Branching outLate art bloomer inspires Shady Lawn residents

Published 11:00 pm Saturday, October 6, 2012

Robert Phillips’ life, like the branches of the miniature trees he meticulously crafts from copper, has spread in many directions.

The local artist regularly takes his artistic skills to Shady Lawn Health and Rehabilitation, sharing and inspiring residents while receiving his own treatment at the facility.

The 70-year-old Detroit native didn’t get into art until later in life, but now he’s making up for lost time, not only producing the trees, but taking brush to canvas as well.

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Christie Martin, Registered Nurse, director of nursing at Shady Lawn, said Phillips has been a short-term resident on several occasions.

He comes in to receive physical therapy care, and during his stays he demonstrates and shares his art with the other residents, “and if they want to join in they can,” Martin said.

One of the projects he demonstrates for the residents at the facility is his copper trees.

Phillips said he uses copper wire that he has cut in graduated lengths. He skins the plastic covering from around the wire and then joins the wires, by twisting them together, like wringing out a towel.

“It takes a pretty good amount of twisting,” he said.

He then pulls individual wires from the bundle and begins shaping them to form branches.

Phillips’ wife, Marian, assists in gluing wooden bases to the bottom of the trees, he said.

Sometimes he will decorate the trees, too, said Marian Phillips.

Robert Phillips said the idea of the copper trees came to him about 10 years ago while he was in the woods hunting.

Bored and fixating on a white oak tree, Phillips said he began visualizing how he could make a tree to resemble the oak.

“I used a lead-type metal at first but it didn’t work,” Phillips said.

But with a subsequent try, he discovered copper was a more suitable medium for his creations.

Deborah Hughes, the activities director at Shady Lawn, said the residents really enjoy Phillips’ art and in 2009 the Shady Lawn Health and Rehabilitation entered his copper trees in the annual Mississippi Health Care Association Nursing Home convention arts and crafts competition, and he won first place.

After growing up as “sort of an orphan,” Phillips graduated from the original Boys Town orphanage in Omaha, Neb., founded by the Roman Catholic priest Edward J. Flanagan in 1917. Since, his travels have taken him all over the country.

Phillips said he was transferred to Vicksburg in 1980 from his company in Champagne, Ill., and worked at Anderson-Tully as director of labor relations until his retirement.

After discovering his talent for crafting trees, Phillips began branching out into other art forms.

“He has become a prolific painter,” said Ron Whitmore, Phillips’ son-in-law, who owns an art supply store in Santa Fe, N.M.

“It all started as a fluke,” Whitmore said, when he and his wife started sending Phillips canvases, paint brushes and paint from their store.

Whitmore said Phillips now paints every day and sends a list of supplies when he runs short. Karen Whitmore, Phillips’ daughter, also is an artist in Santa Fe.

To view Phillips’ art, visit His trees are available for sale at The Old Court House Museum and at The Attic Gallery.