Born Chicago, IL, 1940 / Lives in Detroit
David Philpot is an antenna, finely tuned to subtle frequencies. He listens carefully, receiving transmissions from as far away as West Africa, and from as nearby as God or the wood in his hands. His primary medium, fittingly, is the staff, an energizing rod that joins the earth to the sky via the human being who wields it.
Long before he ever considered himself an artist, the 30-year-old Philpot heard a voice call his name, leading him, amazed, to an oasis: a grove of trees in a Chicago housing project. A week later, Philpot, who had never abandoned his childhood habit of gathering and carrying sticks, and who had recently admired Charlton Heston’s staff in The Ten Commandments, woke in the night with a mission: to chop down one of those trees, and make from it a staff of his own. When it was done, he called it Genesis (1971), an apt title for the first of more than 350 staffs he has made in the 45 years since.
Philpot, who has no formal art training, says that he felt “satisfied” for three or four months after the completion of Genesis, but soon began to feel the need to make another staff, and after that, another. For years, he could be seen traversing his urban environs, cutting down Ailanthus altissima, also known as ghetto palms or trees of heaven, and carrying them home, where he meticulously carved them into staffs, embellished them, and then set them aside. This was just a hobby, he says, a getaway from a world that could be cruel to a “big, raggedy-looking Negro” with a stammer. But when he began to show the work, it was met with enthusiasm, and Philpot was nonplussed to hear himself described as a talented “African-style artist.” The following years were marked by a succession of laurels, including invitations to exhibit his work at African embassies, the DuSable Museum of African-American History, and, in 1989, the Dallas Museum of Art, as part of its landmark exhibition exploring the “African impulse” in the work of 50 American artists.
Nonetheless, the idea that his hobby was related in any meaningful way to the art of Africa was one that took Philpot years to accept. He labored with no practical knowledge of African staff-making traditions until 1997, when he took a research trip to West Africa. In Ghana, he gifted a staff to a tribal king, who installed it near his throne, and he met with fellow staff-makers, who illuminated his own practice with their learned explications of his work. It was there that Philpot finally accepted that he was indeed an artist, and that his intuitive creations were his “ancestral legacy,” reaching out to him in the form of the staff.
Philpot’s staffs are typically six to eight feet tall. Each is an intricate, self-contained world. They are sinuous or geometric, painted or uncolored, elaborate or plain. They are unadorned or embellished with found objects, including rocks, jewels, coins, and mirrors. They take shape slowly, telling Philpot while he works how they want to be carved and with what materials they would prefer to be adorned. They are often untitled; Philpot says he is not always privy to their names, which should ideally be given by “whoever raises them up.”
For many years, Philpot restricted his creative output to these staffs or his smaller canes. But his participation in several civic art initiatives in Chicago took him on a notable creative detour that found him transforming existing objects via the application of found materials — see, for example, Cow (1999) and Time (2013). Because these fantastic, bewitching works do not involve the artist’s masterful carving, they bring into starker relief his gifts as a mosaic maker, including his sensitive consideration of material and proportion, and his painstaking application and arrangement of objects like beads, shells, clocks, and glass eyes.
Five years ago, Philpot became a Detroiter. He’d been invited to exhibit at the N’Namdi Gallery here, and when a voice in the night told him to come, he listened, arriving as a well-known elder statesman of African-American folk art. (The Heidelberg Project’s Tyree Guyton, a longtime admirer, greeted Philpot on his knees.) He’s been here ever since, and says he feels, for the first time, a growing connection to a wider art world. Now that he’s put down roots here, he’s picking up transmissions from the local scene, and gathering ideas for his work: “I have entered this new universe,” he says, “and now I have to let it guide me.”
Matthew Piper, April 2016
Copyright Essay’d 2016