David Philpot, master staff carver, was born in 1940, and is an accomplished artist, renowned in “outsider” or ”folk” art circles – categories that he has embraced, critiqued, and transcended. His work has been hailed, exhibited and housed in prestigious galleries, important collections, and museums of international fine arts. He is known for his magnificent staffs – fanciful, whimsical tribal totems, or abstract works of stunning geometrical complexity. They are intricately carved and often embellished with beads, shells, faux jewels, mirrors, found objects.
His ornamental collage installations are furnishings embellished with intricate mosaics of watches and clocks, and he has 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 for $36,000.00 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 is known) grew up poor and fatherless in a challenging environment on the Southside of Chicago. Growing up 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 extricate his four younger sisters from the foster care system; he married, 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 he wanted to learn to carve a staff. Staffs are symbolic totems 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 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 massive heart attack in the late 80’s – his work exploded on the art world and gained a significant following. He has exhibited and sold extensively and has 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 shown 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. Philpot was an artist-in-residence there for one month and conducted seminars on staff-carving – and while there, took his staffs to Paris, as well. Philpot, the father of three adult children, was always accompanied on these trips by his beloved first wife Jean, who passed away in 2007.
Philpot – entirely self-taught – has 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, today he lectures 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.
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 and Keith Haring, as well as ads for Seagrams and other national campaigns. Philpot’s work has been collected by arts enthusiasts world-wide and commands significant prices.
During his career, Philpot has been an esteemed mentor to other significant “outsider” artists such as “Mr. Imagination” (the late Gregory Warmack) and Milton Meisenberg, both of Chicago. Philpot has been extensively profiled and his works have appeared in many books and periodicals; he has been a subject of three Public Television documentaries, including Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations.
In In 2011, esteemed Detroit gallery owner George N’Namdi invited Philpot to his 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 is now building 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 has become a distinguished figure in Detroit’s creative community, always with one of his elaborate staffs, canes or walking sticks. He pursues community engagement – especially with youth – and shares his remarkable skills with his new city – where there are many, many Trees of Heaven.
David Philpot may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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