Philip Ellis Foster ’56 may have no “conscious intention” behind his art other than to convey the sense of movement and energy that inspired it, but its dichotomous messages of struggle and harmony, silence and noise, pain and pleasure, single and group dynamics are universal truths and instantly relatable. Selected works by this distinguished alumni artist were on display in the Marguerite and James Hutchins Gallery of the Gruss Center of Visual Arts throughout the month of May following an opening reception held during Alumni Weekend 2015. The title of the exhibition, “Talk Does Not Cook Rice,” was taken from an old Chinese proverb and makes a strong statement about the value of taking action.
After graduating from Lawrenceville, Foster earned a B.A. in economics from the University of Michigan (1960), a Ph.D. in art history from Yale (1974) and a J.D. from Columbia (1977). He currently practices law at Re, Parser & Partners in Sag Harbor, New York.
Foster’s love affair with Japanese calligraphy began in 2004 when he enrolled “on a whim” in a brushwork class taught by Buddhist artist Barbara Bash. So moved was he by the ebb and flow of energy behind the Japanese tradition that in 2008 he began a weekly study of Japanese calligraphy. He also studied at the National Academy Museum and School in 2013 and 2014.
“After a while I became bored with just learning by copying,” explains Foster, “and started to make imaginary Japanese characters. Shortly thereafter I decided to experiment with larger brushes and this led to finding a studio in which to work and to incorporating my background in dance and movement into my brushwork.” The result is a growing body of work which has been displayed at the New York Shodo Society (2010-2015), World Calligraphy Biennalein in South Korea (2013), National Academy School of Fine Arts (2013-2014) and the Hamilton Street Gallery (2014). His work is scheduled to appear at the Carter Burden Gallery in New York City in 2016.
“I like to make marks on things,” says Foster. “I especially enjoy making gestures with a brush and ink, usually on paper, but recently on other surfaces, such as cardboard and canvas. I like to work in pairs, sets or series. My work is abstract, spontaneous, unmediated and direct. My intent is to manifest the unknown, to say visually what cannot be said in words. The results are sometimes puzzling or mysterious. Coming from a background in Japanese calligraphy, my work could be described as calligraphic abstraction.”
Foster has been working with non-traditional materials such as butcher paper, assembled newsprint, and used cardboard as his artistic expression continues to evolve. Displaying the results simply with thumbtacks and binder clips, Foster primarily uses the traditional black sumi ink accented by the occasional orange-red shuboku ink, used by Japanese calligraphy instructors to correct their students’ work. Foster hopes the spontaneity of his approach will convey meaning to viewers’ own experience with the dichotomies of life.
“This all began on a whim, taking a workshop on something I knew nothing about because I wanted to do something I knew nothing about,” says Foster. The result has been a journey inspired by spontaneity, rooted in technique and ever evolving in outcome.