outsider” or ”folk” art circles – categories that he embraced, critiqued, and transcended. He is known for his magnificent staffs – whimsical, artful totems; abstract works of stunning geometrical complexity. They are intricately carved and often embellished with beads, crystals, shells, faux jewels, mirrors, and found objects.

His ornamental collage installations are fiberglass furnishings embellished with intricate mosaics of watches and clocks, and he created a massive 12-foot high PCV-pipe – adorned with beads and cowry shells. For a 1999 Chicago city arts campaign, he created a life-sized “Cow” adorned with thousands of gold beads, buttons and shells. It was purchased by media mogul Oprah Winfrey, as a fundraiser for Intuit, an influential Chicago non-profit arts gallery that was an early supporter of Philpot’s work.

Philpot (as he was known) grew up in a challenging environment on the Southside of Chicago. He had a speech impediment – a stammer – which made him the brunt of ridicule and ill-treatment. Later, he returned from four years of Vietnam War-era service in Germany to raise his four younger sisters who had been in foster care. In 1966 he married Janey Rouse – whom he came to call Jean – and after a time, worked for 17 years as a taxi mechanic while raising two boys and a girl. He had no artistic leanings as a child, but “always loved the feeling of wood,” and carried and whittled sticks throughout the neighborhood.


He began his work as an artist in 1971, at age 31, when he was inspired to make a staff after seeing the story of Moses in the movie The Ten Commandments. In the Biblical story, Moses is described as being “halt of speech”, which resonated with Philpot because of his stammer. After seeing fancy canes in a shop window, he first tried his hand at cane carving, but determined that there were many canes on the market but few staffs. He told God that he wanted to learn to carve a staff. Staffs are symbolic in many cultures, evoking power, strength and maturity.

Shortly thereafter “a voice” told him to cut down a branch of a tree in the projects where he lived, and he made his first staff – called “Genesis”. It took him a year to carve and he carried it – in various stages of completeness – wherever he went. Since then he has worked almost exclusively with the Ailanthus altissimus, known as the Tree of Heaven, Chinese Sumac, Stink Tree or Ghetto Palm. He found this hearty, abundant tree perfect for his staffs, due to its straight lines and prolific growth in urban areas. He made staffs for ten years but never exhibited until he was coaxed to show them in 1981, when he immediately received “Best of Show” and prestigious awards.

Despite economic privation, job loss, self-doubt and uncertainly as to the value of his work during his early career – and a heart attack in the late 80’s – his work exploded on the art world and gained a significant following. He exhibited extensively and had long relationships with prestigious Chicago galleries including Intuit (Intuitive and Outsider Artists), the Judy Saslow Gallery and the Carl Hammer Gallery.

In 1997, Philpot received a Chicago sister-city grant to study indigenous carving in Accra, Ghana. As a result of this program, one of Philpot’s staffs was presented to the Ashanti king in Kumasi, Ghana and became a part of his royal collection, placed next to the throne. During Philpot’s visit to Ghana, the American Ambassador to Senegal, West Africa invited Philpot to Dakar Senegal, where three of Philpot’s staffs were exhibited for three years. In 2000, Philpot’s work was chosen for the Arts In Embassies program, sponsored by the U.S. State Department. His staffs were loaned by the U.S. government for exhibition in the American Embassies in Cairo, Egypt; Swaziland, South Africa; and Dakar, Senegal.


In Chicago, the late Mayor Richard Daley and his wife, the late Maggie Daley, were avid supporters of Philpot’s work, and they displayed images of Philpot’s collage installations on their official holiday greeting cards. Mayor Daley appointed Philpot to represent Chicago in an international visiting artists’ program in England, where Philpot was an artist-in-residence for one month – and he took his staffs to show in Paris, as well. Philpot was always accompanied on these trips by his beloved Jean, who passed away in 2007. Philpot’s children, David Eugene, David Nickie and Nicole Louise Ruth, grew up with his art practice, and accompanied him to innumerable art shows in and outside of Chicago.

