‘I Enter Artists’ Dreams and Become Them:’ Painter John Ransom Phillips on How He Channels the Spirits of Kahlo, Blake, and Others in His Work

With his "Lives of Artists" series on view at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, the painter talks about "entering the energy" of legendary artists.

John Ransom Phillips, Frida Kahlo in Bed Asleep (2018).
John Ransom Phillips, Frida Kahlo in Bed Asleep (2018).

It is fitting that William Blake, the Romantic poet and artist, comes up in conversation with artist John Ransom Phillips. Now regarded as a visionary for his prophetic images and writing, Blake was in his own time regarded as something of a madman. “Angels and Moses and various prophets visited [Blake] daily. ‘Moses visited me in the morning,’ he said. Blake believed it, he drew Moses. Then Lucifer visited him at night. These were real experiences for him,” said Ransom Phillips.

In many ways, Ransom Phillips shares this distinctly spiritual approach to painting. His recent series “Lives of Artists,” which is currently on view at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, is a selection of almost metaphysical portraits of some of history’s great painters. “I’ve talked to a lot of people about these spiritual ideas and it can make people very uncomfortable. They don’t like the idea of the world of spirits, they prefer the world of the art historical, or appropriation,” he said.

artnet News spoke to Ransom Phillips about what it means to enter the dream worlds of artists. 

John Ransom Phillips, Van Gogh, Artist as Lover (2018). Courtesy of the artist and the Boca Raton Museum of Art.

John Ransom Phillips, Van Gogh, Artist as Lover (2018). Courtesy of the artist and the Boca Raton Museum of Art.

Your exhibition at the Boca Raton Museum of Art takes its title from Giorgio Vasari’s 16th-century book about the artists of his age, such as Botticelli and Michelangelo. Your watercolors from this exhibition are portraits of artists of our time but of a much different sort. Can you talk to me a bit about the exhibition and the ideas behind it?

I’ve been working for the past several years on this subject: the whole premise of the show is that artists don’t die, they continue to live, and not only in their paintings. I’m fascinated by the idea of invading artists’ dreams, really invading anyone’s dreams, but particularly artists. It’s as if you remove your mask at night and you become yourself as opposed to the day, during which time you need to assume various roles or masks. What I’ve tried to do in this show at Boca is focus on a few artists who have particularly interested me.

With all of these artists, I invaded their dreams and, in that sense, I became them. This is much more than simply listening or appropriation. I’m not dressing up like these artists and I think it’s definitely more than empathy. There’s a Walt Whitman quote, “I dream in my dreams all the dreams of the other dreamers. And I become the dreamers.” This is what I attempt to do and I find that many artists want their stories told and these are not necessarily the stories that art historians or critics or maybe even the general public know.

Who are some of the artists whose dreams you have “invaded” and why?  

Frida Kahlo is one of the artists in my show. The recent Brooklyn Museum show about her was wonderful but it made her very stylish and trendy. Admittedly, by showing the caster plasters she wore in that exhibition, the show did indirectly show her pain. I feel very strongly that anything she ever painted or portrayed, there was always a dimension that reflected her accident in 1927 where she was impaled by this rod. I made a series of watercolors of Kahlo naked with the rod. That rod became a permanent part of her person. She even tasted the metal. But what was horrific in origin became a gift because I feel that Frida incorporated within her pain a kind of joy and acceptance which I don’t think a lot of artists would have achieved. Other artists who I explored were Andy Warhol and his fascination with repetition as a means to dulling our senses, also Mondrian and his use of the color green. 


John Ransom Phillips, Mondrian, I Transformed My Passions (2018)Courtesy of the artist and the Boca Raton Museum of Art.

You would say you entered her dreams. How do you go about invading someone’s dreams?

I believe that dreams are very important to our sensibilities and I think of Freud, who said that essentially all dreams are manifestations of what the psyche wants us to know. If you’ve ever invaded someone’s dream you put your mind to these artists. If you feel awkward about the spirits or dreams you could also talk about it as entering into someone’s energy, provided that the living or dead person wants to share that. It’s very unconscious and I come up with very strange kinds of telling experiences.

How do you choose the artists whose dreams you will explore?

They come to me. I used to teach art history so I’m familiar with many artists and that raises my consciousness. Sometimes at night I sleep walk. I guess I’ve learned to listen and to be quiet and to connect. I find a lot of artists want to communicate about their paintings and about their lives and about what is real and what is true. When I exhibit like in Boca I put different artists together that normally wouldn’t like one another or wouldn’t be compatible. Sometimes it’s the parallels and sometimes it’s the incompatibilities that strike us as viewers and offer new dimensions and ways of perceiving.

Ransom-Phillips-Shooting on the far side of purgatory, 2018

John Ransom Phillips, Diane Arbus, Shooting on the Far Side of Purgatory (2018). Courtesy of the artist and the Boca Raton Museum of Art.

Your art has a spiritual dimension and a desire to capture the unconscious mind. Are there any artists or movements have you feel a kinship to in this regard?  

I’ve never been attracted to the Surrealists but, on the other hand, they are willing to be suspicious of what’s in front of them. Salvador Dalí would want to tamper with the object and disorder the way you see things in order to achieve a different, higher, reality. In that sense, I think I do what the Surrealists do, but in a different way. Dalí is an excellent example of someone who would want to create a hysteria, fantasies, all kinds of disruptive factors in order to achieve something closer to the world we never see in our daily lives. He forces that. I believe in letting myself simply enter in to the energy of another artist.

There are a lot of artists who were metaphysical. I think one of these was Leonardo da Vinci. Many artists want to see more fully, more than everyday life. Then there are artists like Gustave Courbet who said, “Show me an angel and I’ll paint it.” On the other hand William Blake saw no contradictions or boundaries between earth, heaven, and hell. To be totally human you had to incorporate those three dimensions.  There are many artists who do what I do but maybe they only describe it differently.


John Ransom Phillips, Rousseau, the Sun Expands and Multiples (2018). Courtesy of the artist and the Boca Raton Museum of Art.

Lives of Artists” series on view at the Boca Raton Museum of Art through August 11, 2019. 

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