Art is not the first thing that springs to mind when someone talks about military aircraft and Formula 1 race cars, but Brixton resident Phil Starr-Mees uses them for his creations. He explains to Simone Richardson
“A few years ago,” says Phil Starr-Mees, “I was taking flying lessons and really loved it – a sadly costly business and I couldn’t afford to keep it up.
“Nonetheless, I always liked aircraft and started to make coffee tables out of the engine disks that I’d obtained via eBay through a contact at the airfield.’’
Engine disks? Phil is talking about ultra-high-tech parts found working in the intense heat – 2,000 degrees centigrade – inside jet engines.
When he was finished with them, they were household objects.
At this stage in his life Phil’s was in close contact with his stepfather – Leo Stroud – who had a massive impact on his life.
“He was a very good woodworker/carpenter and he was also the best man I have ever known in my life,” says Phil.
“I have a great deal of respect for him and miss him very much.”
Leo, who died about seven years ago after suffering from cancer, gave his tools to Phil, who was already making “some bits’n’bobs out of old aircraft parts”.
Phil really wanted to impress his stepfather with his art, but Leo died just as it was taking off.
Phil himself did not set out to create art. He was diagnosed at the age of 13 with Asperger Syndrome (high functioning autism) and also has dyslexia. Science and woodwork were his favourites at school: “I loved making things and solving problems”.
He has had many struggles through life, like most of us. “But I felt just a little harder for me,” says Phil, “not understanding humour, taking everything literally, constantly being misunderstood and generally feeling suicidal until around the age of 25 – when I supposed I’d either learnt enough to get by, or just didn’t give a shit.
He recalls his stepfather “wasn’t afraid to tell me when I was being a shit”.
He dropped out of Croydon College and got into flying and then creating objects from unusual materials.
But Phil thought that he was “not really an artist”. He explains: “I just enjoyed making things”.
But some of his work was on show at the Festival of Dyslexic Art and Culture 2016 “and Jason Gibilaro classified me as an artist,” says Phil.
“It felt pretty good, so I just stuck with it and produced as much as possible.’’
Born in Surrey, Phil grew up there and in Somerset with his family and moved to Brixton where he now lives and works from home.
“I have been living in Landor Road for seven years and I have been told when it is ten years here I can call myself a Brixtonian!’’
Brixton inspired him to continue with his creations
“Brixton is just Wow! with a capital ‘W’,” he says.
“There is a massive community spirit, people are keen to help each other – the shops, cafes, Brixton markets – there is so much vibe and so much going on.
“As an artist, it’s a great place to be and live.’’
He is also a fan of and exhibitor at Studio 73, now sadly disappeared from Brixton Village but still alive online, in a Brixton workshop and in pop-ups,
He is full of praise for Studio 73’s Adrian Flower – “he really gave me the time of day,” says Phil.
“My work isn’t really what he displays, but luckily he loved the Tornado aircraft which has been in a lot of my work.”
Phil teamed up with Jason Gibilaro and together they created a piece based on traditional paintings on military aircraft, itself on a piece of a Tornado, which was displayed in Studo 73 in Brixton Village,
Lockdown has been a major problem for Phil, but it sounds as if living and working on his art and creativity in Brixton helped him through it.
Of lockdown, he says: “Lots of walks, lost three holidays which were paid for and still waiting for refunds, which is very frustrating.
“I became depressed and angry. I missed my friends and family – some of whom are abroad so I can’t see them.
“However, I’m still here, the world has changed and I have too.
“I’m trying to give up meat and use less plastic and hopefully with these small steps make life better,” Phil says
“I create art for me, others like/love it which is a true sense of achievement.
“As for selling my art, most of it I have sold mainly for a small profit above cost or even at cost price.
“I do, of course, hope one day to be like Damien Hirst and sell my art for a profit … and it would be nice to be famous in that way.’’
Phil has a day job as a 3D survey technician (3D point cloud surveyor), but has been on furlough since mid-March.
“It’s been fairly good, as I’ve been able to fix all the things in the house and get right into my artwork,” he says.