Tue | Jan 26, 2021

Painter using art to impact and inspire - Phillip Fung talks years as ‘starving artist’ to now finding success, purpose in art

Published:Friday | November 20, 2020 | 12:09 AMStephanie Lyew/Gleaner Writer
The ‘Stars and Stripes’ portrait of former US President Barack Obama has garnered global recognition.
The ‘Stars and Stripes’ portrait of former US President Barack Obama has garnered global recognition.
Phillip Fung smiles at his ‘Kamala’ portrait of United States Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris.
Phillip Fung smiles at his ‘Kamala’ portrait of United States Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris.
The ‘Bodhi Tree’ is the artist’s favourite for its simplicity and unplanned birth.
The ‘Bodhi Tree’ is the artist’s favourite for its simplicity and unplanned birth.

The second Phillip Fung’s website loads, the eyes are greeted with a colourful palette of the artist’s paintings, inspiring the release of endorphins that immediately provoke a smile. Telling Phil, as he prefers to be called, that this is the reaction does not bowl him over, he simply says, “The role of an artist is to inspire people to see the joy in life.” He added, “It is the artist’s responsibility to bring beauty into the world, to raise people’s spirits and remind them that there are still things worth living for. Whether it be poetry, music, beautiful paintings, murals or portraits,” the latter being Phil’s area of expertise.

He has been involved in the arts, as a painter, for the past 18 years, 12 of which he has served as part of the Caribbean diaspora living in Miami – educating the community from a medium-sized studio space and sharing his work in the Wynwood art district.

“The one thing I always tell people when they want to learn about the arts is that the world can be a dark, dangerous and ugly place. Making art without sharing serves no one. Sharing is community, love and the only way to make the world a better place filling that gap of selfishness and hate,” Phil told The Gleaner.

Before that, he worked as a busboy [clearing tables in a restaurant], delivery truck driver and freelance designer, all while attending college. If you’ve ever heard the term “starving artist”, he opines, “that’s me in real life”. “The early years were a struggle. Thankfully, I have developed my business acumen and artistic skills [so] that I can live comfortably.”

Phil has used paint to create dramatic impressions of people who seek him out for portraits, small and large, but also of his own volition showed how art imitates politics, or more so the politicians. In 2008, he triumphed in the Manifest Hope International Art Competition out of 1,200 entries from across the world. The challenge was to illustrate former United States President Barack Obama. That ‘Stars and Stripes’ titled portrait was displayed at the Democratic National Convention, auctioned off for charity and later featured in The Art for Obama book.


“That was amazing, not only for the exposure but to know that maybe, just maybe, it could inspire and unite Americans. It also gave me the chance to open doors I never knew existed and meet individual connections and collectors that would last to this day. It showed my younger artist self that he could make an impact.”

Then again, in 2012, Obama endorsed the artist’s work on Twitter, a piece titled, ‘Red State/Blue State’ which signalled that he did make an impact. It went on to receive global recognition across international media, including Vogue, having won the Vogue Art Fashion Competition and CNN.

It featured one of the most memorable lines in Obama’s speech after his re-election: “There are no red states or blue states, just the United States”, which became the tag line for a T-shirt design done by Phil himself, for the former president’s campaign.

He painted US Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris, he said, “in support of the democrats but the Biden-Harris ticket did not tap into the art world as a motivator for voters. They should have, but alas, not this time.”

Phil looks to the historic portfolios of Russian 19th-century artist Nicholas Roerich, the American cartoonist that created Calvin and Hobbes Bill Watterson, and Vincent Van Gogh – no introduction needed – for motivation.

“Despite the hardships in Van Gogh’s life, he managed to leave a legacy that not one soul has surpassed. If I could feel and express myself in the way he did, that would be worth all the agony and the ecstasy of being an artist,” Phil expressed.

As the son of Jamaican parents and a family ancestry that stems from the very first Chinese immigrants in the 1800s, both cultures have organically fed him with the inspiration for some of his best paintings.

“I think my work is best inspired by the brightness of colour and energy of the tropics – vivid, strong and unapologetic colour – a few Jamaica-inspired art pieces such as my ‘Three Little Birds’ and other landscape paintings of Blue Mountains and golden skies that are inspired by driving through winding country roads.”

A recent move to Lake Worth Beach, Florida, from Miami, has Phil seeking business partners in the area.

“My work is exhibited in local galleries, but I’m still hoping to build on these relationships. The more you show up and share your work, the more people are receptive to it. Success begets success. I will continue my work as an artist, grow my business, license my artwork to larger markets, and always, share more than steal,” he said.