A Train Ride With Brian Phillips

Photos by Ralph Giunta  //  Art by Brian Phillips


In the introduction to Interviews By Mike Kelley: 1986-2004, the late artist describes how contrived the interview process is. He describes the awkwardness of interviewing famous friends like Thurston Moore. Kelley’s lack of respect for the form and his dismissal of any sort of professional protocol seemed to make these interviews closer to a natural conversation, but very readable.

I’m a little foggy about the details now. I do remember Ryan Rivas asking me if I knew an artist that could do a book cover for Cincinnati writer Don Peteroy’s new book Wally. After Ryan described (the part I’m foggy about) what he wanted, I suggested a few people. The first few suggestions were probably reflex responses, but as soon as I thought of Brian Phillips, I knew he was the right artist. Ryan agreed.

After Brian completed the cover, Ryan was very pleased with the results. He asked me if I would interview Brian for the Burrow Press Review, so I asked Brian to take a ride with me on the Amtrak, to Kissimmee, and back, from the Orlando station. I would interview him on the train and in between. The photographer, Ralph Giunta, would come along to take photos of the trip, and he’s great company. We would get lunch in downtown Kissimmee in the area known as Old Town. The train ride takes around twenty minutes each way. It arrives a little after 11AM in Kissimmee, and comes back to Orlando a little after 1PM. Of course Amtrak is not a Swiss train. You usually have to wait longer.

The first painting of Brian’s I saw featured the Italian actress Monica Vitti. I had just watched four films by Michelangelo Antonioni, made between 1960 and 1964, beginning with L’Avventura through Red Desert. Vitti always played the laconic femme fatale. Her silence was not that of the sexy play toy. She was beautiful, but her silence seemed rooted in observation. Her characters embodied combinations of vulnerability and the ability to see through the transparencies of the world around her. And that was our connecting point. It led to discovering even more common tastes, like Italian, French and Japanese cinema from the 60’s, the drone sounds of the band Sunn O))), free jazz and other soundscapes that could double as soundtracks. And that led to the book cover for Wally, and this interview.

After we all arrived in Kissimmee, we sat down in a restaurant about a block away. I think it was called the Latin Place. We ate, and reordered café con leches. We sat and talked for at least an hour. We caught up with Ralph as he told us about his recent trip to Peru, and how he studied healing with indigenous people in the Amazon River basin. I didn’t end up really interviewing Brian until the train ride home. We were all catching up with each others’ lives.

The train trip was a conscious effort on my part to set the stage for the interview. I had envisioned something like the interview that Sam Shepard did with Bob Dylan in 1987. The two are good friends. Shepard transcribed a conversation they had on a car ride. He presented it as a one-act play in Esquire.

I didn’t do anything like that. This is the conversation Brian and I had on the train from Kissimmee to Orlando.


Pat: Did you have any inspiration for painting the book cover, since you hadn’t read the book, or did not knowing what the story was about give you a sense of freedom?

Brian: Yeah, Ryan was pretty open about it. I had to keep within his guideline, so I didn’t have conflicting ideas.

Pat: Would you like to do something like this again? Or maybe an album cover?

Brian: Yes. It’s sort of the best format of what I would like to do … An album cover; that would be cool. It’s funny, because what I gravitate towards in painting is the same as what I gravitate toward in an album cover or a book cover. I feel like my own paintings don’t look as good as a book cover.

Pat: Was there any feeling of connection towards this project?

Brian: It did have a lot of elements that I always liked, like fire. I also like imagery like tundra and wasteland.


Pat: Did you take any of the ideas from the Antonioni-inspired work you’ve done before?

Brian: Kind of. Whether I can help it or not, it’s always with a cinematic type eye. Intentionally and unintentionally I set up my paintings like a movie scene, like I’m setting up a shot. I think a lot of us are so used to cinema culture. I think it shapes the way we look at things. The framing and stuff like that.

Pat: I always thought a lot of your paintings look like movie posters, but like old movie posters.

Brian: That’s kind of a big thing in my art. Older movie posters and book covers were actually hand painted, and those were a big influence on me. I used to be obsessed with the whole gamut of Penguin book covers. Especially the 60s onto the mid 80s. Some of the early minimalist covers, where they would commission painters to do covers. Especially 60s and 70s paperbacks, like the sci-fi ones. I liked the covers on the literature that was family drama or the 70s and 80s juvenile book covers.

Pat: The cover for Wally looks a little like—maybe not S.E. Hinton, but some dark teen novel from that period.

Brian: Or Gary Paulsen, the guy who did Hatchet. Some of his books were something like that, kind of dark. We read that in the seventh grade. I’m kind of surprised they had us read it. It’s dark. I don’t think parents would approve of it being assigned now. There’s a part where the father in the story dies in a plane crash. The plane is at the bottom of a lake. There’s a description of his rotting carcass.

Pat: There is an effort to block the bad things away from kids. Then when they are confronted with awful things as adults they’ll be even less prepared.

Brian: Then there’s TV and the internet where you can see whatever you want.

Pat: You can watch war or violence. It’s interesting what is condoned and what is considered shocking. I’m more likely shocked by what is considered shocking.

Brian: I think most of us were brought up by parents who wouldn’t let us watch a movie with breasts, but violence wasn’t monitored so closely.

Pat: I remember watching Blade Runner on network TV. I had already seen it at the theater. One of the actresses was topless, but that scene was cut out. Right after that she went through a plate-glass window. It was gruesome, but she was fully clothed. The network showed that.

Brian: Then he shoots her in the back and it’s fine.

::: Interlude :::

We were interrupted by activity. The conductor kept coming by telling us how many minutes until we got to Orlando, which seemed funny, because the entire ride was about twenty minutes long. Passengers walked past us conversing loudly over the noise of the train. We were distracted by the sensory overload of noises, odors, the jarring movement of the train, and people. I looked out the window during the lull in our conversation. I was looking for the circus. The James Strates Circus camps out part of the year along the tracks, and some of their train cars are on parallel tracks, just south of Orlando.

I remember driving down O.B.T. about twenty years ago. I was with a French woman who was enamored with much of American culture, but also confused and disgusted by much of it. As I drove we saw many ne’er-do-wells. She looked at me, and said there is a type of down-and-out person that you only see in Florida. She went on to say it’s difficult to describe that person, but they look burned from the sun and life.

On the train, the distractions had calmed some. I didn’t see the circus.

We were almost in Orlando. I had lost my train of thought in the interview. I decided to ask Brian a couple more questions about his cover art. I was interested in the idea that he didn’t have a copy of the book to read beforehand.


Pat: What about the story?  What do you know about it?

Brian: The story. I don’t really know enough to try to give a synopsis.

Pat: Sometimes I think the misinformation can make things more interesting, if you are just given an idea.

Brian: [Ryan] had a pretty defined idea of what [he] wanted. I started out doing some sketches. It was kind of daunting when I realized I had to flush a lot out. I had a lot going on personally right about the time it was due. My grandfather was rushed to the hospital a few days before I was supposed to be finished. Then I decided that finishing the cover was getting my mind off some of the unpleasant things.

Pat: Did the lack of information about the book help speed up the process or help the process at all?

Brian: I think the short period of time, and that my life wasn’t going all that well, helped me focus. I have a tendency to become overwrought with the details. I can become stagnant. I think if I would have had too much time to spend on it, it might have become too crystallized.

{To see more of Brian Phillips’ art, visit his website.}