Remembering Tom Phillips

Artist Tom Phillips (right) with Mrs. Mary Thomas (left) widow of Assemblyman Vincent Thomas, photographed at the Arcade Building in historic downtown San Pedro beside the original painting of “The Cinematic Bridge,” commissioned by festival director Stephanie Mardesich for the key art for the first official poster for the L.A. Harbor International Film Festival (LAHIFF), April 2004. (photo courtesy of LAHIFF)

Tom Phillips was happiest in his studio, painting. He was considered a bit of an introvert, and his love of art seemed to overshadow most other areas of his life. But it was this mindset, and dedication, that put Phillips on the map – early and often.

Until May of this year, when Phillip’s life tragically ended due to post-surgical complications after a lung procedure, he could always be found creating something – he could always be found pushing the limits of his artistic ability.

“He was selectively reclusive, his world outside of painting consisted of a small group of high school friends, myself and our son,” says Laura Davidson, Phillip’s ex-wife. “But he was very in tune with what he wanted to do and when he wanted to do it.”

With strong roots in San Pedro, and a lineage that can be traced back four generations to Southern California, it is no wonder that in the final stages of Phillips’s career, as well as some of his beginning work, he focused on painting pictures of his beloved city.

“He was very proud of his family and where he came from,” Davidson says. It was this love, shared through art, that have made Phillips’s paintings so iconic in San Pedro. From the decorating of the walls of the San Pedro Brewing Co., to his painting of the “Cinematic Bridge” that became the poster image of the Los Angeles Harbor International Film Festival, Phillips made is mark in San Pedro, and he made it through his painting.
After his passing in May, Davidson, their son, and Ron Sesco, owner of The Distinctive Edge Gallery, joined together to host a gallery in Phillips’s honor, to “cement recognition for his work.”

“Tom was one of San Pedro’s most renowned artists of the last 30 years and will be missed and remembered alongside the likes of Violet Parkhurst,” says Sesco. “Tom chronicled the essence of San Pedro history through his paintings of historical local buildings and landmarks that bring great memories of the past. His paintings also included farmland area of the Palos Verdes Hill where his great grandfather, Harry Phillips Sr., worked as a foreman on the Bixby Ranch in the early 20th century.”

“After his death, we found pieces he was working on and they were exciting,” Davidson says. “We were in awe.”
Upon deciding the date of October 27 for the show’s reception, Davidson, her son, and Sesco, whose gallery will host the event, are collectively deciding what works to feature. “This show is a celebration and recognition of his life. It’s for his clients to be able to come and view his work from beginning to end,” says Davidson. “It will be the fruits of his labor on the walls.”

Phillips, a native of San Pedro, was a man which life afforded many opportunities, who chose to live and die an artist in its truest form. His familial roots firmly planted in the ground of San Pedro, he kept this city forever close to his heart and made it an integral part of his work, says Davidson.

Phillips ex-wife speaks volumes on the life and work of her late husband. Their marriage ended amicably, resulting in one son. Davidson, who also has a background in art and a career in art galleries, says Phillips career took off almost immediately. “When his career first took off, it was at a furious pace. Everything he painted, he sold,” she remembers fondly. “He showed at the National Academy of Design in New York, two years in a row, on first submissions, which is unheard of. It’s an honor just to get in, let alone show work two years in a row, for a newcomer.”

When she saw his work at the beginning, she wondered why he wasn’t painting professionally – at this time he was pursuing a career in business law. This quickly changed, as Phillips followed his heart and dreams and was quickly rewarded with amazing opportunities. One of those opportunities came after an art show featuring three artists in the home of Sharon Disney.

“They wanted him to be part of WED Enterprises, doing illustrations and artwork, this was when EPCOT was being built at Disneyland,” Davidson says. “During his show in Sharon’s home, big wigs present, he was quickly offered a gig.” Although a tremendous career turn, Phillips declined in the interest of having sole responsibility of his work and his career. Davidson says that was one of many difficult decisions that paid off.

His career started booming, and around 1974, with Phillips selling paintings as fast as he could finish them, he was commissioned to do ranch pieces. Gene Autry even had a painting done by Phillips in his collection. Yet, even with such success, Davidson remembers these beginnings as humble. She says they were selling paintings out of their home, entertaining future buyers with “wine and cheese parties, and enjoying the rapid pace of life.”

A graduate of one of the best fine art schools in the United States – Art Center College of Design in Pasadena – Phillips knew that perfecting his technique, and always being open to learning new things was important to a life dedicated to art.

“His roots were always here,” says Davidson. “He loved San Pedro, and painting this city was always some of his best work.”

Now, as Davidson, their son, and Sesco, prepare to honor Phillips and his work one last time, they remember fondly the talent and drive he had.

“Picking the pieces to feature has been a real challenge,” explains Davidson. “We want the community, his clients, and those that never met him to have a chance to view the work that was his life. This gallery, this showing of his work, is the cement that will keep his name and his work in San Pedro forever.” spt

Tom Phillips (1948-2012) Exhibit & Sale Reception is Oct. 27, 5-8pm at The Distinctive Edge Picture Framing & Gallery (29050 S. Western Ave., Suite 113, Rancho Palos Verdes). Serious buyers & collectors, please call (310) 833-3613 for a preview and information.

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