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An Artist Free to Live in His World

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The Haile\'s Sag Harbor basement with Chris\' work

For Christopher Phillips Haile, art wasn’t an occupational choice. It was a lifestyle. With an adventurer’s soul and a dreamer’s vision, Chris traveled the world and from time to time came to roost in Sag Harbor, where his mother, Lucia Haile, had a home. Whether he was boarding a Greek freighter as a resident artist with little more than a roll of paper and wood block, or commandeering abandoned urban space to create Stone Henge-like environments to the delight of passers by, Chris Haile was an artist whose adventurous nature and indomitable spirit imbued his every piece.

Wherever he went, he made his art. It didn’t matter what materials were at hand — ink, wood, paint or paper — or who would see the final product. Process was the point and for Chris Haile making art was as unavoidable as drawing his next breath.

Chris Haile, son of the late Sag Harbor artist Lucia Phillips Haile, died in 1998 at the age of 50. He left behind thousands of pieces of art and two brothers, Duncan and Roger, who are now engaged in the monumental task of cataloguing his vast body of work. A small selection of that work is on view now in “Reverse Angle: an introduction to a life’s work” a show at Sylvester & Co. in Sag Harbor. The show includes prints of his paintings, monotypes and etchings and it hints at the range of work in the collection.

“People who get his work are profoundly affected by it,” notes Duncan. “Our goal, and it’s evolved over 10 years since he passed, is to get his work out there. It’s very notable work and he deserves to be recognized. It needs to be out there.”

During his lifetime, Chris rarely showed his work. His brothers recall one show at the Goat Alley Gallery in Sag Harbor in the mid-90s in which he shared the bill with his mother and brother, Roger. Chris removed one of his pieces from the wall before the show even opened, much to the chagrin of gallery owners Eleanor and Bob McDade.

“He bartered it for a lawnmower,” says Roger.

Because he didn’t show his work often, Duncan and Roger note that no two pieces by Chris are the same size or shape. For that reason, the brothers decided to make prints of the work for the Sylvester show to give audiences a sense of their brother’s depth of talent. To that end, Roger and Duncan have created a catalog of the 6,000 pieces Chris left behind. As a body of work yet to be culled, they see vast potential in Chris’ artistic legacy and hope that the show will attract curatorial interest.

 “This is a learning curve,” confesses Roger. “I have a lot of training in art, but this kind of thing is daunting. For this first time out of the chute I was selecting works that gave a sense of his range. Not many artists work in as many mediums.”

Roger and Duncan find that people are often surprised by the depth of Chris’ work — an artist they have likely never heard of. But for Chris, art was to be made, not necessarily shown.

“There was no career gene,” explains Roger. “He would get it out there and not stop everything to do the show. He’d rather put the art energy into making new art. If he were here working on our mother’s show he’d be making new art in the basement.”

Chris Haile at his Eastville Studio

“Art is life, life is art. Artists who knew him and were aware of him got the message on a level that was profound.,” says Roger. “There are artists who are tucked into what’s going on, but no one knows about them. Like Ray Johnson, everyone knew him, had his work, but he was not on the radar.”

And like Ray Johnson, the artist who left a tantalizing series of clues before entering the water of Sag Harbor cove for his final swim on a cold Friday the 13th in January, the details surrounding Chris Haile’s death remain something of a mystery.

Chris died alone in the woods of North Adams, Massachusetts. Roger admits that, as a diabetic, Chris did not lead the healthiest life and drank and ate pretty much what he pleased. Though he had built a rudimentary cabin on the property, he was staying at the time in an old school bus he had commandeered. He had no phone or electricity at the site and shortly after his death was found by a friend who had come to check on him. Near his body was an ethereal landscape of a lone figure on an island. It was still wet.

Roger notes that that the wood stove in the school bus was thick with creosote and suspects that may have led to his brother’s demise.

“I think it was asphyxiation,” he says. “But the argument of something going on in his work is strong. That last work was eerily prescient about end of life and the metaphysical. It was a very metaphysical kind of statement.”

An untitled painting by Chris Haile

That final painting is among the work on view at Sylvester’s.

Roger and Duncan understand how viewers can look at their brother’s work and think it’s part of a group show. Such is the breadth and depth of his range. From portraits of imaginary faces that are multicultural in scope and medieval in style to ethereal still lives and pastoral landscapes evocative of the Renaissance and cosmic in theme, Chris Haile made art that was timeless and universal. He carved faces, made prints and assembled private spaces into mini-museums wherever he went — even if no one would ever see them.

“Chris had this approach to making art with available technology,” says Roger. “Wherever you are, whatever you’ve got, art can be made.”

Take his visit to Rome, for example. After Chris was arrested for sneaking into the Forum to watch the sunrise, Roger, who was along for the trip, recalls being frantic to find him. Chris, a diabetic from youth, was without his medicine and fearing the worst, Roger scoured the city searching the jails. He eventually found Chris in Our Queen of Heaven jail where, by the time of his release, he had made a mural on his cell wall using only the rust from the bed springs and his own saliva.

