This is an article about me that appeared on December 8, 2014 in the Southampton Press, written by Kelly Ann Smith as part of her “Bonac Community Notes” series.
Phyllis Baker Hammond’s three miniature poodles, Lucy, Clio, and Tony, woke up from a nap on their shared dog bed when I knocked on a sliding glass door leading into her living room, which overlooks Accabonac Harbor. I was drawn there by her art studio which sits in front of the house and showcases her dramatically bent sculptures in powder-coated colors like neon green, red, orange, bright white and silver.
Ms. Hammond has had a productive career in her 84 years, moving effortlessly from clay to metal. She begins each work with a fanciful doodle and then transfers the refined drawing to “the machine”, a computerized water jet that cuts the design from sheet metal.
She uses both the positive and the negative cutouts in her artwork, creating lacy panels and playful three-dimensional works.
A drawing she was working on the previous night was deemed “a failure”, but it didn’t seem to faze her. “The whole thing is play”, she said.
Make no mistake, her so-called “doodles” take a precise skill and can be a challenge to create. Each complicated sketch needs an entrance and an exit.
Her background, drawing mechanical schematics at Raytheon as a young adult in Massachusetts, has helped her understand how to prepare her drawings for the machine. There are many machines in her studio, and even scattered around the yard: a wax-melting machine, a clay-making machine, a steel-cutting machine, a steel-bending machine, and a small water jet machine.
Currently, Ms. Hammond is working on a commission of four pieces for the Dag Hammarskjold Plaza in New York City, which will use a heavier steel than she has used in the past. As her artwork expands in scale, larger machinery in Commack foundries do the bulk of the work.
Once the sketches have come to life in 3-D form, she still plays with them in her studio, adding smaller contrasting pieces, LED lights, or a moving base.
East Hampton resident, artist and founder of Play Art, Ernst Lurker, is one of her trusted confidants. “He keeps wanting me to make moving things,” she said, “I would love to make more movement.”
Ms. Hammond began her career in Boston at the Museum School. “As a child, I was a very poor student,” she said, “I needed more physical work than sitting at a desk all day.”
Thankfully, her teachers were intuitive enough to send her to the Boston Museum, where she took to drawing classical Greek statues, which later greatly influenced her work.
She married at 18 years old, had a daughter and divorced at 21. In addition to attending art school, she was the first American woman to study at Kyoto City College of Fine Arts in Japan. As if that weren’t enough, she also earned an education degree from Tufts and taught art “everyplace”, from kindergarten to graduate school, in two year increments.
“I always came back to my work”, she said.
The Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine, provided her with a safe haven whenever she felt she needed to get back on track. Her work originally consisted of ceramic containers. Soon people entered her containers and later the people seemed to have an urge to escape.
“I realized it was me in the containers”, she said, “I didn’t know who I was.”
She compares her earlier work to Giacometti. “The loneliness is so contained,” she said, “How do I get out of the container?”
One of her most famous works of 1980, “Ancient Inspiration Contemporary Interpretation”, has three faces, influenced by classic statues, peering out of a ceramic cylinder that seems to be peeling away. “I’m in there too,” she said, “I’m the third face”.
Perhaps she felt trapped as a daughter, a wife, a mother, and a student, but she used her artistic path to freedom.
“It all has a history,” she said, “Everything is connected to when you are young. It’s amazing. It’s all reflected in the work.”
The artist waited a long time to build her dream studio. “I was afraid,” she said.
Three years ago, the fear vanished and she shingled a pre-fab building “so it fit in the neighborhood” and added four glass garage doors. In the summer it’s like working outside and in the winter, plenty of light still pours in. Not only that, the studio has attracted other artists, such as the sculptor Bill King, and she thrives on the community it has created.
“Don’t worry about exhibiting,” Mr. King told her, “Just do your work.”
At 38, she married Dr. Aldo Perotto, who was visiting his family in Argentina during my visit. Before the studio was built, they spent the winters in Argentina, but they sold their South American home and now she stays put.
“Aldo is lonely to see his family,” she told me, “He’s learned to Skype.”
Prior to buying the land on Accabonac, she and her husband had a home in upstate New York, as well as on Neck Path but moved to the three-acre property 15 years ago.
Ideally, she would like the town to buy the property and use it as a community art center where classes could be taught.
“I envision this land being public,” she said walking amongst the artwork in the yard.
She may have gotten the idea from her friend, textile designer Jack Lenor Larsen, who created LongHouse reserve in East Hampton, where she worked for two years. Charles Forberg, the architect who designed LongHouse also designed Ms. Hammond’s house and Mr. Larsen helped with the interiors, creating sliding wall dividers for the kitchen.
Her old studio is being used being used by Penelope Dwyer, the development director of the Parrish Art Museum, who is helping the artist organize her office, as well as her life’s work in return. Ms. Dwyer has also resurrected Ms. Hammond’s old kiln for her own daughter, who is preparing for a Master of Fine Arts degree.
“Just when I was about to throw it away, this young girl comes along,” she said, admiring the young woman’s creations. “And to be so excited about what you are doing,” she said, “It’s all play.”
Ms. Hammond will show at the Chase Edwards Gallery in Bridgehampton in April. In the meantime, check out her work at www.phyllishammondsculpture.com.