● By Style
Photo by Dante Fontana, © Style Media Group
Loomis based artist Helen Phillips has been creating batik masterpieces
—dye applied to fabric to create images and/or abstract patterns and designs—for more than 40 years. Her work has won an abundance of accolades, including the Award of Excellence from California Works. In honor of starting the Autumn Art Studios Tour in 1994, the Arts Council of Placer County (PlacerArts) recently hosted a retrospective of her work. Below she tells us how she came to achieve such great success in the competitive art world.
AB: How did you learn about batik artistry? How did it become your medium of choice?
HP: While training as a classroom teacher at the State University of New York (Oneonta), we were required to take art, which covered many mediums that we could use in the classroom. Batik, etching, potter (both wheel and hand built), painting, pastel, tie-dye, watercolor and drawing were [all] part of our education. Then, in 1971, while taking an adult education course through the San Juan Unified School District, I started teaching [batik] in public schools with another artist, Nancy Okey. I had been a classroom teacher and knew it would work with careful supervision.
AB: What is your most important artist tool? Is there something you can’t live without in your studio?
HP: My most important artist tool is the kistka, which is a Ukrainian egg-decorating tool. It delivers really small drops of wax, which is perfect for my intricate batiks. Also, the radio is always on in my studio and the drawings of my work have all sorts of notes on them, from recipes to football players. It’s a fun record of what I was listening to and thinking about while working on a particular batik.
AB: How do you know when a work is finished?
HP: Batik is done when the last dye coat is applied; this is one of the reasons I found [the medium] so satisfying. I studied oils and worked on many over the years, but always felt that I could make a portion of the picture better. In batik, you apply dye from your lightest color, cover it with wax, and then go onto the next color. You keep adding darker colors, one at a time, until you are finished. This has made me a much better artist, because I do a detailed drawing before I start a batik and often color some of it in.
AB: Is there a piece of work that you’re most proud of? Why?
HP: I am most proud of my piece called Downieville. It was finished in 2005 and was done in honor and memory of my husband, John, whose family came out west on the wagon trains and settled in Downieville. This was a breakthrough piece, as I was able to achieve softness for the first time in the forest above the river. Batik has a hard edge and this is very difficult to do.
For more information, visit zoomaru.org/helen_w._phillips.