You can't walk through Phil Lear's apartment without sidestepping an easel. There's one set up in the middle of his kitchen, and another commanding the living room.
When I visit on a mild morning in January, both are in use. During the day, Lear paints in the living room; at night, in the kitchen so he can let his 5-year-old son sleep. (The living room doubles as a bedroom in this converted downtown Victorian.)
Every corner of the snug space seems to scream it: An artist lives here. Supplies, books and paintings occupy corners and fill bookcases, while artwork from friends and random fliers cover the walls haphazardly. "It Ain't Me, Babe" twangs out of a stereo.
Lear's preparing for a solo showing at the Rabbit Hole, in which he plans to execute seven new pieces, plus an 11-foot, three-panel mural to fill the moody walls of the underground restaurant and bar. His idea is to create a series around rhymes and fairy and folk tales.
On this day, a cat with a fiddle dances on the living room easel, while Lampwick from Pinocchio sits in the kitchen. The rascal rests on his folded arms, gripping a half-smoked cigar in his mouth, his top hat framed by two hairy donkey ears.
What saves this piece from being a simple illustration is Lampwick's nearly unreadable expression — he's thoughtful, but hardened. Like so many of Lear's works, the face in the painting is the most striking element. It's where Lear starts, and where a painting can end.
"It's kind of a safety net, too," he explains, "'cause if you screw up the face, the rest of the painting's kind of pointless."
So many of the painting's elements, he explains, generate from the face. It serves as a color key for the rest of the painting, and when it works, it "makes it all communicate together."
Fellow artists talk of Lear's superb understanding of color and his impeccable technical skills. These attributes, along with his subject matter, keep his paintings from looking precious, says friend, artist and art teacher Chris Alvarez.
"There's an immediacy to his work; it's not fussed over. It hasn't been improved to death. He puts it down and he gets it the way he wants it, without messing around too much.
"He kind of reminds me of an old Impressionist," Alvarez says. "He paints like an old Russian."
On first blush, Lear himself seems to embody the classic socially awkward artist. He's quiet and reserved. When we talk, his gaze is often fixed on something else. He wears simple, nondescript clothing, maybe punctuated by a hat. At 36, he's like an old photograph come to life. But talk to him long enough, and you realize he always seems to say just the right thing.
It's a reason why he's considered a "bedrock" member of the Modbo Collective, a group of artists who critique each others' work and display at the Modbo and S.P.Q.R., arguably the city's most cutting-edge galleries.
It's also a reason why it's alarming to hear him talk about focusing elsewhere, taking his art into bigger cities and wider markets. Lear dreams of ditching his odd jobs, his part-time summer work filling potholes, and painting all day, every day.
In addition, he's afraid he's saturated his market here. On his website, Lear's selected exhibitions have yet to breach El Paso and Teller counties, save a few sporadic exhibits over a decade ago. It hardly reflects someone of his talent, or current ambition.
Last year, Lear says, he did about 20 shows locally, often pricing his originals in the neighborhood of $500. Yet his autumn solo show at S.P.Q.R. led to only one sale, a far fall from a solo show there a year before, where he sold most everything.
His take: "People are getting tired of seeing it, probably."
The recovery of childhood
We're standing at the living-room easel, looking at his palette. Discussing the cat-and-fiddle painting, Lear talks about his love of color, and how you can't get too crazy with it.
"I use a lot more colors on my palette, too," he says. Turning toward it, he starts to count. "Wow, there's about 18 colors on here. And I'm not using all of them all the time for every painting, but I used to just paint with, like, five."
That was back in the day when Lear says he was into the Renaissance and "being an Old Master," where you mix all your colors from only three basics.
"It was a good grounding, 'cause then, once you add more colors it just gets more exciting, but you still have that knowledge of how to mix something if you have to.
"But then you throw in a little bit of orange or pink into it and it just ..." Lear makes a noise like a soft explosion. "... It's a flower all of a sudden. Burst of energy happening."
At Pensacola (Fla.) Christian College, all freshmen were told just to draw, so Lear didn't even paint until the second year. Only as a junior was he able to start painting in oil, and from the moment he smelled it, he knew it was his medium.
But life after college didn't immediately send him into painting. Lear, who spent most of his childhood in Canada, comes from a religious family; his "grandpap" and cousin are Baptist ministers. He found a lot of work through the faith (though he's not as devout these days), going to Switzerland after college and doing illustration and design work for missionaries, and later coming to Colorado to work in design for a Christian company.
In the early 2000s he got back into painting, taking classes at Cottonwood Center for the Arts, then located on Colorado Avenue. There he met Alvarez, and both artists committed to taking their art beyond the hobby level.