Philpot – entirely self-taught – shared his skills and vision with countless students – young and old – in public and private, urban and suburban schools, universities and community centers. Having been negatively labeled when he was young, due to his stammer, he lectured arts educators and students as to the motivational role of the arts. Philpot was the keynote speaker at many programs in Illinois and Wisconsin. In 1999, he and Native American singer-activist Buffy St. Marie were co-lead speakers at the annual Michigan Arts Education Conference in Sault St. Marie. Philpot lectured and led workshops at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

His work has been exhibited and housed in prestigious galleries, important collections, and museums of international fine arts. Philpot’s staffs are a part of many important permanent collections, including the Du Sable Museum, the Harold Washington Library, AT&T Headquarters, Illinois State Museum, Carbondale Museum and the Anacostia Community Museum of the Smithsonian, in Washington D.C. His work was part of influential “Black Arts-Ancestral Legacy” exhibit at the Dallas Museum, which began in 1989 and toured the U.S. for over two years. A Philpot staff was featured in the ground-breaking Absolut Vodka ad series with artists such as Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Keith Haring, as well as ads for Seagrams and other national campaigns. Philpot’s work has been collected by arts enthusiasts world-wide.

Philpot was a mentor to other significant “outsider” artists such as “Mr. Imagination” (the late Gregory Warmack) and Milton Meisenberg, both of Chicago, and he inspired a young Tyree Guyton, of the Heidelberg Project in Detroit. Philpot was extensively profiled and his works appeared in many books and periodicals; he was the subject of three Public Television documentaries.

In 2011, esteemed gallery owner George N’Namdi invited Philpot to his Detroit gallery to participate in a multi-artist exhibition called “Homeland”. At that show Philpot met – and in 2012 married – Detroit writer, Marsha Music. He moved from Chicago, and built his career anew in Detroit, where his creative repurposing of the discarded is a particularly compelling art form. As befitting an artist of his stature, Philpot became a distinguished figure in Detroit’s creative community, always seen with one of his elaborate staffs, canes or walking sticks. In 2015, three of his staffs were chosen to be a part of the permanent exhibit in the U.S. Embassy in Swaziland, Southern Africa, and in 2017 he was awarded a prestigious Kresge Fellowship in the Visual Arts. At the time of his passing, Philpot was preparing for an exhibit at the Marshall M. Fredericks Museum in Saginaw, and for a permanent installation at the new El Moore park, in Midtown Detroit.

David Philpot accepted Christ in his mature years, and passed away after an extended illness. His sisters Christina and Cherise preceded him in death. He leaves behind to cherish his memories, beloved wife Marsha, sons David Eugene Philpot (Rita) and David Nickie Philpot (Colkeyah), daughter Nicole Louise Ruth Wilson (Demond Sr.), sisters, including his cherished sister Cynthia, his dear friend Jonnie M. Harvey, step-sons Akki and Joe, and a host of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.


Many hands contributed to the Celebrations of Life – Special Thanks to:

Music – Michelle Ann May Quartet;

Military Honors – Veterans Administration Midtown;

Flowers – Sara Pappas,
African Drum Processional – Efe Bes, Jeffrey Nzoma, et al;
African Dance – Andrea E. Wall House, et al;

Staff Sentinels – Art,Leslie Ann Pilling;
Hostess – Suzette Daye;
Facilitation – D&D Storage;

DJ – Sterling Toles;

Song – Kim Potts, [Lillie Renee Compton];

Catering – Kim Potts

Advisory, Nefertiti Harris, Larry King, Lillian Herndon; Carlos Nielbock;
Video Photo Montage,Detroit Bleu,
Ginger Tea, Lammia Tefnut for Heart of the Lioness;
Accommodations – Bucky Willis, Jeff Herron, Rebecca Mazzei/Joel Peterson

Producer, Izegbe N’Namdi for the N’Namdi Center

Please forgive any forgetting; attribute to the head, and not the heart.



Words by Ayo Ali Daoud:

“to remember David Philpot & thank Marsha Philpot for liking my tweet poems @AliDaoudPoetry


the great wood carver walked the way
a tall man happy wit his height
would walk, as if he didnt weigh
as much as summer winds in flight,
but i know who was at his side
wit every step—the spirits of
the sticks he carried & the bride
he took & left wit us to love”