Phil Ponder is a Nashville watercolor artist known for his hand-painted iconic architectural imagery. Using watercolors and his own mathematical technique his detail-oriented work often represents the subject matter down to the exact number of bricks. With more than 700 paintings under his belt despite becoming an artist after retirement, Phil has built a name for himself while preserving Nashville’s everchanging architectural history.
Phil was born in Ocala, a place he never dreamed he would leave as a kid. This small town, founded in 1885, is located in north-central Florida. As a child, he often spent time at Silver Springs, known for its crystal blue water, Spanish moss, and glass-bottom boats. The once privately owned Silver Springs Nature Theme Park was the first commercial tourist attraction in Florida. It was later obtained by the state in order to keep the land from being developed.
Phil’s father Lester William Ponder was a bookkeeper and was much older than his mother. As a kid, Phil says his dad felt more like a grandfather than a father. According to Phil, his father worked for Carl Rose, owner of the first horse farm in the area called Rosemere Farm in 1936. Over the years Ocala has gained notoriety as being the horse capital of the world due to many of the award-winning thoroughbred horses coming out of Marion county. It is also home to The World Equestrian Center, the largest equestrian complex in the United States.
“Growing up in Ocala was like growing up in Mayberry, a place you think you will never leave, there is no place as wonderful as Ocala,” Phil admits.
Phil’s mother Oniezima Cecilia Chazal Ponder was part owner of a beauty salon. She was active with local civic organizations, served as a Regent of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and taught art to troubled kids. Onie lived to be 112 years old. At the time of her death in 2010, she was the oldest woman in the state of Florida, the 9th oldest in the US, and the 21st oldest in the world. Phil also has a younger brother Carswell Ponder who still lives in the Ocala area with his wife.
Phil admits that his mom was his biggest inspiration with creativity, she was an artist who painted with oils and watercolors, did ceramics and rug hooking. When Phil was in high school he took some art lessons from a family friend, Susan Carmichael, whose family owned the Silver Springs Nature Theme Park where he and his friends spent time. As an accomplished local artist who had attended the Chicago Institute of Art, Susan offered Phil basic painting techniques. While Phil enjoyed creating art as a hobby he never considered becoming an artist, instead, he would stumble into that role much later in life.
Phil started college at Florida State but later transferred to The University of Florida in Gainesville to be closer to home. On the weekend commuted to Ocala to work at a Jordan’s, a small shoe store that sat on the historic downtown Ocala square. He graduated with a degree in Business Administration with an Industrial Management major before joining the Navy.
After being commissioned as a Navy officer Phil married his high school sweetheart Dot. He met Dot at the age of 9 when she moved in down the street from his grandmothers. They have been married for 65 years.
Dot and Phil moved several times with the Navy before leaving the military and accepting a job with Genesco for a training program related to his former shoe store experience. The position was in Nashville, Tennessee where the couple settled in with their daughter, Terrie, two months later they had their son, Rob. A few years later they welcomed their daughters Deb and Stephanie and today they have eight grandkids.
In 1977 Phil was reintroduced to painting after creating some art for his kids as Christmas presents. That encouragement pushed him a year later to paint the Market Street buildings on 2nd Avenue in downtown Nashville. After seeing a painting on the wall at the work of a little Italian village with no sky or land, for the first time he applied the same concept to this piece. That first painting with his newly adapted style would change his future paintings and his career. When he went to a local frame shop to have his painting framed a chance meeting with local, Charles Wallace, would also change the fate of Phil’s career as a painter.
“I would not be talking to you today if Charles had not asked for my number after seeing my painting and suggesting that I make prints. He called me 6 times trying to convince me that I needed to have prints made even offering to help. I only agreed because I wanted him to stop calling, Phil says.
Charles sold prints where he worked and felt that Phil’s paintings would be perfect in the Nashville retail market. Charles convinced Phil he could sell his work and would help him with the printing process. He introduced Phil to his friend Daniel Boone who worked at a local printing company. In 1979 they began making reproduction prints from Phil’s original work and would continue their business relationship for the next 35 years.
From 1979-to 1989, Phil primarily painted a single painting each year for himself, due to his workload and travels with Genesco. The more he shared his work with others the more they began asking him to create new pieces. When he retired in 1989 from Genesco, painting became his second career. The more projects he created the more printed copies were produced and sold. A few years later gallery owner Matt Fisher began representing Phil as an artist. He helped him print and distribute his work to the public through his retail store, Picture This in Donelson, Tennessee.
