Phil Craig – From Ottawa Magazine

PHIL CRAIG by Alan King

For an artist with a panic-stricken art dealer clamouring for paintings, Philip Craig looks remarkably unperturbed. A mere month from now his one-man show is scheduled to open at the Diana Paul Gallery in Calgary and in this conspicuously unfrenzied atmosphere the possibility of that happening seems laughably remote.

Splayed out along the desks and cabinets of his studio are 10 jumbo-sized, partially sketched canvases, the product of a recent trip to England. Craig, a robust fifty-year-old, clad in a golf shirt and slacks, looks more like a real estate broker than an artist. He’s shuffling through the paintings, doing little verbal riffs on each scene. “Oh, the bulk of the work is done,” he says laughing as he drags another one into view. “It’s just the painting now. That’s the easy part.”

It would be tempting to indulge his optimism and concede that these proto-masterpieces are just waiting for their finishing touches. But there’s no denying the obvious. These babies are waiting to be painted. And for anyone who has ever worked with the demanding medium of oil paint, the painting is definitely not the easy part.

What lays before Craig’s outstretched arm is a gaggle of white canvases squared off lightly with pencil and covered with scribbles of india ink. Dabs and splotches indicate fishing boats in Falmouth Harbour here, the vague outline of an English manor house there. But look for a single color-saturated lick of the lush oil paint that is his trademark and you won’t find it anywhere.

Assuming he gets it all done in four weeks, each of these landscapes will sell for anywhere between $2,000 and $22,000. Mostly they’ll be in the higher, downpayment-on-the-house range. If previous shows are any indication, every one of them will have the little red dot on its label long before the show closes and there may be, as has happened in the past, a minor ruckus or two at the opening from disgruntled potential buyers who didn’t arrive early enough to buy one.

The experience of not being able to get hold of a Craig isn’t exactly a rare one these days. Galleries across the country vie for the chance to sell his paintings and the ones that do get their hands on a few often grumble about the other galleries that got more.

A couple of months after he mounted his last Calgary show he received an unexpected cheque from Joan Martyn at the Nancy Poole Studio, his Toronto dealer. She told him sales were usually pretty slow in the summer so she thought he might find the extra money handy. As a not so subtle afterthought she said, “I’ll bet Diana Paul doesn’t do this, does she.”

In Ottawa, John Wallack of Wallack’s gallery says that he doesn’t sell that many Craigs because the market here is limited for paintings in his price range. It might also be because Craig has a core of collectors here who buy his work right off the easel.

Why his work is so popular can be explained partly by his glistening surfaces and the breathtaking assurance in his handling of color and form. It is also the result of a shrewd understanding of the marketplace. These days Craig paints mainly Tuscany and the south of France, two locales which occupy a hallowed niche in the imaginations of North Americans, particularly well-heeled ones who can afford to vacation there. The huge sales of the books ‘A Year in Provence’ and ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ are testimony enough.

Twice a year Craig and his wife make the pilgrimage, staying for three weeks each time. They settle in at quaint hotels in villages like Carpentras near Avignon, visit friends and snap pictures of the history-sodden hilltowns and valleys. When they return, the deadlines loom, the phones ring non-stop. For the next 3 weeks Craig will endure a punishing schedule of sixteen-hour days laying on coat after coat of richly glazed paint in preparation for another one-man show.

Yet for all this commercial success he remains curiously unknown in Ottawa, the city of his birth and the place that keeps him from settling permanently near the European source of his inspiration. The essential downtowner and down-sizer (with three grown children), he lives with his wife in a house overlooking Brown’s Inlet. “I’ve got my sort of mini-Giverny,” he says, “It’s got the overhanging trees and lily pads. There are frogs and ducks and herons and muskrats.”

In spite of the roots and commercial success, no local paper has ever profiled him. No television station has featured him with the exception of a brief appearance on Ken Rockburn’s CBC-TV Rockburn and Company’. At home he’s the invisible man.

The reason is that Craig is so lacking in the posturing and soul-baring theatrics of the typical artist that most media have trouble finding a ‘hook’. There’s no glamorous studio location like Yousef Karsh’s old Chateau Laurier digs and no romantic back-story à la Amanda Forsythe. It’s almost as if Craig doesn’t want to be thought of as ‘artistic’.  So, when he’s asked something artsy, like, “Who are your influences?” he deadpans, “Nobody really… Um, well, maybe Monet. I’m a sort of modern Impressionist.”

