Success hasn’t spoiled painter Philip Craig

By Julie Gauthier

You might expect him to be a little smug, but success hasn’t spoiled him. After all, his paintings are gaining international recognition and as one of Ottawa’s leading artists on the verge of a breakthrough in his career, he has every right to be.

As it turns out, Philip Craig is a down-to-earth guy who chooses to stay out of the Ottawa spotlight.

Craig doesn’t fit the stereotype of an artist. His gray sweater, dark jeans and plaid shirt all point to a businessman dressed for casual Friday. But, once he starts to talk, his enthusiasm reveals the type of man who has the ability to create the vibrant paintings that hang in his studio.

Craig was born in Ottawa in 1951 and grew up in the Glebe. He began his art training at Fisher Park high school, and moved on to Sheridan College, near Toronto, to study graphic design after graduation.

Craig worked at the CBC as a set designer in Newfoundland for 15 years, along with well-known Canadian artist Gerald Trottier, and designed backgrounds for children’s shows including Under the Umbrella Tree. His day job was designing sets but he also sold his paintings on the side.

Not surprisingly, the decorations in his studio remind visitors of a living cartoon.

“We’re in a state of suspended adolescence,” his wife Diane says.

Craig’s studio is on the third level of a three-storey building on Catherine Street.

Dynomight Cartoons, a Canadian animation studio of which Diane is the CEO, takes up the building’s two lower floors. The whole building is decorated in a fun, colourful style that could be one of Craig’s paintings brought to life, or a real-life children’s show.

Craig first began to show his paintings in 1978 in Pakenham at the Andrew Dickson Gallery. There he realized for the first time his potential as an artist.

“People were lining up for my exhibitions and I realized that I could make a living out of selling my paintings.”

He decided to move back to Ottawa to pursue a career as an artist. In 1986 he began showing his work at the Quan Scheider Gallery in Yorkville.

“From there, I hit the ground running and haven’t stopped since,” says Craig.

Craig does about three or four shows a year, plus commissioned works. He admits there is demand for his paintings.

“It’s gratifying for an artist,” he says.

The truth is, many of his paintings sell in the five-figure range, something Craig chooses not to mention.

Although Craig doesn’t stick to one particular style of painting, many of his works reflect his travel experiences, gained while on the European jaunts he takes with his wife. His most recent work, for example, is based on photos taken in France and Tuscany.

“It’s important to stay current. I always travel and what inspires me is what I try to bring out in my paintings. Whatever bops to the top is usually what makes a painting.”

What might also set him apart from other artists, is the fact that Craig isn’t trying to make a statement with his work.

“I’m an old-fashioned painter. I’m not trying to beat anybody to death with politics . . . I try to translate my experiences onto the canvas and people respond to that.”

In 1991, the Museum of Nature asked Craig to present the Princess of Wales with a painting. He chose “Constance Creek,” a painting of a creek near his cottage that was slated to be part of a new golf course.

“It was probably the closest thing I ever made to a political statement,” he says.

Part of the reason that Craig is so down-to-earth is because of his devotion to his family. Craig married his high school sweetheart, Diane, and they have three grown children. Diane is the CEO of Dynomight, but also helps to manage Philip Craig Inc.

“My wife and I have always worked closely together,” says Craig.

“The hard part for Di is that she has had to split up her life between two demanding careers.”

But, judging by the easygoing camaraderie they share, the two seem to work well together. Diane’s office window even faces onto Craig’s studio.

“It is so incredible to see his paintings go on,” she says with obvious pride.

The two, however, set ground rules when they decided to go into business together.

“We made a pact that we would always stick together,” says Diane, “we’re best friends.”

Diane also feels that Craig is destined for artistic success.

“Phil will begin to make inroads in the States,” she predicts.

“Right now, we’re just going to keep building Dynomight and Phil’s career.”

The animation studio is a family affair. Jordan, Craig’s son, and his wife both work at the studio as animators.

Jordan says that his father’s easygoing attitude leads to his success.

“He realizes that the art world is finicky, and that feeling of having to change continually keeps him moving. Remaining grounded allows him to change and keeps him at the forefront of what’s going on.”

Although he is not well- known in his hometown, Craig’s paintings are gaining recognition and popularity in Ottawa.

Holly Layte, owner of The Marvellous Mustard Shop and L’ange cybercafé on Sparks Street, raves about Craig’s paintings.

She has several of his works on display and says that they fit in perfectly with the décor. Layte was first told about Craig’s work through a visiting friend from Spain who had worked with Dynomight as an animator, and who told her that Craig’s paintings would “look spectacular,” in her shop.

“Because the café and the mustard shop are European in flavour, we wanted people to get an essence of what a European bistro is all about,” she says.

Layte says Craig’s paintings have added that essence.

“The paintings have transformed the bistro. It is very beautiful, in my opinion.”

Layte adds that Craig’s paintings are gaining popularity.

“It’s unbelievable. People ask about them all the time and ask to buy them off the wall constantly.”

Craig hasn’t let his growing success go to his head. According to Diane, his philosophy is still to never be hungry and never be bored.

“Just have a good time,” nods Craig in agreement.

And no matter how successful Craig gets, if the fun décor and easygoing atmosphere in the Catherine Street studio is any indication, he plans on following his own advice.