Esther Phillips: A Self-Designed Life

Lisa Miles: Dustin recently asked me to contribute to the Project, and I was humbled by his kind introduction to my essay about Artists and the WPA. What informed that work was the life of Esther Phillips, my own as an artist, and the many others I know like her and I, who fiercely adhere to an inner compass.

Esther Phillips was an artist who endured much hardship, including institutionalization, just so she could pursue a life of painting. Her paintings explored the essential physicality of the human figure, the city street, the outdoors–all in broad strokes, muted earthy palettes, and reminiscent of Milton Avery and Doris Lee. Esther’s life story, however, is really the tale of many forgotten artists, throughout history, and working unto this day.

She made Greenwich Village her home in 1936 and never came back to her hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But what would surface was pieces of her story, making themselves known through decades of correspondence and speculation among friends, as well as through her paintings, which did return. In the Village, Esther lived very minimally, but very committed to this way of artistic life. She would write of “the stark tragedy of trying to exist on nothing.”

Upon falling ill, she was institutionalized for over six years in the small town of Wingdale, in eastern New York. There she would commence the prolific painting activities that would always make up her life, producing canvases that portrayed her otherworldly existence at the time– women playing cards and bowling, and dancing around half-dressed in day-rooms. Then upon Esther’s release to post WWII America, returning to the transient living in the harbor that was the Village, she once again attempted to cope with a larger society that did not recognize artistic efforts, despite the ‘late 30s Federal Arts Projects (WPA), yet at the time played up (and ultimately ‘played with’) the success of the male Abstract Expressionists.

Esther wrote constantly to woman writer Merle Hoyleman, a dear friend from Pittsburgh, and an agent of sorts for her art. The diligence she expended on both is startlingly apparent in letters to Esther and those she successfully marketed to, and also in scores of journals that reveal the intensity of her own creative life. And the effects of fellow Village artist Eugenia Hughes, in the New York Public Library, illustrate another remarkable bond of friendship that survived adversity. They alone spin a tale– perhaps the greatest find among them, which includes everything from actual art work of Esther and “Jerry,” source material on the famed personalities of the Village, and diaries galore, are original copies of letters Esther wrote while institutionalized.

“I felt a vague, strange, and then real impulse to write you–knowing or rather remembering that you had written to the doctor. I still feel almost no hope for myself…but what I want Jerry is this–my watercolor box & 2 good brushes….”

Later in life, Esther gave entertaining portraits to a young niece of the lascivious Village, and a peek into the inner-relationships among the lucky few who would reach fame as Abstract Expressionists, and those who did not, as most of the rest of the Village artists. Esther’s very voice also eerily arises from institution documents. “Patient was asked why she didn’t go in dining room to work this a.m. and patient very sarcastic. “This God Damn place is enough to make patients sick.’” And Esther’s treatment from the institution director was most unusual. For, upon seeing her talent (and hearing incessantly from Merle Hoyleman), Dr. Alfred M. Stanley of Harlem Valley Hospital provided means for Esther to sell back in Pittsburgh.

The intensity and commitment Esther placed on the creative way of life was the same as with the equally vibrant individuals who lived creatively in her world. But Esther slowly lost her sight toward the end of her life. One of her closest friends from the 1950’s, Edward Kinchley Evans, felt that Esther Phillips’ blindness was a “self-inflicted sorrow wound,” essentially because the world would not view her and her friends’ work as meaningful.

Despite all obstacles, Esther had managed to make her own world through that which she was most able and passionate about, her art. She was not selfish or self-absorbed, she was simply self-aware. She (and most current-day American artists) had no health insurance, no pension, and never adequate income– forever under-employed. But her professed occupation, when queried at the institution, was “artist.” Little matter society doesn’t really consider “artist” an occupation as much as a sparingly-decorated frivolity.

Esther very determinedly chose to embrace and cultivate an individual essence that she recognized within herself, going passionately after a self-designed life. Like Esther, creative artists the world over– who are committed to creation of an outer life that is attuned to the inner– have so much to teach others. Sadly, mainstream America, at least, doesn’t want to think about creativity, or worse yet, critically examine the conditions and constraints under which creative people usually live.

For more on Esther and other pieces by Lisa Miles, visit her website.


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