It’s the voice.
Phillip Larrimore’s voice is one of the most distinctive things about this writer/poet/artist/critic/landscape designer. It is professorial. Mellifluous. Unmarked by any trace of a Southern (much less Wingate) accent. It lulls you into a sort of trance. You want him to keep talking indefinitely.
And he might.
Larrimore, 65, knows a lot – about a lot of subjects – and has detailed opinions on nearly all of it. He is happy to share, in flights of carefully enunciated, get-out-your-thesaurus words, in a wide-ranging discussion, only part of which is the work now on display at ClearWater Artist Studios in Concord.
That, titled “The Go Between,” is made up of work he’s done since returning to Wingate from New York City more than 20 years ago.
As the conversation gallops along one June morning, you know you’re not catching all his references. You narrow your eyes and try harder.
Then he stops, midsentence. “I’m expostulating again. That’s what happens when you have an Emersonian father.” He laughs at himself.
Then he explains how much that father helped him find his voice.
Phillip now lives alone in what was his parents’ home in Wingate, a shingled house on a winding gravel road, past the railroad tracks and by a pond, with logs neatly stacked out back. He’s lived there since 1994, and spent the past five years or so caring for his parents.
Inside, stacks of books crowd the floors – he recently got rid of 600, and didn’t put a dent in the library, he says – with oil portraits, painted by his father, wedged among them.
In the kitchen, surrounded by stacks of plates, he talks about family, art, grief and layers of influence.
He says he inherited his love of literature and art from the late Rev. Joseph Larrimore, a man who read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Great Stone Face” to 4-year-old Phillip – and when they’d finished, launched right into “Moby Dick.”
A Baptist minister in Tarboro, then Monroe, as Phillip was growing up, Joseph loved Ralph Waldo Emerson as well, and introduced his son to a host of other writers, poets, painters and composers. Phillip recalls that immersion – and his father’s championing of civil rights in a difficult time and place. “Dad still loved everyone – even if they weren’t quite ready to hear his message.”
And though Phillip went away to school (“Corcoran,” the noted art school, he says, “but I’m really an autodidact”), he kept exploring.
He lived in San Francisco in the ’70s, writing and co-owning a store that sold rare cacti and orchids (to Lee Radziwill, he mentions). He says he wrote under the “nom de guerre” Phillip Guerrard – whose poem “The Silence” appeared in The New Yorker in 1977 – but dropped it eventually, when “I was certainly not ‘underground,’ as I persuaded myself I was in 1972.” He talks of editing writer/friend Ken Kelley’s work, including the famous interview of Anita Bryant for Playboy magazine; Larrimore now calls it “500 pages of stream-of cream-of-nothing-soup Anita.”
Larrimore moved to New York in 1978, and relates a series of ventures: a video company documenting ballet and modern dance, video production for PBS with experimental choreographer Elizabeth Streb, his first one-man gallery show in 1986 of a version of the layered-screen paintings he does now.
But by 1994, he was weary. “I lost 125 people I cared about during the AIDS crisis. I needed to get out.”
So he came home to North Carolina, and moved in with his parents in the Wingate house.
Over the past five years, as their health declined, his caretaking role – “a sweet ordeal, as love will have it” – grew. His father died in February, and his mother (whom he credits for his love of music, recalling her playing Chopin and hymns on the piano) moved into a retirement home.
Those years, too, shaped him.
“Phillip was for many years a devoted son and caretaker to his elderly parents,” says Charlotte author/playwright/editor Jeff Jackson. (Nearly everyone in Larrimore’s orbit has multiple vocations.) “That’s a big part of his life and who he is.”
Now he paints in an upstairs studio. He sometimes listens to Shakespeare while painting – “Richard III” (“I keep hoping it will turn out differently”), and “King Lear” and “Hamlet.”
“You can see what a naïf I am,” he says.
Sarah Gay, his co-curator for the Concord exhibition, says Larrimore’s “fairly isolated” life has produced work different from anything she’s seen. It’s “deeply personal ... Phillip painted many of these works while his father was very ill.”
