Al Phillips, an artist who used his talent and imagination to capture major moments, big ideas and compelling people during 14 years as an illustrator for the Charlotte Observer, died Sunday at Asbury Methodist Village, a retirement community in Gaithersburg, Md.
He would have turned 84 on Thursday. The birthday party his family and friends had been planning will now be a memorial, said his daughter Kendra’s partner, Julie Chitty.
Artist Bill Linden, who worked with Phillips at the Chicago Sun-Times – one of three newspapers that employed Phillips during a career that spanned nearly three decades – reacted to the news this way: “God’s art department just got a whole lot better.”
At the Observer, Phillips’ portraits of news-makers often graced the newspaper’s front page. And Phillips, a gentle soul with an infectious laugh, was the go-to artist when editors in the newspaper’s various departments – Living, Perspective, Business, Sports – needed a striking or amusing illustration for their centerpiece.
Phillips’ portrait of Michael Jordan showed him flying through the air, no ground in sight.
And his illustration of Charlotte’s 1994 New Year’s Eve had the city’s skyscrapers joining in the celebration.
Colleagues noticed that Phillips’ heart was as big as his talent.
At the Susan Smith trial in 1995, as witnesses told about the two children who had drowned, Phillips sat in the courthouse balcony, binoculars in one hand, pen in the other, weeping as he drew.
He was born Allan Homer Phillips in 1933, and grew up in rural Crown Point, Ind. His father, Homer, was a dentist; his mother Margaret, a kindergarten teacher who liked to draw and, Phillips once said, could whistle like a songbird.
“It was a beautiful thing to watch her draw,” her son the artist remembered during a 2002 interview. “Magical.”
His first ambition was to be a Methodist minister, but discovered in a speech class at DePauw University that he would never make it in the pulpit.
So he enrolled in the art department – he’d been drawing since childhood – and received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from DePauw in 1955. Six years later, he followed up with a master’s degree in painting, graphics and print making from the University of Indiana.
His career in newspapers began in the mid-1970s, when he answered an ad from the Chicago Daily News. The editors there were looking for a map-maker, but they soon detected a major talent and promoted him to illustrator.
Phillips came to the Charlotte Observer in 1984, and stayed until 1998.
Like a lot of newcomers to Charlotte, Phillips – or “Pops,” as his daughter Kendra called him, “always got lost. He could never figure out where he was in Charlotte and said he was always finding a new Queens Road.”
His ultimate solution: He drew a map of the Charlotte metropolitan area. “He was very proud of the drawing,” his daughter said.
In the Observer’s art department, Phillips could be found at his desk, listening to Mozart, smiling broadly whenever an idea or image he liked ambled across his mind.
A longtime member of the Charlotte Friends of Jung, Phillips would also tap into his dreams.
“He was more in touch with his unconscious than anyone I knew,” said Kevin Siers, the Observer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist. “He used that to plunge the depths of his creativity, turning his images into stories all by themselves.”
Kathleen Purvis, the Observer’s food writer, remembers the time Phillips was asked to illustrate a Features story about men who struggle with what to eat when they live alone.
“Al pondered, and came back with a painting of a rhinoceros in a rumpled business suit, staring into an open refrigerator,” she said. “It was perfect, but I had to ask: ‘Al, why a rhino?’ And he said, ‘I don't know. They just seem like very lonely animals to me.’ ”
For years, whenever newsroom people retired from the Observer, they'd get a sheet cake and a portrait of themselves drawn by Phillips. When he finally retired in 1998, the newspaper put a selection of his work on display in the lobby.
One was a Norman Rockwell-like painting of then-N.C. Sen. Jesse Helms sketching himself while looking in a mirror. It was published during a national debate over the arts. And Helms was drawing himself as a stick man.
“A lot of times his office will call and ask for the original when I do him,” Phillips said then. “This time they didn't call.”
In 1999, Phillips was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. But he kept drawing. His latest exhibit is still on display at Asbury Methodist Village in Maryland, where he will be remembered during a service Thursday.
After leaving Charlotte in 2012, Phillips lived with his daughter Kendra and her partner Julie Chitty in Barbados and Maryland. They said they are also planning a memorial for him in Charlotte, but have no details yet.
Phillips’ remains will be buried next to his mother’s at Calumet Park, a cemetery in Merrillville, Ind.
Survivors include two daughters, Margaret (Meg) Ramir of Chicago and Kendra Phillips of Silver Spring, Md.; and two grandchildren, Rachel Ramirez and Matthew Ramir.