Painting for preservation: The artist raising money to landmark Walt Whitman’s house
An artist has stepped forward to help activists who are trying to win city landmark designation for the last surviving house in New York City where Walt Whitman lived — 99 Ryerson St. in Clinton Hill.
John Ransom Phillips is donating half the money generated by sales of the paintings in his exhibition “Robust American Love” to the nonprofit Walt Whitman Initiative.
The solo art show of Whitman-inspired paintings opened Monday night at DUMBO gallery BlackBook Presents on John Street. Phillips’ 30 small watercolors within are priced at $2,500 apiece, and his four large-scale oil paintings are going for $25,000 each.
The New York-based artist’s watercolors are jewel-like paintings paired with Whitman verses — most of them drawn from “Leaves of Grass” — that Phillips has inscribed in cursive lettering.
Whitman, widely believed to be America’s greatest poet, was an editor at the Brooklyn Eagle in the 1840s.
The Walt Whitman Initiative, part of a movement to landmark the poet’s Ryerson Street home, plans to use the money Phillips donates to help pay for its media campaign about the landmarking and for historical research about the house.
The poet and his family lived there from May 1855 to April 1856. During that time period, he published the first edition of his revolutionary verse collection “Leaves of Grass.”
Phillips was around 12 years old when he first encountered Whitman’s works, he told the Eagle.
His mother gave him a copy of “Leaves of Grass.” He read a few poems out of a sense of duty — the book was a gift from his mother, after all — but didn’t truly appreciate them, he said.
When Phillips moved to Egypt in 2001, he took a volume of “Leaves of Grass” along with him. He read it cover to cover. It was edited by Whitman scholar and New York University Professor Karen Karbiener, a friend of his. Karbiener is also the president of the Walt Whitman Initiative.
“It was very lonely there,” said Phillips, who lived in Luxor. “There weren’t a lot of people to talk to. The Egyptians were mostly into money. The tourists were interested in shopping and the sun. The Egyptologists … didn’t have much time to socialize because they got up at 3 to be at the site before it got hot.”
Whitman had always wanted to go to Egypt, Phillips said.
“I imagined that he came with me,” the painter recalled. “I felt his presence and his inspiration.”
When Phillips read Whitman’s poems, “the words created a kind of resonance, a sympathy that encouraged me to portray the feelings I had at that moment.”
The watercolor paintings are “illuminations” of the lines of poetry he selected rather than illustrations, he said. He made a series of about 120 of them, mostly between 2004 and 2006.
Sensuality, melancholy and longing
When Phillips was painting, he said, “if not Walt, I became the people that he was talking about” in his poems.
His favorite work in the exhibition is a vibrant painting of a heart with the Whitman verse “to remain, to teach robust America love” inscribed beneath.
The heart is patterned with elements that suggest the stars and stripes of the American flag.
The exhibition’s subject matter includes love, exuberant sensuality and melancholy longing. Looking at the paintings feels like a startlingly intimate act. Some of the imagery is enigmatic, mysterious and lovely. Some is explicitly sexual.
Karbiener, who curated the “Robust American Love” exhibition, called Phillips a “visionary” and told the Eagle, “He is in direct contact with Whitman’s spirit.”
The push for landmarking
In addition to being a painter, Phillips works in other media such as film, theater and poetry. He is the author of several books.
He has a BFA degree from the San Francisco Art Institute and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He studied with famous artist Richard Diebenkorn.
Phillips was sad to discover that only one of the 30-plus New York City houses that Whitman lived in is still standing. Several years ago, Karbiener took the painter to visit 99 Ryerson St. Residents of the modest siding-covered house invited them inside. It’s a “memorable” place, he said. “We need to landmark it.”
Last year, a group of elected officials including City Councilmember Laurie Cumbo, in whose district the house is located, wrote a letter of support for its landmarking.
A pro-landmarking petition has gathered nearly 5,900 signatures.
“Robust American Love,” an exhibition of Walt Whitman-inspired paintings by John Ransom Phillips, runs through Sept. 5. The gallery is BlackBook Presents at 20 John St. in DUMBO.
Follow reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.
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