This Fantastic Struggle: The Life and Art of Esther Phillips

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Overview

Rarely if ever does the creative artist receive either the recognition or the recompense he deserves and needs. Lisa A. Miles brings this truism to vibrant life in This Fantastic Struggle, the biography of Ester Phillips. Woven together with letters, interviews, scholarly source material, institution documents and art work, this unique cultural essay presents an absorbing glimpse at what it means to be an artist.

Born in Russia, raised in Pittsburgh by a family that couldn't ...

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Overview

Rarely if ever does the creative artist receive either the recognition or the recompense he deserves and needs. Lisa A. Miles brings this truism to vibrant life in This Fantastic Struggle, the biography of Ester Phillips. Woven together with letters, interviews, scholarly source material, institution documents and art work, this unique cultural essay presents an absorbing glimpse at what it means to be an artist.

Born in Russia, raised in Pittsburgh by a family that couldn't appreciate her artistic identity, Esther left for Greenwich Village in the 1930s and never looked back. And an artist Esther was, though it cost her deeply. Despite early critical success, she was not able to make a living during the Depression and was institutionalized for over six years, likely for the results of starvation and stress. After her release, she returned to her art and to the Village, where her struggle continued. Eventually she lapsed into obscurity, but not before saying she had lived a wonderful life. This Fantastic Struggle is also the story of friendship - the kind that keeps alive both friends and art work that would otherwise have been lost the the world.

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Editorial Reviews

Brian Butko
Interviews with aging bohemians and bountiful reproduced documents ... Miles immerses the reader in the world of Esther Phillips with an intensity that matches her subject. I couldn't stop reading!
Western Pennsylvania History Magazine
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780979823619
  • Publisher: Miles, Lisa A.
  • Publication date: 4/29/2009
  • Pages: 461
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
Introduction xiii
(frontispiece) xxi
Initial Correspondence: Harold J. Winters, New York, NY, to Merle Hoyleman, Pittsburgh, PA, November 12, 1937 1
Pittsburgh
Chapter 1 "She Needed To Paint" 5
Chapter 2 "The Whole Town Was on a Party" 15
Chapter 3 The Reviews 29
Chapter 4 "Flippy" 47
New York: Early Years
Chapter 5 "She Was an Artist & She Starved" 65
Chapter 6 "The A.M. After the Night Before" 81
Chapter 7 "Having Drifted" 96
The Institution
Chapter 8 "In a Hell of a Mess" 113
Chapter 9 Greetings from Wingdale, N.Y. 126
Chapter 10 Diagnosis 139
Chapter 11 The View from Behind Bars 156
Chapter 12 The Librarian 192
Chapter 13 "About Esther Phillips" 204
Chapter 14 "That Mad Scampering About" 224
New York: Later Years
Chapter 15 "Looking Forward ... with Much Enthusiasm" 245
Chapter 16 "The Flight of Esther Phillips' Fingertips" 267
Chapter 17 "Every Inch of Strength & Strategy to Call Forth Aid" 286
Chapter 18 "That Situation ... Indelibly in Our Memory" 302
Chapter 19 "A Little Tired of It All" 318
Chapter 20 "Her Energy Mysteriously Sourced" 335
Chapter 21 "The Inner Life of the Artist" 360
Appendix
A. Phantom's Dance, a play in one act for three characters 390
Afterword 403
Notes 416
Bibliography 445
Index 453
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  • Posted December 26, 2010

    Private Ordeal of Abstract Expressionist Artist Worthwhile Reading

    An original and intense artist, Esther Phillips moved from her native-born Pittsburgh to New York during the Great Depression, where she came to live a typical artist's minimal existence, literally starving at times. With her physical health often being run down, it was small wonder that her mental health followed suit, with her enduring much hardship, including institutionalization. One thinks of W. Somerset Maugham's portrayal of the struggling artist in Of Human Bondage, as well as of the plaintive correspondence Van Gogh conducted with his brother, much of which also literally implored him for increased financial support, though Theo was a great deal more supportive of Vincent's artistic endeavors than was Phillips' family, on the whole, of her idiosyncratic way of life. Miles' work is much more than a straightforward biography, including, as it does, many interviews, scholarly source material, art work and institution documents, obtained only after Miles had specifically petitioned the relevant authorities for their Court Ordered release.

    Phillips' story is told through innumerable primary source documents and dialogues, as well as her own work, which is used to illustrate This Fantastic Struggle throughout. The correspondence between Phillips and Merle Hoyleman, her close friend and agent, as well as with fellow Greenwich Village artist Eugenia Hughes, reveals her dedication to her art. Extracts from journals also reveal the intensity of her creative life. Phillips' unique voice also emerges from transcriptions of visits that a niece took during the artist's last days. For this biography, Miles conducted over twenty extensive interviews with those who either knew her personally, or who were well acquainted with her work. Included in This Fantastic Struggle are reviews of her early Pittsburgh work, as well as information about the Washington Square Outdoor Shows, a public expo of the work of Village artists. Much of the focus of this work is also on the Federal Arts Projects, the Abstract Expressionists, women artists in general, and the impact of mental illness on the creative spirit.

    This Fantastic Struggle should appeal to a wide range of readers who are involved with, and who care passionately about, the arts. Miles states that her intention with the biography is to "write Esther's story for all the creative artists out there who know too well her fantastic struggle, but especially I write to many more, a vast audience probably unfamiliar with this challenging yet joyful existence known as the creative life, in hope to bring an artist's existence truly into view."

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