Ten years later, he paints with an undeniable sense of purpose.
In 2011, he says, he completed 110 pieces. He usually does a work in several sittings, though he gets most of the heavy lifting done in the first round, laying out the foundation of the face and the composition of the work. Later sittings are best for the perspective they bring.
"You catch things that aren't quite right," he says. Lear then points to a smaller image of a man screaming while his eyes and head are covered. "That one was done in one sitting."
Though completed even faster than usual, it's a typical Lear, painterly brushstrokes and a striking narrative. While he can — and does — paint about everything, Lear's probably best known for his carnival and genre scenes. Think a boozy bar lady swinging around the neck of a patron, or sneering circus folk loitering next to a sinister lion's cage. Song lyrics are another source of inspiration, particularly those of Dylan.
Many characters are children, set in situations they shouldn't look prepared for, yet somehow are. Like Lampwick, their faces betray expressions of fear, curiosity or worldly knowledge, shielded by a stoic surface.
"I like painting them. I like the youth," he says, adding, "I think children's faces are a lot more emotional, too. And it's easier to make a connection with."
His son's tidy toy boxes aside, Lear's interest in precociousness is evident in his apartment. Photographs of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud — a natural connection, given Lear's impressive literary knowledge — are taped to the wall. Above a door hangs a Modigliani poster; when asked about it, Lear explains how inspired he is by the Italian artist's work and dramatic life.
"Someone described his paintings as, like, everyone looks like a hurt child," he says of Modigliani's signature, mask-like faces. "They're on a playground and there's a mean schoolmarm; that kind of emotion's inside his paintings, his people. I don't know exactly why, even after studying him, exactly why he did a lot of his stuff."
Lear says he has binders of research on the artist, remnants of a former goal to write a biography. Similar to Rimbaud, whose career was short but prolific, Modigliani only painted about five years. He died at 35, one year younger than Lear is now. It prompts Lear to say, slightly wistfully, "He's way ahead of me."
Finding new eyes
As an artist and a friend, Brett Andrus finds Lear invaluable to what he's doing as co-owner and curator of Modbo and S.P.Q.R.
"He's kind of like my sounding board for a lot of different things in the art world," Andrus says. And in critiques, Lear has the experience to comment on fundamentals like painting technique or simply asking the artist, "What are you saying?"
And then there's Lear's artwork. When it comes to one of the Collective's missions — a return to art designed to provoke emotion — Lear is one of the best.
"Phil is the perfect example of a narrative, figurative painter, and he has really laid the foundation for what we try to do as a gallery, what we try to show as a gallery, what we try to show as an aesthetic, what we try to do as a group," Andrus says.
And yet Andrus knows why Lear would start setting his sights on other art scenes, like those in Denver and New Mexico.
"Colorado Springs is an interesting market, to say the least," Andrus says. "It's on the larger side of mid-sized cities. But we haven't had a cultural identity for years; people still think they have to buy their art from Santa Fe and Taos, so there's a smaller collection base in Colorado Springs for sure."
Of course, breaking into a bigger bracket is no picnic either, says Alvarez. He's struggling with the same markets himself. "You grovel" to get in, he says; galleries are more interested in the artist than the work.
One way to bypass all of that is to sell through the Internet, something Alvarez recommends. Lear hasn't had much luck on that route, but says that he hasn't explored it too much, either.
In fact, Lear hasn't really made any big moves yet; he's mostly "scouting who to talk to" at this point. He speculates he'll move eventually, and would love someday to relocate overseas and paint in Spain.
For now, though, he's here. Andrus recently sold two of his works out of the Blue Star, and five little pieces in December's Small Works Show. And leading up to the Rabbit Hole opening, Lear is still painting at a breakneck speed.
Back in his apartment, on a Western painting in progress, he's demonstrating how he layers on paint with a palette knife. Lear will hang this at Mountain Living Studio in Manitou Springs, where they sell fairly well. This one needs something, though. Lear "tsk"s at the neck of one of the horses, saying it's "too giraffy."
Then he goes back to mimicking with the knife how he carves out the edge of the horse's leg or the feedbag tied to its bridle. The effect is just as good as that of a brush, with the benefit of spackling on thick layers of paint while retaining a sharp edge. When he needed to cover more area once, he says, he used a barbecue spatula.
Like so many of his subjects, it sounds a little like the stuff of myth.
"He's kind of out of his time, in a way," says Alvarez. "I don't know if it's kind of my Romantic vision of him, but that's how I see him."