Pencil on Paper
9 X 12 in.
STILL BELIEVING by Phillip Simpson
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My body of work for the last 15 years has gradually evolved to what I now call my Smile Style. Originally fascinated by fine art, details in portraits, figure paintings and realism, I grew to love bold lines and vibrant colors in my work. This phase of my life has been an ongoing quest for my own of happiness and self love. I paint smiles to encourage humanity to be kind but also to remind myself that I have something to smile about. I’ve always believed that the energy you put out is the energy you get back. Over 80% of my art is positive with intentions to further the conversation of happiness and peace. I enjoy painting portraits of black leaders and black families smiling (because) I want little brown kids around the world to see themselves in a positive light versus what they may see and hear in the media. I believe one of the biggest roles an artist has, is to not only document history but to also make history. In the current climate of pandemics, racial tensions and inflation, some may forget to smile and embrace the idea of optimism. I create smile themed art to remind us all to smile, be kind and dream. My work ranges from public murals, fine art to apparel design. Rather viewed in a private collection or a mural on the east side of Detroit, I’m pushing the same message, to uplift and inspire tomorrows leaders.
Detroit muralist and artistic entrepreneur Phillip Simpson is on a mission to bring a smile to every face in the world. For the past decade, his boldly colored smile paintings have been lighting up streets, rec centers and even the face of a downtown high-rise. Using the power of positivity to give back to his community, he proposes that happiness is a choice, and that choice can change lives. Born and raised at 7 Mile and Hoover on the Detroit East Side, Phillip grew up in a loving extended family that encouraged his interest in drawing cartoon characters. When he was 11, his mother signed him up for a weekend art class, where he found himself painting still lifes and practicing figure drawing while his friends focused on music and sports. For school reports, he drew detailed portraits of people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., and soon discovered that his art skills brought him respect and a pass from the usual peer pressure. While he was fascinated by the hip hop movie Beat Street, the tragic ending of the graffiti writers in the movie was an object lesson that kept him at the drawing table rather than out on the streets with a spray can. But living in a bleak atmosphere of boarded-up houses covered with scrawled obscenities and tags takes a toll, so eventually he felt compelled to counteract the negativity, and secretly began overpainting the ugly messages with positive ones. While studying at the University of Michigan School of Art & Design, he was encouraged to explore alternatives to realism, and developed his signature style during exercises in blind contour drawing. Both his smile paintings and his vibrant portraits of public figures and everyday people share a gesture that immediately identifies them as his work, a sort of sigil that subtly incorporates his initials. This sinuous line also defines the two sides of the face into areas of light and darkness, his reference to the concept of yin and yang, the idea that life inevitably has its ups and downs and only when joy stands in constant opposition to sorrow does life come into its proper rhythm and balance. Not unlike art-world icons like Keith Haring and Takashi Murakami, Phillip employs the repetition of this simple emblem of happiness fighting back against darkness as a force for good in the world. As the great Muhammad Ali once said, “It's the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief.” With the encouragement of Detroit graffiti legend Antonio “Shades” Agee, who told him, “Don’t be afraid of the can, man. Don’t be afraid to use big brushstrokes on these walls,” Phillip began painting his first large-scale murals in 2012. After an emerging artists residency at The Heidelberg Project, which gave him greater confidence about putting his art forward to the public, he founded The Baltimore Gallery, a refuge for Black art and culture. Since then, he has launched many pop-ups displaying his “Smile Style” artwork and products, all made in Detroit, including a recent collaboration with Neiman Marcus. In a partnership with manufacturer Owens Corning, which has acquired 22 of his original paintings for display at its international headquarters in 22 countries, he travels nationwide to live paint at conventions. Creating from love, Phillip believes his work is a vessel for change: lifting hearts, inspiring kindness and empowering the community.