Phil Lear has made quite the impression on the local arts scene since he arrived in Colorado Springs 15 years ago. The Canadian-born painter has commissioned works for The Mining Exchange hotel and several restaurants throughout the community, including one of his largest works, an Alice in Wonderland-themed piece, displayed at the Rabbit Hole in downtown Colorado Springs. Lear’s muses include music and history, leading to pieces known to mix discomfort with familiarity. Lear, 39, spoke this week with the Business Journal about telling stories, the inspiration of cowbells and learning there’s never a perfect time to follow one’s dream.
You’re originally from Canada. How did you end up here?
My dad worked at a meatpacking [plant in Ontario, Canada]. He was getting laid off and was originally from Pennsylvania, and we moved back there. I left to go to college at [Pensacola Christian] in Florida and was back in Pennsylvania after I graduated. I got a call from one of my buddies who was working [here] at a Christian publishing place. I moved out here and got a job laying out math books and textbooks. That lasted for about four years before I pretty much went into art full time.
Why Pensacola Christian College?
It was a ministry school, but their art program was better than a lot of art tech schools. It was a very classical education … lacking in a lot of schools. Today, there is a real push for self-expression, but without any sort of base. We drew using just pencil for a year before we even touched paint.
Talk about your time in Switzerland.
It was out of college. I found a job posting on a board for graduates. I was doing [book] design and layout and switching out French, Spanish and German text. It was a great job working while cowbells are ringing right outside your door. We were very sequestered on a mountaintop. You could leave your bedroom and in 20 minutes you were standing on jagged rocks looking at the Alps.
How did you make the decision to leave design and pursue your art full time?
Textbooks weren’t what I wanted to do. You hear about people putting off their dream. They want to wait until the situation’s perfect, and there’s never a good time to follow your dream. It’s just right now. I decided to move forward, and it doesn’t kill you. I was a starving artist for a while. But I had people in the art community who gave me breaks. … I had to sell my house and do a lot of downsizing. I pretty much went from having nothing and sleeping in a studio for nine months to sharing an apartment with a couple guys. … Now I do my art pretty much full time instead of having to take on odd jobs, which I’ll still do.
When did you discover your affinity for art?
It’s been pretty much as long as I can remember. I was always drawing and doodling. I remember my parents got me these little books that had lines at the bottom of the pages and the rest of the page was blank. You would draw on the blank pages and the lines were so you could write a story. When I look back, I think that was a really good tool and did a lot to develop my creative nature.
How would you describe your art now?
It’s narrative, figurative work. It’s a trend that’s kind of resurfacing. There was a lot of it in the 1800s. Some of it is grotesque, but it’s usually story-driven and has a narrative that can stand on its own. … It’s kind of painterly realism. It’s not quite real but not quite Impressionism. It gets lots of good responses. People can’t really describe why they like it. But that’s part [of the appeal.]
How has your art evolved?
I started off painting things like still lifes. I painted things to match your couch. That was fine and all, but I have better sales now than I did with that stuff. … A lot of it comes from listening to music. I’ll listen to the same song over and over and over again through a project because there was something in the music that carried me away here or there. I listen to a lot of Bob Dylan and Tom Waits and they’re very narrative performers.
What do you think of the local arts scene?
I think it’s really good. It’s not moving backwards. It’s moving forward. … It’s weird, though, because you have people with money here in town and you have artists painting locally. A lot of those people [buying art] are leaving town to purchase their art, and a lot of local artists are making livings selling their art to out-of-town collectors. I don’t think a lot of people understand there’s really good work happening here. There’s a breadth of arts here, and not just visual.
What do you do in your free time?
I do a lot of reading. … I have a little boy [Lincoln, 7] who’s really into history like I am. … The other night we created a Civil War battlefield while looking at a map. … I do teach plein air classes. … You have the red rocks, the green trees, the blue sky, the purple sage. The colors here make it very easy to teach. n CSBJ