Ok, then. How about this, “Are there artists painting today whose work you admire and who have influenced your style?” Pausing for a very long time he replies, “There is somebody. Just let me think about it. I’ll come up with a name before the end of the day.” He never does.

Once when he was in Bel Air, the toney suburb of LA, he ran into Joanie Mitchell in a grocery store. For years he had listened to her records while he painted and finally had the chance to tell her how important her songs were to him. Joanie is, as everyone knows, a painter in her own right. Did he mention that he was an artist too? “No,” he says, “Everybody’s an artist, for goodness sake. She would’ve thought I did little woodcarvings or something.”

Why the reticence? Perhaps because Craig thinks of himself mainly as a businessman producing a commodity. That commodity just happens to be very good art. It’s a concept that doesn’t have much currency in today’s government-subsidized museum culture but it’s one with a fairly illustrious lineage: Rubens, Rembrandt and Mozart thought pretty much the same way. They didn’t consider art a sacred calling; it was a craft.

If there is anything that is sacred to Craig, it’s his belief that art should be accessible to everybody, rich or poor. It may explain his efforts to get his work into the hands of people who wouldn’t normally be able to afford his originals. Unlike a lot of artists of his calibre, Craig has held back on getting full-tilt into the signed limited edition print business because, “I like posters. They’re cheaper, more accessible. They bring great pleasure to people. And who can afford to pay hundreds of dollars for a print or $15,000 or $20,000 for a painting?”

In his case, the answer turns out to be quite a few. Nevertheless, and in spite of his misgivings, he does have four signed prints marketed by The Artists Garden, Canada’s premiere limited edition publishers and distributors for such high profile and unlikely bedfellows as Trish Romance and Alex Colville.

As for the posters, Canadian Art Prints in BC say they have sold close to 100,000 unsigned prints of his work. When told about an online dealer who sells framed and matted versions of his prints from a site in California, he says he’s never heard of him and that there are probably lots of galleries and framers out there whose livelihoods depend on their connection with Phil Craig.

They aren’t alone. Walking through the bowling-alley-sized studio near Bronson and Fifth, you quickly realize that the fine art end of Phil Craig’s business is just the top coat on a thick, multi-layered canvas. Most fine artists have to work at another job so they can afford the time to paint. For Craig it’s the reverse: a mini-conglomerate of film producers and animators depends on the cash flow generated by the sales of his paintings.

One of those businesses is Dynomight Cartoons, a company run by his wife, Diane Craig. Their current mainstay is the popular ‘Untalkative Bunny’ which plays on the Teletoon Network. During their 8 years in business they’ve been involved in a number of major animated feature films including “Joseph” for which they did the backgrounds in partnership with Dreamworks, Stephen Speilberg’s company.

Then there’s the television production design side. Craig began his career as a designer for CBC 30 years ago, working on shows like “Under The Umbrella Tree”, “CODCO” and “Joey” in Newfoundland.  It was his wife who 12 years ago talked him into trying fine art full-time and leaving the comfort of steady work, benefits and pensions. But he’s still at it, producing along with a small staff, sets for the BBC’s “Noddy” and Salter Street Studio’s “Pirates”.

As he negotiates his way past the eighty or so animators’ desks crammed into the space next to his, he finally gets around to talking about what it means to be a painter. He tells a story about a painting he did of the lobby of a small French hotel. “It was nothing special,” he says. But at the opening of his show a woman who was staring at it burst into tears. She was so moved by the extraordinary beauty of the work that she couldn’t help herself.

Craig cites it as an example of how he tries to convey the emotion he feels when he sees a particularly beautiful scene and that occasionally people seem to get more emotional reward from the paintings than he actually puts into them. He also says that what he tries to do is share the intense pleasure of balancing shape and texture and color, that he loves the challenge of trying new approaches to his work, of emphasizing line rather than shape, of letting the structure of a painting reveal itself.

It’s a gratifying end to an afternoon in which the conversation has run the gamut, as Dorothy Parker once said, “From A to B”: from project financing to charity fund-raising. Here at last was the artist actually talking like an artist.

Meanwhile, you can hear the phone ringing in Craig’s office. It could be the animation partner Diane has in Lithuania, the special effects studio they use in Montreal, or a student wanting to attend one of Craig’s open painting classes. It could be one of a multitude of business and social contacts. More likely it’s the gallery owner, about to burst into tears.