Outsider art is like Rap music in that you’ve got to have “street cred”. If you’re just a weird guy who doesn’t like people much, lives at the edge of town, and you paint, you aren’t necessarily an outsider artist. It is about the lifestyle you live, and the visions you present. The line between folk art and outsider art is a blurry one, but basically outsider art is a term applied to art made by someone untrained, who lives outside society. Sometimes outsider artists are institutionalized; some outsider artists live on the streets. Philip Melvin is such an artist.
I met him once in Toronto. I was taking the streetcar down Queen street when I noticed someone had set up a bunch of crazy looking paintings along the curb in front of a CIBC bank on a busy corner. They looked interesting so I jumped off at the next stop and went back to see them. They were mostly portraits of well know people and although they really didn’t look at all like the actual people, they all had energy and humour, and I quite liked them. I did not know of him at the time, but it was Philip Melvin. Looking pretty disheveled with an impressive beard, and quick eyes. I asked him if these were his paintings, and if they were for sale and he said “yes, and you can have any one of them for $60”. So I bought one. He introduced himself and we had a really odd but quite interesting chat, and shortly the next street car came along, and I had to say a quick good-bye and jump on. Appointments to keep. That was it. I could see that trying to get a contact number would be pointless.
Philip Melvin was born in 1938. He lived all across Canada, but his last known residence was in Vancouver, British Columbia. Not much has been recorded about him. He was born in Lamanche, Newfoundland. From there he travelled to Toronto Ontario, and once described himself as ‘the biggest fool that ever hit Toronto’ and as ‘the man from Lamanche’. Finding himself in continual trouble with the law and at the periphery of society, he spent a good deal of time in correctional facilities or rehabilitation centres. In 1980 he began carving religious plaques and subjects, as well as painting Toronto landmarks and familiar sights. Spending time at the Lakehead, or in Toronto, often at St. Michael’s Cathedral, Philip Melvin would sometimes turn to carving in hope of selling a few pieces as a means of minimal survival. Philip Melvin moved to Vancouver where he continued to get into trouble with authorities. He made the news when he was found wandering around Stanley Park with a power saw. He was just looking for deadfall for his sculpture but the authorities thought otherwise. His work was included in the 2000 Canadian Museum of Civilization exhibition “Under the Sign of the Cross: Creative Christianity in Canada”.
As far as I know he is still alive but I haven’t heard anything about him for a couple of years.