Gay, who is manager of ClearWater (and also an artist/writer), gently nudged until the two had enough works to comprise an exhibition, though he decided some were too raw for him to display publicly.
“I am at a curious juncture,” he says via email, “as my painting – which I kept hidden for many years – is now starting to receive a lot of attention.”
Larrimore paints onto aluminum screening, what he calls “very unforgiving canvas,” as there’s no painting over something that doesn’t work: You have to start over. He layers some screens into something like paintings, based on da Vinci’s deluge drawings or the work of Turner or Blake. Some he manipulates into sculptural wall reliefs with a hologram feel – he calls these “Shadowcasters” – and with others he creates boxes within boxes, which he calls “Observatories.”
With these, he’s attempting to “transistorize vast spaces into small spaces,” he says.
Jackson finds literary references, poetic references, even dance references, in the work. “His art is steeped in cultural history,” he says. “It shimmers.”
Another Larrimore friend and fellow hyphenate, writer/poet/playwright/artist John Love Jr., proclaims the art, and Larrimore’s writing, “baroque.”
“There’s obsessiveness to Phillip’s process,” Love says. “Phillip couldn’t be as prolific as he is if he didn’t have that obsessive quality. ... One beautiful phrase or image after another.”
Love says Larrimore writes as he paints – building layer upon layer, then peeling the layers back.
Jackson: “Phillip has this desire to communicate clearly, specifically, boldly. ... His screen paintings practically leap off the wall in an attempt to reach the viewer.”
Larrimore says he could not choose just one thing to do for the rest of his life. “Everything I do metamorphosizes.”
Writing and painting? Both essential. He has reviewed operas for the Observer for several years, and has written for online sites and arts publications. Beyond the encyclopedic knowledge, Jackson admires the “stylistic flourish” of Larrimore’s work, and his sense of history.
Larrimore appreciates the cultural and arts hub Charlotte has become, but thinks the city often “tries too hard. ... Relax. Let yourself unfold. Boosterism looks provincial.”
But would the erudite Larrimore get, say, a “Seinfeld” reference? Jackson laughs. “Phillip is very much of this world.”
Down to its soil: He continues with plants. He works for Suzanne Wilkerson of Ambience Garden Design, and says he’s helped design more than 600 gardens, including a recent “deer-resistant” garden.
“We used Irish Spring soap.” Larrimore says.
Does it really work?
“Oh, the deer were using it like a hockey puck. Nooooo, it doesn’t work.”
‘Wait for the pauses’
Love, the interdisciplinary Charlotte artist, feels a kinship with Larrimore: “It takes a lot for some people to navigate me. I can be a lot. For some people, Phillip can be a lot. ... He’s verbose because he’s so excited. There’s a lot going on in his head. He’s trying to get it all out.”
So Love has a strategy.
“You have to be patient enough to allow things to land,” Love says. “Listen, and wait for the pauses. When Phillip takes a breath, that’s not just him taking a breath. You’re taking a breath, too. That’s when you ask yourself: ‘What can I connect with?’ ”
In other words, you may not have caught every reference, but you probably caught something. Latch on to that. “If you don’t do that with a personality like Phillip, a conversation can quickly get into something that feels like a struggle.”
“That’s where Phillip’s richness is, though,” Love concludes.
And ask Larrimore what a perfect night is, and he chooses one in which he spoke little, if at all:
He was at home, and John Love called to share a story he was writing. Larrimore says he could hear the sound of the train as he listened to his friend read from his latest work in progress – something dark. “It was like being read to by an orchid or a temple cobra,” he says.
“I like deeply listening,” Larrimore says. “Even, sometimes, to silence.”
‘The Go Between’
What: 23 works created between 1999 and 2015 by Phillip Larrimore. The exhibition’s title refers to his tendency to be involved in more than one thing at the same time, he says: painting and sculpture; abstraction and realism; visual arts and writing.
When: Through June.
Where: ClearWater Artist Studios, 223 Crowell Drive NW, Concord; 704-784-9535; clearwaterartists.com.