Artist digs beneath the surface
November 17, 2009
Artist Phillip Buller visited Park City this summer with a specific objective in mind: to find out what the town’s story is.
Buller had been commissioned to create a large-scale mural for the new St. Regis Deer Crest Resort. The only requirement was that the work had to be historically relevant.
He came to Park City on a quest to find out about the town’s underlying theme. "It was immediately clear that it was silver mining," he says. "I didn’t have to look far."
To gather information, Buller perused the collections and photo archives in the Park City Museum and visited the remaining mine structures in the area. "I was trying to immerse myself in that whole story and trying not to think too much about the painting," he says.
When he returned to his home on Galiano Island, British Columbia, Buller had at his fingertips an arsenal of images, research and stories. All he had to do was decide how he wanted to portray Park City’s mining heritage on a 7-by-27-foot rectangular panel.
"They asked for something historical, but they did not specify anything more than that, which was really nice for me because it gave me some freedom," Buller says.
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He spent about a month sketching a pastel drawing to present to the St. Regis management. Once he had their approval, he got to work on the larger project, which consists of three linen-covered panels that will be placed in the resort’s bar.
"My interest and my excitement about it was to have the painting depicting what it would actually be like to be in the mines," he says. In order to explore the miners’ limited light sources, he took photos of himself and his son illuminated by candlelight.
The effect was similar to the lighting in paintings that Buller has studied from the 1500s and 1600s. He went back and examined paintings by Caravaggio and others that he used while teaching at painting retreats in Italy. "I was exposed to a lot of those paintings and loved them, and I always look at them for inspiration and consider those painters to be my teachers," he says.
As he starting painting, one of the challenges Buller ran into was visualizing the angle at which people would be viewing the work. The mural would be situated about four feet off the ground and extend to the ceiling. "I realized in the beginning that I really needed to be able to see it in that location in my studio," Buller says. He hung the panels and created a block and tackle system to hoist himself to different levels. "It was something right out of the Renaissance, and it was quite satisfying," he says.
Another challenge was deciding which type of event – or moment in time – he wanted to depict. "Most Renaissance paintings are about a single event," Buller explains. "Because I admire those painters so much, I wanted to work in that direction. I wanted to have an event of some kind, and the three panels would function as one painting of a moment in the mines when something happened."
It soon occurred to Buller that he didn’t want to encapsulate just one moment, but several moments. "It became clear to me in the process that if I stuck with this idea of one moment, it didn’t include a certain kind of timelessness," he says. He strived to encompass memories and suggestions of other moments in the mines as well. "It kind of broke through a singular time and also a singular space in a way," he says.
The miners portrayed in Buller’s work are not specific people, but he took great pains to create authentic, realistic expressions on their faces. "The fine tuning was a lot of the process – painting and repainting the faces over and over just to get the right expression and the right balance," he says.
He also grappled with the balance between the conscious and the subconscious components of the painting. "To me, a very important aspect of painting is a certain kind of a meeting between the left brain and the right brain," he says.
When the painting starts to drift in one direction, he reexamines his method and tries to pull it back the other way, reveling in the tug-of-war between mystery and clarity. "Those two aspects together are what really make painting exciting for me and they’re what lead me," he explains.
"For the viewer, you see something that’s recognizable, but you also get a feeling of something that’s a little harder to pin down or explain," he says. "You can feel some change happening. That’s a lot of the work of painting for me, keeping that delicate balance and trying to arrive at right mixture of those two sides."
Buller describes his process as traditional oil painting with elements of printmaking. Before he begins, he attaches a piece of fiberglass window screen over the canvas’ surface. He paints through the material, and when he removes the screen, enough wet paint clings to it that the image can be easily transferred to another canvas. He also uses large rubber squeegees to move the paint around, which creates a unique texture and blurs the brushstrokes a little bit.
The process lends itself to creating a series of paintings rather than a single work. That’s why, as Buller was working on the commissioned piece for St. Regis, he painted 10 other pieces of varying sizes, which will be displayed at Julie Nester Gallery starting Nov. 20.
"I have a whole body of work that kind of grows as one," he explains. "They all progress; I don’t finish one painting and put it away and start another, I’m working on them all at once. In one sense, they’re all one painting, but they have their own personalities."
Buller took the project as an opportunity to reflect on mining both as an experience and as a metaphor. "My understanding of the creative process is that the subject might be about the mines, but to really transform and become something illuminating, it also needs to be about something much larger than that," he says. "The mines become a metaphor for the miners digging deep for something of value, and that’s what we all do. That’s certainly what I’m doing when I’m painting."
Buller’s mural can be seen at the St. Regis Deer Crest Resort, opening at the end of this month. Julie Nester Gallery will host an artist’s reception on Friday, Nov. 20, from 5:30 until 8 p.m. The "In the Mines" exhibit will remain on display at the gallery through Dec. 28. For more information, visit http://www.julienestergallery.com or call (435) 649-7855.