Artist and designer John-Paul Philippe had just landed in New York from Dallas when a friend called. “There is a private viewing of a place that’s perfect for you. You must come at once.” Philippe had been looking for a weekend retreat, so he got on a train to see it. The property consisted of five untended acres nestling in a hollow under Red Rock Mountain in Sharon, with a cabin and a derelict barn, belonging to conservationist John McNeely who kept the land as a bird sanctuary.
Philippe had always been fascinated by birds and many of his drawings and sculptures feature avians. That morning in 2006 a red-tail hawk had briefly landed on his Dallas hotel windowsill, and now as he walked through the cabin he spied a carving of a hawk. Coincidence? Later, standing outside, an owl hooted. “Something stirred inside me,” he recalls, “I knew I had to buy this place. I bid five dollars above the asking price, putting all my savings on the line.” His bid was accepted, but not before he promised to keep the land as a bird refuge.
The deal concluded and the insurance company proceeded to cancel Philippe’s policy, finding the buildings “in a general state of disrepair”. True enough, but the ramshackle cabin, which McNeely had transported to Sharon in the 1980s, had been built of hand-cut logs in the 1840s by Scottish settlers in North Carolina. Luckily Lloyds of London agreed to insure it, and essential repairs began. Commuting from New York on weekends, Philippe saw to the gradual improvements.
Fast forward to 2013. Unexpectedly he lost his New York studio space, just as his decade-long employment with Barneys, decorating its boutiques worldwide, came to an end. He made a snap decision to move to Sharon full-time. “I am glad it was quick. Had I thought much about it, I may not have done it,” he says. “But New York had nothing more to teach me.” It meant a vast change for this Oklahoma native, who had painted in London for 23 years, had a busy design studio in Gotham, had traveled the world finding inspiration wherever he roamed. What inspiration would come from the wilderness? Plenty, as it turned out.
Foremost was turning the cabin itself into a work of art—outside by re-chinking the logs with a white cement mix, then staining them black with pitch from Sweden; inside, by touches such as a white accordion ceiling to hide the monotone rafters, floating small shelves of wood collected from Philippe’s travels on the kitchen wall, hand-carved furniture in the tiny living room, a graceful bear-proof bird feeder he designed, off the porch.
Then came sculpting the native meadowland. Philippe mowed pathways following natural tracks made by deer, and then shaped the paths with “sequential mowing” (first wide, then narrower). He practices what he calls “laid-back bonsai on a large scale”, removing branches that distract his artist’s eye; then he piles them into a natural barricade to surround a fairy ring in the making. Here and there he subtly highlights natural features like rocks or fallen trunks with pruning. Nature responds, but appears undisturbed.
In the barn, now his studio, he works on client commissions, planning his murals and large paintings, making sketches or cardboard templates to be rendered in three dimensions by local craftsmen. Steel is his favorite medium, dividing interior spaces with metal hangings, his present preoccupation. But he also sees the potential of a seat in every tree stump. “I guess I am what you would call an aesthete,” says Philippe disarmingly.