ANDERSON — Phil Simpson always wanted to be an artist.
“I can remember drawing and painting and stuff very young and my sister helped me along,” Simpson said.
You’ve seen his work but probably didn’t realize it. His sculpture “Life” sits about 80 feet off the walking trail on the north end of Shadyside Park near Cross Street.
The steel sculpture is about 25 feet across and 12 feet high. It’s worth the time to walk around, taking in how the form changes from each side.
“(Simpson was) one of the first ones to try and get the steel to go more organically,” said Deborah Stapleton, director of the Anderson Museum of Art.
The sculpture was created for the Museum of Art. It was donated to the city when the museum moved in 1998 from Eighth Street to its current location, where there isn’t enough room for it on the lawn.
Today, it is one of two pieces in the park. The other, “Changing Forms” by Doris Chase, sits a short distance south on the trail.
The project was started in 1978 and took two years to complete at a cost of $13,000. Simpson worked in space provided by Anderson College, creating a full-size mockup in cardboard before working with steel donated by Delco Remy.
It was delivered in three pieces before being welded together. Then, 18 people scoured the surface with steel wool and wire brushes. Art Center employees watered it down each day for a month to give it a rusty patina, according to an article in the Anderson Daily Bulletin in 1980.
Simpson was born in Anderson. He worked nights at Delco Remy’s Plant 10 while attending classes at Ball State University. He credits those years at Delco and growing up in an automotive town for his affinity for working with steel.
While at Delco he met his wife of 46 years, Vicki, whom he credits with supporting his career.
“I made the distributor then if I wanted to get his attention I broke it,” Vicki says. “He was the repairman, so he had to pull them all off the line and fix them.”
Simpson moved to Carbondale, Illinois, for graduate school before landing in Boerne, Texas, where he and Vicki live on 14 acres — enough room for his sculptures and the donkeys that find them to be ideal scratching posts.
Simpson told the Anderson Daily Bulletin in 1978 that he hoped to teach at the university level one day. He reached that goal in 1980 starting at the University of Texas at El Paso before moving on to the San Antonio Art Institute where he eventually served as director.
“Oh, I loved it,” Simpson said of his teaching career.
Living with Alzheimer’s disease, Simpson no longer works with steel, choosing instead to do drawings. Picking up sticks, he sets them on an easel, then transfers their form from three dimensions to two.
There is an effort to recognize his sculpture in Anderson. Longtime friend Kay Bivens is making a presentation to the park board for a plaque to be placed next to the sculpture.
“I think a lot of people don’t know the history. They see it out in the park, but how did it get there?” Stapleton said.
Simpson feels like the piece is appreciated, pointing out that it’s sat on display for almost 40 years without being vandalized.
“Maybe it’s because they like it or it’s good but it’s never been painted red,” Simpson says.
“Most of what I’ve done in my life I’ve had a grand time, I’ve had fun,” he adds. “Banging on that steel, I think that’s fun and if you can just do that it’s pretty good.”
Follow Don Knight on Twitter @donwknight, or call 765-622-1212 ext. 204567.