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Conscientious Comics

Eyewitness: Phil Godenschwager


Published May 18, 2011 at 7:05 a.m.

Phil Godenschwager
  • Phil Godenschwager

The cluttered walls of artist Phil Godenschwager’s Randolph studio tell a story. Amid the knickknacks and photographs is the first paint-spattered palette he used as a child, his framed 1969 draft card, and one of his college drawings: a visual record of 1970, the year he graduated from Ohio University.

This layering of Godenschwager’s personal history is merely incidental on his studio walls — the result of 12 years working there. But, in his drawings, sculpture and stained-glass pieces, it’s a concept the 62-year-old artist has been developing for decades, giving common threads to a career whose diversity is indicated by the title of his current retrospective, “Scattered Art,” at Randolph’s Korongo Gallery.

Influenced by the comic books and Sunday funnies he devoured as a child, Godenschwager depicts political conflicts with playful cartoons, but “rather than do a comic book, I put the whole thing on one page,” he explains. His drawing “Vermont Memory Map,” for example, is as busy as his studio walls. Tape measures, trains and trumpets, all of which have faces, fly around a pinball machine shaped like Vermont. Godenschwager seems to be representing 30 years in his adopted home state here.

Well known in Vermont for his stained glass, Godenschwager made the windows for Randolph’s Vermont Veterans’ Cemetery Chapel and was recently commissioned to create a commemorative window for the renovated Chandler Center for the Arts in the same town. He teaches stained-glass classes at the White River Craft Center Studios and an architectural drafting course at Vermont Technical College.

The son of a military officer, Godenschwager grew up all over the world. He started drawing before he could walk, he says. He learned to paint in the Philippines at age 8 and spent time during high school in Athens, Greece, drawing from life on the steps of the Acropolis.

Godenschwager’s family believed he’d follow in the footsteps of his father, a 30-year army officer who served in three wars. But, by the time he got to Ohio University, he had made up his mind to pursue art. Godenschwager joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) for two years as a compromise, to “smooth the ripples in my family,” he says.

Then came the tumultuous year of 1969. Godenschwager left the ROTC and devoted himself to ending the war in Vietnam. The “ripples” in his family returned, big time. His father saw the younger Godenschwager’s antiwar protesting as an affront to his own life’s work. In the spring of 1970, when student riots at Ohio University grew out of control in response to the Kent State shootings, Godenschwager and his classmates were sent home without a commencement ceremony. “I’ve never forgiven them for that,” he says. “A lot of my work is still informed by that time.”

The influence is clear in a mixed-media sculpture in the entryway to Godenschwager’s studio, a response to September 11, 2001, called “It Just So Happened, That Day, the Whole World Was Watching.” A 1960s-era television set sits atop twin-tower legs, bent and painted with flames above the point where the real towers were struck. Inside the TV, a crowd of toys — from Mr. Potato Head to Felix the Cat — reenacts the famous photo from Tiananmen Square: a tiny cowboy on a white horse staring down the barrel of a toy tank.

After college, Godenschwager moved to Vermont with a gang of fraternity brothers and a degree in graphic design. He got a job as a carpenter — a fallback position, he says, but it synergized with his art. “I draw about buildings and build about drawing. It’s all the same,” says the artist, who’s currently building an addition on a local friend’s house.

In the ’90s, Godenschwager earned an MFA in glass sculpture in the inaugural class at Vermont College (then of Norwich University). Today, he considers himself a commercial artist. In his early years, he designed packaging for Proctor & Gamble and posters for rock concerts. Working for Stockbridge-based Advanced Animations in the ’80s, he directed the creation of the original 30-foot clock tower at FAO Schwarz in New York City.

Godenschwager is currently working on a “time-out room” for a Boston family, who asked him to design a clear-walled pod for the backyard into which they can send their young son when he acts up. Godenschwager designed a tubular structure with Plexiglas walls, a colorfully painted wooden floor and a domed roof. He’s thinking of outfitting the pod with a cool swivel seat.

It’s a weird request, Godenschwager admits, but “Why not?” he says. It’s not as strange as a job he did 10 years ago, when a client paid him to carve a miniature replica of a Chevrolet Suburban from a block of Velveeta cheese — “It was a gag birthday gift,” he explains — or the 35-foot kaleidoscope, the second largest in the world, that he designed and built for a roadside attraction in the Catskills.

These days, Godenschwager rarely has time to draw, but when he does, his cartoons are as politically charged as ever. His most recent drawing, a response to the BP oil spill, depicts the Capitol building sinking below yellow-green Gulf waters. It’s called “Mission Accomplished.”

Godenschwager points to the old palette on the wall. “I still use the same colors,” he says, referring to the primary hues of Spiderman and Archie comics. But his “characters” are usually anthropomorphized buildings — humble cottages as common-man heroes; domed capitols as greedy villains. “I don’t like to draw people. I never learned very well,” he says.

He does just fine without them. In his drawing “Don’t Forget to Floss,” the Vermont Statehouse, which has arms and Mickey Mouse-type white-gloved hands, passes a long string of dental floss through its Ionic-column teeth. Out come oil rigs, churches and skyscrapers. “Government exercising a little oral hygeine,” Godenschwager explains.

All the layers of the artist are there: his love of buildings, his playfulness and his protestor’s spirit. You get the feeling that, in Godenschwager’s hands, those little picketing cottages really could make a difference.