Look down enough side streets around New Orleans, and you’ll eventually spot plein-air painter Phil Sandusky at work. Sometimes he paints stately blocks or landmark buildings, though more often what moves him to break out his easel are quite ordinary stretches of city life.
“When I set up, people are just amazed because they didn’t expect to see anyone painting their street,” Sandusky says. “But whatever you choose, there’s something there to paint.”
He always paints from life, working quickly before the light shifts. In that brief window, he’s out to capture not just details but also the essence of the scene before him. In this way, his ever-growing body of work tells a story of Sandusky’s adopted city and also illuminates his own quest to express the nature of human perception through art.
“It makes you ask yourself, ‘What are the essential cues I have to get right away to make people feel what I’m feeling right now?’” Sandusky says of the urgency behind his approach. “It aligns your work with real human vision, and that’s different from what you see in an image.
The intensity of the light is different; there’s so much more going on; you’re catching glimpses. It’s about how artists manage to show what they see with an image when that image itself only tells part of the story.”
Originally from Jacksonville, Fla., Sandusky studied art from an early age, though he finished college with a physics degree and went to work as an oil rig engineer. A transfer to an office job brought him to New Orleans. It was here, surrounded by the everyday inspirations that would inform his work, that he decided to devote himself to art full time.
He teaches at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts, and his work has been collected in several books, including the moving Painting Katrina and his forthcoming New Orleans Impressionist Cityscapes, due out this fall.
Still, he does most of his work out on random New Orleans sidewalks, drawn in by light-play, a certain façade, a street tree or even a patch of potholed pavement with all of its mottled layers and textured details.
“I love to paint the streets in this city,” Sandusky says. “I just hate having to drive on them.”