“He was into permanence,” says Roger.

After his death, Roger and Duncan traveled to Langtry, Texas, a town near the Mexican border with just a handful of residents where Chris had lived and worked and where he had persuaded a woman to let him use her old house in exchange for fixing the roof. When they entered the space, they saw a fully realized installation of his work. A museum that no one else had ever visited.

Chris Haile may have been an artist. But, explains his brothers, he had a filmmaker’s soul. Which is why much of his art was created in action – on the move. He even worked on Fellini’s 1972 film “Roma” while in Italy. And his brothers say that cinematic influence can not be ignored in his art. Roger notes that every space he ever occupied had the feel of a master shot in a film.

Chris Haile lived his art. In the mid-70s, Chris took rented a nearly abandoned building at 210 East 14th Street for a song. In the middle of Manhattan, he cooked over an open fire and eventually converted the building into five full floors of studio space for artists. In a stretch of wasteland behind Cooper Union, he and fellow artist and East End resident Jon Snow created a mysterious environment that intrigued all who passed, as well as the owner’s of the property, a bank which gave a tacit nod to its existence.

“This creating of environments goes all the way back to high school when he and his buddies created spaces to hang out,” notes Roger. “For Chris, it never stopped.”

When it comes to any artistic impulse, the nature vs. nurture debate naturally arises. But the influence of Lucia Haile on her youngest son’s artistic development cannot be underestimated. A talented artist in her own right who returned to school to become an art teacher when her sons were young, Lucia guided her boys subtly by surrounding them with art and encouraged them with absolute freedom. In a poignant coincidence, the figurative works of Lucia Haile, who died just last year, go on view this weekend at the Sag Harbor Historical Society’s Annie Cooper Boyd House, a short walk up Main Street from her son’s exhibition at Sylvester’s. The show is a retrospective of Lucia’s watercolors and drawings and runs July 5 through 28. A reception will be held at the historical society on Friday, July 11 from 4 to 6 p.m.

“Mom was extremely well educated. She was highly capable of critiquing work in a very professional manner,” explains Duncan. “We always had wonderful books on the coffee table. She would both encourage Chris and critique him.”

“She was one of three sisters,” says Roger, “and her father said, ‘You want to go to art school? Figure out how to make a living.’ I have always felt in some way she wanted to give that freedom she didn’t have to someone else. Freedom is really the by-word and she gave it with no judgment, and tremendous courage.”

“Demonstrative affection was non-existent,” adds Roger. “But to the degree it was non-existent, it existed. There were no hearts and flowers. But there was enormous trust.”

That trust explains how Lucia Haile could be so tolerant in indulging her son’s sense of adventure. Despite the fact he suffered with juvenile diabetes, at the age of 14, Chris and a friend were given permission to spend the summer alone making their way up the Hudson and through the canal system to the St. Lawrence Seaway in a 14 foot Boston Whaler.

“My mother stood there waving good-bye,” recalls Roger.

Years later, another trip in an old wooden sail boat did not go as well. The boat was questionable at best and Chris’ sailing skills marginal. He lost his rudder and luckily ended up grounded off Nantucket.

“Chris always had this ‘Get in something and take a trip’ philosophy. Boats figured into this over the course of his life,” adds Roger. “A high school classmate who had family here made arrangements for Chris to take passage on the Greek freighter. He went to China, New Zealand, all over and worked in trade as a resident artist.”

“All he brought was a block of wood, tools, ink, a roll of paper and the clothes he wore.”

Though Chris Haile’s works were created from imagination, they have a timeless quality. His faces are composites — universal portraits of everyone and no one. Duncan believes that the timelessness of his work has a great deal to do with his world travels.

“Chris took in a lot, it comes out in his work,” says Duncan.

As the middle child, and often the one who looked after Chris, who was just 11 months younger, Roger admits he would sometimes get angry at Chris for the way he would disappear for stretches at a time when he was off making art.

“He was a diabetic with no phone who would think nothing of being out of touch for long stretches,” says Roger.

But his mother, he recalls, once put it all in perspective for him.

“She said, ‘That’s how you raise boys. You leave them alone.”

And on his own, Chris did just fine. Making friends and art wherever he went.

“One of the characteristics about this guy is he, not through strategy or wanting to manipulate the world, had this amazing ability to attract people,” says Roger. “He was extremely kind hearted and generous. This guy who doesn’t have a phone goes into the middle of the woods and makes art. He was also extremely possessive about his energy. People knew who he was and no one could take offense if he vanished.”

“He wasn’t afraid to be alone.”

“Reverse Angle” runs through July 28, 2008 at Sylvester & Co., 103 Main Street, Sag Harbor (725-5012). The Retrospective of Lucia Phillips Haile’s work runs through July 27, 2008 at the Sag Harbor Historical Society, 174 Main Street (725-5092).