My first impression of Dave Phillips was that he is a man of action, full of energy fueled by a passion for what he does.
We in met in January in my apartment to talk, and he paced the floor as he spoke to me, eager to tell me about his latest project; happy, he told me, to be able to finally take a break from an enormous workload. He is eager to be able to put some more energy into his new project.
With a big smile Dave placed a large case on my coffee table. "This is my latest project," he said as he stood back. "It's a briefcase." I sat down to have a closer look; I was intrigued. The vividly colored, shiny case revealed a carefully carved-out comic book scene, tactfully crafted in amazing detail.
"It's not finished yet," he told me. "But I wanted you to have a look." Although I am admittedly not a comic-book reader, and wasn't familiar with the characters portrayed, I could see that Dave had captured the dynamic elements of the scene that brought the case to life. "I haven't seen anything like this done before," he revealed. "I'm excited about it."
The carving on the case and the shiny enamel paint almost invited me to touch it. "Go ahead," Dave assured, wide-eyed. As I ran my hand across the surface, I could feel the depth of every groove, the smooth cut of each line. He opened it to show me the wood beneath the paint; he's happy to finally work with better quality wood. "It's made with birch." He used to work in pine, but it's not as strong, he told me, as Birch and Mahogany, the two types of wood he's been using lately. "Birch is strong. So strong you have to take a hammer to it to actually dent it." And "pine doesn't hold as well. It's inexpensive, but it's more prone to cracks and breaks easily." He explained how he bowed the pieces of wood used on the case's handle, a new ("accidental") discovery for him. "I still have a lot of work to do on it. I want to line it with suede, do a few touch-ups."
The case is one of several "boxes" that Phillips has made since embarking on his woodworking venture a little over a year ago.
He had wanted to try his hand at woodworking before, but never did. Until one day when, while purchasing some tools for his job as a demolition worker, he decided on a whim to buy himself some woodsculping tools. "I thought, oh, why not? I just decided to do it."
He started by making keychains, "just to try it out." A friend of his saw them and suggested that he try to make something bigger, like a box. He did, and it became the first of many. "People call me the box man now," he told me with a grin.
Not all of his work employs the use of the comic book motif, but Dave enjoys the challenge of drawing and carving the dynamic scenes, and has found that there is a strong interest in those works. "There is definitely a market for it," he told me. He began to work with comic book images based on a challenge by the same friend who suggested the idea of making a box. "He was really into comic books; he had a huge collection. One day he came over with a stack and challenged me to do something with them." Dave's first box sold soon after it was crafted, and he has noticed a growing number of requests for more. He confesses that he was never much of a comic book reader, but that after his first attempt, he found that he was attracted to the nature of the medium: the colors, the characters, the interaction. He makes sure to research all of his subjects so that they are accurate, and believes that "consistency is important."
While Dave has become known for his boxes, he has also created numerous functional pieces; some for commisions, and some just to bring to life the many ideas that come into his mind. His collection includes custom-made clocks, custom belts, wall-units, large cabinets, and a miniature bed, designed specifically for his mother's small dog. Many of his pieces incorporate mixed media, and he plans to do more work using metal, glass, and fabric.
He has recently gained a large client base for custom wall plaques and address plates; something, he says that's been bringing in an income while broadening his audience. "I did an address plate as a favor for someone, and I started getting asked to do more. Now I can't stop getting orders," he told me with a smile. Each of his pieces is created along with the client, so that each is unique and distinctive for that person. "I hate the idea of mass-produced work," he told me.
It seems that Dave--now 30--has tapped into a dormant talent, and now that he's found it, he's making the most of his energy and unstoppable imagination to give it some exercise. He told me that as a child he once entered an art contest ran by a local newspaper; he'd won, and never gave it another thought. Yet, he says, when he looks back, he remembers that he'd always had a stong need for exploration and a penchant for putting things together. "I used to go to bed with toy cars" he revelead, and add things to them: lights, motors from my brother's cars, anything I could find that would work." Still, he says, he never took his ideas seriously until recently.
Luckily for him, he's never lost his natural curiosity and need to explore his possiblities. With limited resources he's made some alternatives for tools, crafted an oven for heating his wood, and with some experimentation, has made some of his own paint colors by mixing buckets of various colors. He's used magic markers when he had nothing else, and found that some wood absorbs the colors nicely, letting the grain show through. He's even incorporated his own blood into his work: "I cut myself once while I was working on a piece. A few drops of blood fell on and stained the piece. I like it so much, I mixed it with some paint, and got a great red color that really worked with what I was doing."
This is all pretty new for Dave. It's taken him nearly 30 years to realize his passion, and he's releasing it with fervor. But he says it's all a learning and growing process; he's brimming with ideas and is eager to learn more so that he can forge ahead with his newly-discovered talents. And, he told me, "I love it."
Dave's looking forward to the future, and he's got a lot of ideas in mind. He says that beyond promoting his own work, he wants to be able to teach what he has learned to others, and is currently teaching his stepson his process. "I remember taking woodshop in high school. I went through an entire class and all I had to show for it was a footstool by the end of the year. I didn't really learn anything." He adds that he wants to teach others how to work for themselves and become independent.
When I asked Dave what advice he has for others, he quoted his grandfather. "My grandad always said that there are two paths you can take: one with a few footsteps and one with many steps. The shorter path may lead to quicker results, but the longer path will teach you more. If you go the difficult way, it will work."
After a pause he added, "Apply yourself. Never be discouraged and never let an obstacle be the end of the path. You can have what you want."