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"Chinese Musicians" by Phillips
 
 
"Chinese Musicians"
Helen Phillips

The sculptures you are viewing are from the Court of Pacifica at the Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE), held here on Treasure Island in 1939-1940. The court included a central fountain surrounded by twenty sculptures, an 80-foot plaster goddess named “Pacifica,” and other monumental works of art which embodied the Pacific Unity theme of the GGIE.

The two Chinese musicians, one blowing a flute, one playing a horn, are those farthest to your right and left. The missing sculpture in this trio is a boy playing cymbals.

The publicists for the GGIE wrote that the style of the fair should suggest that its temples, towers and palaces were ruins discovered in the depths of a jungle: a little bit of Angkor Wat, a little bit of Tulum, a little bit of the Yin Ruins.

The sculptor of the Chinese musicians was Helen Phillips. She was born in Fresno in 1913, and came to San Francisco to study with Ralph Stackpole (who created the Pacifica statue) at the California School of Fine Arts. Phillips was more interested in San Francisco's collections of ancient, Asian and Pre-Columbian art than in the social realism that permeated San Francisco art culture at the time. She received a prestigious Phelan Travelling Fellowship from the art school, and went to Paris in 1936, studying with, and later marrying, sculptor William Hayter. She left Paris in 1939 under wartime duress, abandoning almost everything she owned.

Like many of the artists who created pieces for the Court of Pacifica, Phillips’ connection with Stackpole brought her the job on Treasure Island. She remained in San Francisco until 1941, spent the war years in New York, and then returned to Paris with her husband. She died in New York in 1995.

Helen Phillips, along with many other artists of the GGIE, went on to become almost exclusively an abstract sculptor, with pieces in modern art museums and private collections worldwide. Of all the Pacific Unity sculptors, however, Helen Phillips was the most successful at creating that look of unearthed ruins, reflecting her love for ancient and primitive art that flourished when she was an art student in San Francisco in the thirties.

 
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