“I do art because it creates memories for others and that is my objective in life now. God created my subjects from scratch. I’m just the guy that paints them on paper. It’s such a blessing that I am still able to do this at 89 years old,” Phil explains.
After many years of helping grow Phil’s reputation as an artist selling his imagery, Matt had an idea to develop a book of Phil’s work. He and fellow colleague Duane Chambers released the book in 2021 that includes 461 images dating back to Phil’s start in 1979. Matt collected and compiled all of the copy for the book. Duane prepared the digital imagery, the design and handled the printing details when it went to press. The attention the book has created and the sales have proven to be very successful for Phil as an artist.
Phil has a waiting list for his commissioned work. He adds each potential client to his list and when he gets to their name if they are still interested in having the painting created he starts the work. He begins each piece by first taking an array of photos at the architectural location while studying every detail of the structure. He uses the photos to outline the important visual aspects often counting the number of bricks, stones, or blocks, down to the exact number.
Using his mathematical background and a calculator he is able to accurately scale the subject as he begins sketching the image outline with a pencil. In the next step, he applies permanent ink over the sketched pencil image. He then begins the tedious process of painting the image with watercolor paints. The total process can take up to 100 hours from start to finish depending on the project.
Phil’s perfectionism and intricate details are stylishly recognizable within his work. In 1980 he began adding a secret element to his work that many people may not be aware of today. As he was reviewing photos taken for research to begin a painting he noticed a pigeon sitting on part of the building. When he began sketching the Silver Dollar Saloon, a historical downtown structure in Nashville, built-in 1893, he decided to include the bird. This was only the fourth painting of his career, he explains,
“On the right-hand corner of the roof, there was a pigeon and I decided to include him in the painting to see if anyone would notice. Soon after people began commenting how they liked that I added his little friend so I thought if people like it I am going to put that little bird to work for me. He has become my “wheres Waldo” in all of my paintings since.”
The bird with no name, earned his feathers, so to speak after more than 30 years when Phil made a connection to his friend’s name, Happy Birdsong. Today, hidden in every painting since the ’80s his grey-blue pigeon is now known as Happy.
Phil works the most during the spring and summer months because he says it is the best time for him to be able to mentally focus on his painting without distractions. Throughout most of his career as an artist, Phil relied on Matt Fisher to print, publish, sell, and market his work. Phil handles all of his commissioned work on his own.
For many years Phil had other retail accounts outside of the Nashville area and often traveled but today his work is primarily sold in the Metro Nashville area through the gallery and in a few other gift shops and tourist locations.
Phil admits, “Today I am experiencing a decline in the sale of my Nashville historical work. Sadly, there are so many people moving here with no immediate interest in Nashville’s history. I am glad I have been able to preserve that historical value but I also understand that it is just the nature of change.”
At 89 Phil doesn’t show any signs of slowing down the creation of his artwork. He is adamant that he will continue painting for as long as he is able. Although Phil became an artist late in life he has painted historical buildings, homes, mansions, schools, churches, lighthouses, and other public places from all across the US as well as internationally. He also paints trees, flowers, balloons, trains, insects, and animals.
Phil shares his passion for what he does,
“What I do is try to visually capture the spirit of a building and its beauty based on the feeling I get when I see it in person. I want to go there and experience that myself first so I can find a way to incorporate that into my painting for the viewer. My hope is that they will also feel that magic. I want to share what is special about a place or a subject. I want to be able to create artwork that is timeless.”
On December 25, 2020, a bomb exploded on Second Avenue in the downtown historical area of Nashville, Tennessee. The blast referred to as, the Christmas bombing, damaged 65 buildings displacing both businesses and residents. In an effort to help preserve the history of the buildings dating back to the 1800s, Phil’s “Market Street, Too” painting will be reproduced as a lifesized metal etched mural. The piece will be a mirrored image displayed on the side of the refurbished exterior of the AT&T Data Center that was damaged. It showcases the historical buildings that existed across the street before the bombing.
Phil is excited that his painting has been chosen to commemorate Nashville’s downtown architectural history, something he would have never imagined was possible. He acknowledges how grateful he is for the success that his work and career have offered later in life. He admits that the only regret he has is that he did not become an artist earlier. You can find more on his work at Picture This.
You can watch the YouTube video interview below.
You can see more photos of Phil from the interview on my photography blog.
Here is the podcast Artist Interview for The Creative Push.
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