This article was originally published Dec. 8, 2002.
The story of how Al Phillips ended up making and selling colorful block-shaped toys for grown-ups begins with his dream about a white ball, in Indiana, when he was 12.
Or maybe 13.
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It was a recurring dream:
“I'm standing alone. I notice a small white ball, off in the distance. It’s moving toward me. I’m afraid. And curious.”
It gets so close and so BIG that he can't see its outside edges anymore.
“I reach out to touch it and wake up.”
Phillips, who retired four years ago as an artist at the Observer, came to believe that the ball, which looked to have the texture of plaster, represented what he calls “down-to-earthedness.” Or the need to attend to the details of everyday life – a chore he couldn't seem to get his hands around. Even though he tried and tried.
Fantasy came easily: Brilliant pictures floated in and out of his imagination. But he had no talent for practical stuff – paying the bills, fixing the toilet.
His father, a dentist, made him take an economics course in college. He got a D.
Phillips was more like his mother, a kindergarten teacher who liked to draw and could whistle like a songbird.
“It was a beautiful thing to watch her draw,” her son remembers. “Magical.”
But as he prepared for college, the mental picture he painted showed him behind the pulpit at a Methodist church.
He wanted to be a preacher, not an artist. That is, until he took that freshman speech class.
The subject of his final-exam speech: the life of Christ.
His professor gave him the thumbs-down.
“Phillips, that was a terrible speech. But you know what? You’re a natural comedian.”
He felt angry, humiliated – and enrolled in the art department. He’d always loved to draw.
The first puzzle
After graduation, he served in the Army, worked at an art studio, married and started a family, then began teaching an afternoon art class for beginners, at the University of Illinois in Chicago.
It was the late '60s.
Or the early '70s.
Phillips tried to engage his students. Art is good for the soul, he told them.
But they told him stories of how other teachers had held up their artwork as examples of what not to do. Art is a turn-off, they said.
Instead of telling his students they should all become comedians, he got an idea.
He decided he'd create – and sell – a puzzle toy that would make art fun even for his beginner students.
“Transformations,” he called his product – multicolored magnetic vinyl shapes that could be arranged on a field of metal to form a plethora of designs.
Phillips took his art puzzle to Marshall Field’s, the Chicago department store.
We'll take 10 of them, the buyer in the toy department told him.
He got so excited!
Then he got so scared.
It dawned on Phillips that other stores might also want them.
“I can't make all these by hand, “ he told himself.
He never filled the 10 orders. He never returned to Marshall Field’s.
It was the white ball in his dream again. Phillips still couldn't touch it, still couldn't master the everyday mechanics of turning his art into commerce.
A vision of blocks
He shifted to newspapering, first in Chicago, then at The Charlotte Observer.
Over the next 20-plus years, he drew and drew.
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.
His portraits and illustrations won awards. His fellow artists looked up to him. And whenever people retired at the newspaper, they'd get a sheet cake and a portrait of themselves drawn by Al Phillips.
Then, in 1998, it was Phillips’ turn to retire.
He’d already begun thinking of resurrecting his art toy/puzzle. But now, sitting in his Charlotte home, he envisioned blocks. He'd go to bed thinking about them, he'd get up thinking about them. He even looked up the history of toy blocks.
His obsession with blocks surprised him. “At the Observer, I was usually drawing people or animals or food – organic kinds of things. Then out pops this geometric stuff.”
Why not paint designs on the blocks, fit them together to make artistic-looking images and then sell them as toys?
His hand was getting closer to the white ball of his dream.
He imagined nonartists in business suits, sitting around conference tables, playing with blocks. Or a man wordlessly proposing to a woman by using the blocks to form a heart, a question mark, a ring.
Learning to roll
Phillips created ArtBlocks – a collection of sixteen 1 3/4-inch wooden blocks.
A cube has six sides. On each one, he painted a different geometric shape.
Lining up the different sides in different ways, images began to emerge.
Letters, numbers, animals, buildings, designs, faces, symbols. The red-white-and-blue ArtBlocks were ready. He knew what was next.
White-ball work: Talking to patent and tax lawyers, working with a factory in Taiwan, taking out ads in art museum magazines, getting stores to carry his blocks.
This time, with the help of his wife, Joan, Phillips finally touched the white ball.
The 2,000 art puzzles recently arrived from Taiwan. He's signed up stores in Charlotte, Raleigh, San Francisco and Philadelphia. And despite his Parkinson's disease, he’ll travel to Philadelphia next year to hawk his wares at the Museum Store Association Expo.
He’s proud his art toys have finally entered the world. But his white-ball dreams haven’t stopped.
“Keeping those daily facts under control,” says Phillips, now 69. “That'll be something I'll be working on for the rest of my life.”