Phil Dewey ’89: “Substantial Power”

Dewey's portrait of Hilton Smith: "An outstanding contribution to American art that significantly betters our visual understanding of Negro League history."

Steve Charles—The judges who named Phil Dewey ’89 the 2010 winner of the Jerry Malloy Competition for Outstanding Negro League Art call his portrait of Kansas City Monarchs pitcher and National Baseball Hall of Famer Hilton Smith “a small piece with substantial power.”

They say it’s a “haunting piece” that “brings to life” a tremendous talent who was “as overshadowed by his teammate Satchel Paige as Negro League Baseball was overshadowed by Major League baseball.

“Just as the Negro Leagues were part of the silent history of the United States, so Hilton himself was a secret,” the judges wrote. “Bringing him to life in the way that Dewey does is a tremendous accomplishment. This is an outstanding contribution to American art and significantly betters our visual understanding of Negro League history.”

Such art may seem an imaginative stretch for a white art teacher raised in rural Pennsylvania. But sit down with Phil Dewey at his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan—as I did last Wednesday afternoon—and you’ll learn that the deep respect and empathy his work reveals for these men he never knew and the “silent history” they embody is both hard-won and genuine. We’ll have the details in the next issue of Wabash Magazine, but here are a few interesting quotes and favorite moments of mine from our conversation.

• Phil was raised by his dad, Tom Dewey ’58, who became a cabinetmaker, in part “to be able to stay home and keep an eye on me,” Phil said. “I was pretty much the only kid on the street who had a single parent family, much less their dad at home.

“In a lot of ways I think this work was what he wanted to do.” A table that Tom made in the eighth grade now serves as Phil’s coffee table. And Phil proudly showed me an  intricately crafted chess board with drawers and chess pieces that was Tom’s 10th grade project.

• Phil’s grandfather was a shop teacher. With his father and grandfather both craftsmen, “I spent a lot of time in wood shop,” Phil says. “I was always encouraged to do what I wanted to do.”

His Negro League pieces are as notable for their use of found objects and craftsmanship as well as Phil’s skill as a painter.  “I’ve gone from strictly painting to combination of woodworking and painting on found objects. Sometimes painting gets boring and I need to get dirty, get some sawdust in the air, do some work that makes you have to take a shower, not just clean paint off your hands. The physicality of my father and grandfather’s work carries over in me.”

And this quote: “In a way, shop class scares you straight: If you mess up, you cut off your finger!”

• That led to an interesting conversation about working with your hands versus working with your mind. “We all work with our hands and our heads, no matter what we do,” Phil said. “Some of the smartest guys I know are the guys who go to work everyday and get their hands dirty.

• After earning his MFA in painting at Brooklyn College (where his mentor was of friend of Wabash Professor Bert Stern), he taught art (and, on occasion, music appreciation) in New York City and New Jersey from 1992 to 2001. He immersed himself in the culture of his students.

“When I first got to New York I was blown away by the architecture, the speed, and angles, the trains, the highways,” he said. “A complete antithesis of the woods in Pennyslvania, where I’d grown up.  The speed and the hustle, the movement and the attitude—being confronted by someone trying to hustle you. Watching three card monte down the street. The subway hucksters.

“I was jazzed by it, I’d take my camera into the neighborhood at all hours. What I ended up doing was getting into teaching, not just to know the area, but to know the people in the area.”

• “I was teaching and hooking this up, the culture of the city, particularly black culture, that was an incredibly new experience. At first, I was just trying to keep my head above water, Phil said of his early days as a teacher. “During this early period teaching full time, I didn’t do a lot of art. But I had picked up the guitar and blues in grad school—players like Robert Johnson, Skip James, Son House. My students weren’t even listening to jazz, so when I taught music, I’d introduce them to jazz and the blues. for jaz and blues. In a way, reintroducing them to their own culture and heritage. I was so into it that one day one of the students yelled out, “If I have to listen to any more blues music, I’m gonna go crazy!”

“I think I gave them something many of them hadn’t heard before,” Phil said (as I transcribed the interview, I recognized Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” on Phil’s CD player.)

• He doesn’t remember exactly where he found the postcards of some of the famous Negro League players, but the first he painted was James “Cool Papa” Bell, one of the fastest men to ever play the game.

“The more I got into it, I realized there was this interesting part of American history I’d completely missed growing up,” Phil said. Ken Burns’ documentary Baseball was airing on PBS about this time, and Phil was captivated by the episodes about the Negro League players, both the content and Burns’ approach.

Dewey at work on his most recent project, which features Jackie Robinson (center).

“He was doing exactly what I was thinking about doing, but in a different medium,” Phil said. “He said he had met his new hero doing the project—Jackie Robinson—and that making the documentary revealed to him this man’s character. Robinson became his new standard of what it means to be a man, a human being.”

Phil said he felt much the same way.

• Phil was seeing “a lot of the same things in the kids I was teaching,” he said. “Kids facing a lot of adversity. Poverty. Kids taking the train, or the ferry, for an hour just to get to a school that was safe. And this was the 1990s.

“What I was painting was history—I was looking at this history through the lens of these students lives.”

One day a student told Phil that the custodian at his middle school had been in the Negro Leagues. He showed up for class with an autographed postcard of the man and wanted to give it to Phil.

“I don’t want to take it, that’s a piece of your history,” Phil recalled telling the student. But the young man wanted him to have it.

“He said he respected what I was doing,” Phil recalled. “That meant a lot to me. That added even more steam to what I was doing.”

• Phil said that the way he frames the pieces harkens back not only to his dad and granddad, but also to his mentor, Wabash Professor Doug Calisch, and his work with “found objects.”

He also wants the frames to be “representative of these people who made something out of nothing, had to scrap for everything they could get in an era that didn’t want them to succeed. And these were the men who brought so many innovations to the game: the first night game, base stealing barnstorming, not to mention Satchel Paige’s pitching.”

• One of the most innovative and coolest elements of Phil’s pieces, the “billboards” in the background of many of his paintings are actually vintage matchbook covers cut to fit around the figures he paints. And the frames around many of the pieces are old glass negative holders from antique box cameras.

• Phil regrets not having taken the time to meet one of the players he most admires, Buck O’Neill. O’Neill was on a short list of Negro League players considered for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and deservedly so: He was league’s MVP in 1945, the first African American coach in the major leagues, and an invaluable scout who brought Ernie Banks, among others, into the majors. But O’Neill was inexplicably not inducted, a slight that figures into Phil’s ceramic/wood piece honoring him. O’Neill died within a year of the voting.

“One of the greatest regrets my life is that I didn’t fly to Kansas City to meet him,” Phil said. “I really blew it; I really would have enjoyed that.”

See a photo album from my visit here. More in the upcoming “Milestones” issue of Wabash Magazine. See even more of Phil Dewey’s artwork here.

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