I first met Phillip Saunders at 416 Gallery and we instantly connected over a four-hour long conversation on everything from inspiration to spirituality to the Zodiac system. I payed him a visit and kept him and his girlfriend Sarah -who's also an artist- company as he completed a painting for an upcoming exhibition at the gallery. With D’Angelo and the Vanguards Black Messiah sounding in the background, we had an insightful chat about art in Toronto, tapping into your creative voice and staying true to yourself.
What’s your first memory of creating something?
I was in Jamaica and I actually drew Mickey Mouse lifting weights, sort of merged with Popeye. I drew the ears, then the head and somehow I managed to get the angle of his body from the front lifting weights. I remember my grandmother made a huge deal out of it too (laughs).
Do you see a lot of early childhood influences popping up in your art?
Maybe in my teenage years, but not anymore. It’s more directed towards something now. You can never be too tight about it though, it’s important to stay connected to that curiosity.
What are the pros and cons of being a visual artist in the city?
Well, one of the pros is that people buy art. There are definitely buyers, people that appreciate diverse art. The con would be finding those people. It’s difficult to create an aesthetic and have people appreciate it. I can say I’m fortunate because it’s not so bad in my reality, but that’s the hardest thing for sure.
Do you think this expansion of social media is beneficial to the artistic practice or weakening?
It’s definitely a strength if you’re smart enough to take advantage of it. Your art can be seen in an instant and a buzz can be created, a big deal made out of it. You have this possibility available to you all the time. You don’t have to be an amazing artist but if you’re aesthetic doesn’t have that spark, it’s not going anywhere. It has to have some sort of mass appeal and be able to strike everyone who looks at it in a certain way. It can’t oppose anybody too much.
So in your opinion, spark has to do with mass appeal?
Not completely, but it’s definitely related and thinking in this broad manner is important to consider if you want to get your work out there.
How do you find that balance between expressing something original while at the same time pursuing that “mass appeal” without letting your art being defined by others?
You just don’t let it get over your head. I can create a character that everyone likes but do it in my own way, with my own symbology and own colours. If I’m not creating something original it immediately stifles me and the work goes right back into the closet.
What do you think is the main thing that connects art with spirituality?
The very act of expression is of natural spirituality. You can be true to yourself or you can just not know and pretend or think that you are, and whatever you produce isn’t going to be on the same level of harmony, you know?
Do you know a lot of creatives that are like that?
I won’t name any names but there are people who makes these works they are so passionate about which in the end are just copies of other people’s photography. It makes me wonder how he feels when he’s making his work, where he thinks it’s coming from. To connect, it has to come from your very origin.
What’s the most important thing a creative has to take into account when discovering his or her own voice?
Being absolutely, 100% true to yourself. If not, you’re deluding yourself. You won’t really know what you’re going to produce.
Is it possible to be 100% true to yourself?
It is. I look at it like this. When your mind is blank - if you can get to that state- it’s like a blank canvas. You have no idea where you’re going with the piece but you just make a mark and the next thing you see is your soul and you make another mark and you see something and you build on that. That came from your true self, untapped.
At this point, Phillip’s girlfriend Sarah -who’s also an artist- steps in.
Sarah: I think Phil takes it several steps deeper than the average person would, which is really admirable. But for me, I feel like you have to find a time and place where you click and feel comfortable having this natural flow of expression. It’s draining, because you’re pulling something in from yourself and finding your creative voice is like finding out who you are as a person. It doesn’t come right away so you have to keep trying and experimenting with different elements. It doesn’t have to be marks necessarily, you can also tap into that natural flow when you’re looking at a still life or at a person posing for you and you’re trying to emote something that’s raw and natural, using what you see.
Phillip: That’s a perfect way to describe it.
Working a lot with the unexpected, at what point does the experimentation turn into something you’re knowingly working towards?
Phillip: It’s hard to say when it’s no longer an experiment. If I start working on a piece and go into it, I have an idea of what’s going to come out of it, but not how it’s going to come out.
Sarah: When the piece can teach you something at the end.
Have you ever created something with a certain purpose and were surprised that the end result was something completely different?
Phillip: I have two pieces that did that. I painted a sort of devilish character once in really warm tones, red colours. A couple of weeks passed by and my mind wasn’t connected to that piece anymore at all. I had created quite a few works in the middle, but right as I was done the last piece, I looked at the first one and they were together. I had made them at two different times but they meant the exact same thing. Even the gesture of the neck on one was connected to the hands of the other one and both were representing the same Saturn. All without even realizing it.
Sarah: I have a chronic pain disorder, so I’ve found my creative voice pretty recently in life through trying to express the things I go through and the positives and negatives they bring me in life. It happened to me not long ago that I painted a portrait of someone to emote this pain and struggle, and I looked at if afterwards and realized that -if anything- she was embodying the power of being able to push through that pain. If we tap into that subconscious creativity, our paintings will tell us things like this.
Best piece of advice that you’ve ever gotten and you would like to share?
Stay true to yourself (laughs). I keep going back to that because It’s the best thing I’ve ever heard in my life. It’s why I find myself now, at this place, on Earth and it’s so incredibly rewarding. I know myself, I love myself, I enjoy myself and I understand what’s going on. In turn that allows me to help others. I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for that. A bum told me that in Florida, actually. He was a charismatic, likeable guy but he was really sick, he would drink all of the time and died of liver tuberculosis. But we would have the most epic talks and he would always say that to me: Be true to yourself. That stuck with me and I’m grateful for it. If life grants you the ability to do it, you should go for it.