Getting to Know St. Louis Potter Phillip Finder
On a day so sunny that toddlers squint from strollers, the Schlafly Art Outside fair in St. Louis, Missouri, swings into its final hour. Booth after booth boasts colorful arrays of paintings, sculptures and handmade jewelry. By comparison, the shaded spot for local artist Phillip Finder looks a bit subdued. A table displays a few vases, ceramic bowls and tiny porcelain spoons. A breeze floats by as a nimble man with warm blue eyes appears.
“I had a lot more out here before, but I’m almost all sold out,” he explains ruefully, as a customer examines what remains. Clearly what this booth lacks in flash, it more than makes up in flourish.
The same can be said of Finder, an unassuming, friendly figure who, just four years after achieving an MFA at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, has his own ceramics studio and a growing circle of patrons. Touring the spacious studio he now occupies in the Fox Park neighborhood of St. Louis, one can quickly appreciate the multi-media basis of his practice. Two electric kilns—one manually controlled and one massively sized and computerized—stand in one corner, the latter resembling a deep cylindrical Japanese-style bathtub. In the center, there’s a table saw and workbench, and on the opposite wall, a tower of shelves house all manner of clay objects. “A friend told me this is the most finished unfinished basement he’s ever seen,” the artist jests.
Raised in the St. Louis suburb of Kirkwood, Missouri, Finder didn’t always know fine art was his calling. “I was one of those kids who was constantly building things—working on small engines. Very hands-on.” After heading to Detroit to study industrial design at the College for Creative Studies, he left after a year, disenchanted. “To be honest, I was lost. I fumbled about and went to a few different schools—down in Gainesville and St. Augustine in Florida then back to St. Louis.”
After meeting his wife—then in undergrad at Webster University—they moved to Breckenridge, Colorado, and ski-bummed for a year together.
“In the back of my head, I knew I needed to finish my undergraduate degree,” Finder shares. He moved back to Florida to do so, where he studied under ceramics professor Stephen Heywood at the University of North Florida. “It was one of those scary moves, where we didn’t really know what we were getting into. But it turned out to be a good one. Heywood was incredible—he blew my mind. I’d never seen work like what he makes. Plus, he was actually making the whole artist thing work. And that’s what I wanted to do.”
While his mentor focused on transforming mechanical systems into functional pottery, Finder went on to experiment with stripped-down expressions of shape and form. “With Heywood, I would accentuate form in as many ways as I could to showcase the technical side of what’s possible. But when I came into my own in graduate school, I was perfectly content with exploring shape—the technique is less important. These days, I want a more clarified vision of form to come through—something more modernist, I suppose.”
Examining his rows of vases, urns and bowls, at first glance they look utterly rustic, free of ornament. But up close, a recurrent glaze lends a subtle metallic sheen. “In certain lighting, it sparkles a bit, but it’s still sort of muted,” Finder muses. “I want the object to be something special, but I don’t want it to yell out to an audience. I tone things down purposefully and hope if someone does take notice, then there are rewards for them.”
In a world where it seems like everything revolves around convenience—experience and objects ever more disposable—a bowl that takes weeks to make gains a curious ontological value. Finder’s minimalist creations, at once so solid and vulnerable, remind us of our history as human beings, of a time when raising a clay cup to one’s lips was a pleasure in its own right.
“I have an admiration for things of the past in general, but I think a lot about what it means to make work that’s contemporary,” Finder reflects. “I ask myself, ‘What am I contributing?’ In a way, it’s all a response to the over-stimuli of today. I love Instagram, but the experience of scrolling through content—it never stops. I’m purposefully paring down my work, signing on to certain modernist ideals, simply because it seems relevant again—a counterbalance to that intensity that we are all willingly taking part in.”
Stepping into the artist’s backyard is like stumbling upon an enclave of the Missouri Botanical Garden or the search results for “verdant” on Google Images. A canopy of trees stretches above; hardscaped bushes, shrubs and vines wind along a path of wood-chip mulch. It comes as no surprise that Finder has done this all himself. “I get the mulch that’s free from the city,” he says, describing his process of building the terrain. There’s a bench made of repurposed timber, bricks transferred from rubbish heaps in area alleys.
If one thing is clear, it is that Finder has a knack for discovering substance in the humblest of places, then turning it into a thing of beauty. “I like the idea of being able to understand something that I make based on the world we already know,” he explains. “I’m very sensitive to the built environment, to processing the things and materials around me. As much as I love talking to people, they’re just not at the center of my thinking. The way people interact with objects—that’s at the center.”
This story originally appeared in ALIVE Issue 5, 2017. Purchase Issue 5 and become an ALIVE subscriber.
Photography by Attilio D’Agostino