Shaping hands

Phil Simpson

Photo By Larry Dalton

The hands of an artist can tell many stories. From the artist’s first mistake to the debris of his or her last piece still embedded underneath the fingernails, the hands are a roadmap to an artist’s life and work. The hands of Sacramento ceramicist Phil Simpson, 41, reflect 18 years of work that has become a passion, not just a hobby. In addition to being an artist, Simpson is a parking attendant by night, and if you leave Downtown Plaza between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., you may even see him working on one of his sculptures in his booth. Some of Simpson’s finished pieces are currently showing at Phoenix Framing and Gallery on L Street.

How long have you been sculpting? And what first interested you in this medium?

I’ve been sculpting since I was 13 years old. I started then, and I continued while I was in school for eight years. I took a break for almost 10 years doing commercial work. Then I went back to sculpting in 1996.

Do you remember what your first ceramic piece was?

Oh, God. This is embarrassing, but I was 13 years old, and it was a replication of C-3PO from Star Wars.

Where did you learn to sculpt?

At Jonas Salk Middle School; Encina High School; California State University, Sacramento; American River College; Sacramento City College and from different instructors who have given me encouragement, specifically from a high-school teacher named Eric Dahlen. It really has been my passion, my chosen form of media. I have done painting, airbrush and other forms, but sculpting is really where my heart is. I like the physical aspect to it, the 3-D form. And I like working with my hands, as well.

How did you get your first show?

I was working with another artist here named Galelyn Williams; she gave me a lot of encouragement to do my fine art. Galelyn introduced me to Linda Jolley at the Big Art gallery, and she liked what I was doing, so she gave me my first show in 1996. Then, shortly afterward, Big Art closed, and from there I sold with Diane Tempest for three years at Blooming Art, and now with her again at the Galleria Tempest on Polk Street in San Francisco.

How does it feel when you finish a piece, and how does it feel when you have to sell that piece?

One thing that happens with some artists is that they are not sure when it is finished. They might say, “Oh, I can just add a stroke here.” But I always know exactly when it’s done, and hopefully when I’m done with it, I’ll feel a sense of satisfaction. It feels wonderful to achieve something that you have in your mind and then put it down. When it comes to selling it, there are certain pieces that you have attachments to or feelings for. But I feel great when something has sold that I felt very strongly for, because now someone else will be able to share it.

How do you define art?

I believe art is anything that can evoke an emotional response or action through an image. When you see a piece of mine, and it gives you a feeling or reaction, then it does what I want it to do.

What’s your secret? How do you keep your glazes from bleeding together?

That took awhile. I found a technique that worked well for me, and through experimentation with different types of glazes I found which ones work well. When I work with low-fire glazes, there are specific ones by Duncan and Mayco that I use. I do my pieces through a three-step process. First, it is with a stain that is usually in black. Then I’ll add color, and then I’ll put a clear over the whole thing. I found that that worked well for me. I like low fire, but I also enjoy high fire. My first show was just high-fire iron oxide.

I also enjoy raku, an ancient form of Japanese firing. In the way that I like sculpture for being a physical process, Raku is very much a physical process. When you do a raku process, you first heat the piece to 190 degrees. Then you take the piece out of the kiln with tongs, and it is glowing red, and it looks almost like glass. And then you take it with tongs and put it into containers that have combustible items—such as newspaper, leaves and sawdust—and you seal it. You let it burn for like 12 minutes and then take it out with tongs. Sometimes it is still on fire, and then you immerse it in water. You can also just let it air dry, as well. I did a series of armadillos [with] raku, and it is a really unpredictable process. … There’s no control, and that is the reverse of my low-fire glazes, which involve complete control. This is 100 percent the opposite, because you don’t know what you are going to get, and it’s really exciting. It is also volatile because when you are taking it out of the containers, the pieces can break and shatter.