by Jessica Carreras
If it's a good sign to an artist when their artwork sells at a gallery, Sister Cheryl Phillips should be ecstatic. Her piece "River" – a large canvas covered in a rainbow of colors stitched with bold, meandering black lines – sold before her exhibition at Affirmations, showing now through the end of the month, even began.
Half a year ago, 62-year-old Detroit-based Phillips had never been to Affirmations community center in Ferndale. She had no connections to the gay community, and she hadn't fought for gay rights. But Phillips, a Catholic who curates the Bagley Housing Art Gallery in Mexicantown, knew one thing: that everyone deserved to be treated equally.
So when Charles Alexander, curator of the Pittmann-Puckett gallery at Affirmations, asked her to show her work there, Phillips didn't hesitate for a second. "I have no problem with showing my work in that venue," she said of the invite. "I just thought it was a great opportunity."
And after finally visiting and spending time there for her opening reception last Friday – a well-attended event complete with live music, Phillips was even more pleased. "It's beautiful," she said of the center. "The space where the gallery is is so nice because you have plenty of room to stand back from the paintings, which you really need with abstract."
Indeed, Phillips's paintings at Affirmations – art done mostly during a few month sabbatical from the gallery she curates – are enjoyed most while standing back a few feet. Some large, and some no bigger than the bottom of a shoebox, her installation at the center consists mainly of big splashes of color and carefully overlapping black lines. The artist says each was not planned, but instead just came out as she painted it.
"The stuff that's in the show now is very intuitive. I don't have anything in mind when I start," Phillips explained. "I just put all kinds of colors on the canvas, then I start tearing up newspaper or masking tape or whatever and I use that as a stencil and paint over it and put more newspaper, more whatever down and I paint over that. As I do it, the title comes to me. It begins to look like something to me."
Other work of hers includes collages and found art – some of which has yet to be made into anything. At her home, Phillips stores an extensive collection of wine corks that she swears will someday become a piece of art. "I have hundreds of corks," she said. "Everybody saves them for me, and I just know something is going to come out of those corks one of these days."
A master of insightful art, Phillips's background lends itself to her methods of creating. After receiving a Bachelors of Fine Arts and a Masters in Art Education from University of Detroit-Mercy, Phillips taught art for 10 years in Michigan and went back to school for a unique degree: Arts Therapy. "It's a form of therapy, but you use art along with talk therapy," she said. "You always do some sort of a drawing or painting or something, and it's usually done in a group setting. Then, the group discusses what they see in the art and the client or patient discusses what he or she sees in the art. You just talk it out."
"Art is so subconscious," she added. "When you're doing art, things come out that you can't help. It's sort of like dream work."
Phillips's art, by that account, is saying some very interesting things.
A self-described introvert with a soft-spoken voice and modest demeanor, Phillips's work is courageous, loud and full of color. "I'm not shy, but I tend to be kind of introverted, a very quiet type of person, but all of my artwork in my life has always been very bold," she mused. "It must be some inner passion."
That inner passion, she says, escapes when it comes to issues she feels strongly about – including human rights for all. "There's a lot of different types of Catholics and I tend to be very, very liberal," she admitted. "I definitely don't have any problem working or living or being among people of other faiths or – I live in the inner city, where I live with all kinds of different ethnic groups…
"I just feel like everybody has to be themselves."