Art that Speaks

Grace Thornton Experience, Spring 2020

Phillip Counselman says verbal expression isn’t his natural comfort zone. He’s a man of few words.

And of all the topics he thought he might spend those words on this year, his boat definitely wasn’t one of them.

“I never really thought I’d be talking to anyone about it,” he said.

But it’s hard to avoid the subject when people see it and stop in their tracks, or they follow him

onto the dock to ask questions about it. They can’t seem to help it. The sea green, hand-built boat is a thing of beauty.

“I’ve been amazed and flattered by the response,” Counselman said.

He got into boat building a few years ago when a friend introduced him to the hobby. It was new for Counselman, and it turned out to be a challenge — a magnum opus. But even so, it wasn’t a stretch.

“The boat really is a sculpture, and I like to work with my hands,” he said. “It’s a big part of being an artist.”

Art is something he’s loved ever since he started painting landscapes in the rural town of Thomaston, Alabama, where he grew up. Over the years, he stretched himself and explored sculpture and other kinds of art through his studies, including as a student at the University of Mobile. Now he teaches ceramics, along with drawing and other art forms, and chairs the art department at the University of Mobile.

And as his choice of medium changed, so has his outlook on what art is all about.

“You go through different stages with art — it’s just like anything else,” Counselman said. “When I was a younger artist, it was all about me. Now I’ve come to the realization that a big part of art is lifting others up and reaching out to others with your artwork.”

That’s what he tries to pass on to his students — that they have a responsibility to others and that their work should have integrity. He said their art is tied to their spirituality and their viewers can see that in what they create. And he helps them get that art in front of people so they can make those

connections — for instance, in 2019 they helped paint a mural for the Greater Gulf State Fair. “We want to be active in the community,” Counselman said. “It’s a great way to communicate with people.”

To him, that’s what art is all about — honing your God-given talent so you can use it to communicate and, when necessary, talk about it too.

Caroline Ennis, a 2016 UM graduate and Master of Fine Arts candidate at Florida State University, said Counselman was one of her most valuable mentors, spending hours outside of class helping her build her portfolio. Under his teaching, she grew in confidence — both in her work and in speaking about it.

“I am forever grateful for his unwavering support and dedication to my success,” Ennis said.

Kiara Page, a 2018 UM graduate, said Counselman “is a great teacher who has a talent for helping students develop their art further than they believed they could achieve.”

She said his critiques were her favorite part of his classes.

“He could pick apart a piece in a way that was not harsh or judgmental, but in a way where you could understand how and why you should improve it,” Page said.

Counselman puts it simply like this — “I tell my students they are here to learn to express themselves in the best way that they can.”

And when people follow them onto the dock to ask about their magnum opus — and every other work of art — he wants them to be ready to talk about it.

About the Author

Grace Thornton