Studio visit: farmer/sculptor Phil Savage

I think it’s just innately human to be creative. Everyone has it. - PS

Whether it’s shapes in wood or food in the earth, Phil Savage is always drawing out life and beauty from his surroundings. Quiet and unassuming at first glance, he is somewhat of a force of nature when it comes to what he is passionate about, which is sculpting and farming. He balances each of these in a rhythm not often found in modern life, that of following the changing seasons by working outdoors on the farm when it’s warm and indoors with wood when it’s cold. A love of nature is what links his two passions. Phil's furniture pieces have a natural flair and shape, and his hand-carved herds of bears and flocks of birds look like they belong in the forest. Whittling at wood since childhood, the inner compulsion to carve wood into beauty drives him continually back to the workbench; and he just keeps getting better at it. Phil’s work is of such quality that each of his pieces becomes a family heirloom that will be passed on from generation to generation and I wouldn’t be surprised to find his pieces in homes and shops over borders and seas as he grows in business acumen and sheer talent.

I visited Phil on a bright sunny day in March. The snowbanks still towered everywhere and obscured each turn in the road which meant that I drove past the Savage homestead on the Kingston Peninsula and had to turn around and come back. He showed me his studio where we talked a bit before heading into the house for a real sit-down chat away from the layers of wood dust. His studio is multi-purpose, with microgreens and pea shoots sprouting in the open room for local restaurants, and different stations in the work room for working on different items. There is the “incubator” which contains the dust, where he carves his signature birds, bears and pods, and the open area with tools for crafting tables and other furniture. It is easy to see what Phil loves best, wood and making food. I got to experience it myself by taking home a couple carved bears and a dozen pullet eggs - which were green! Have a read and you’ll likely be tempted to get your hands on some of Phil’s elegant woodwork and/or produce from Savage farms.

How did you get into sculpture?

When I was about ten my mom got me into the KV carver’s club at KV High after she saw that I kept playing with my Swiss army knife and some scrap wood. Every Tuesday night these mostly retired older guys showed me what to do and mentored me along in wood carving. I started with small animals, small birds. It seems I’ve come full circle! I dove right in and learned a lot from those guys, about the machinery, the carving tools, how to use a knife. I loved it. I’d be sitting at school all day just itching all day to get home and get carving. I did that until high school and then it wasn’t really cool anymore so I stopped. I got back into it in my early twenties, and I did it more and more every winter. Word got out that I could do it, and I got some commissions so I was excited about that. After my first show at the SJ Arts Center I became obsessed with fine woodworking, as a craftsman. I immersed myself in learning about it, started getting some custom orders, doing some shows, and just kept going!

So when did you move onto this land? When did you start here?

To have land has been an ongoing dream since my early twenties. My brother and I decided we would buy a piece of land and split the cost, but couldn’t find the right place. I really liked this piece of land but it wasn’t on the market. Eventually my parents wanted in and that boosted our price range, so when this lot came up for sale we were ready! I built the workshop first and lived there for awhile. I had electricity but no running water. Then my parents got the house underway and once that was built this became my studio. Once I can afford it I want to build a house up on the hill. I really like it here.

Tell me about your studio:

For the first 5 years of woodworking I just worked in an unheated garage, I’d put my huge snowsuit, tuque, big mitts with gloves inside and work and work and work until I couldn’t take it anymore then I’d come back inside to warm up for 20 mins before going back out. I just loved what I was doing so I didn’t really care, but after awhile it gets to you. Finally when I built this place, with the wood stove plus electric heat, the first winter was such a luxury. I’m very very grateful to have this space, I can make tremendous messes in there and no one’s going to get grumpy about it.

How do you balance the studio and the farm?

About six months of the year I am very focused on the farm business, but the other six months I’m totally focused on woodworking. It does give a nice break to one’s psyche to have that contrast, from an enclosed space covered in dust to a wind-swept field sitting on top of a tractor. You look forward to each season as it comes. When June arrives I want to be outside so bad, but by the time September rolls around I’m so tired I just want to sit down. That seasonal rhythm is so lost in our culture now, we compartmentalize work and do the same thing all year round. It’s a good arrangement! More people should try it. I think they’d realize they like it

What do you do in your free time?

I don’t have any... well I guess I do a lot of outdoor stuff, winter camping, snowshoeing, hunting, and running. I run a lot. I do sculpture, but I guess that’s not really free time. Unless I’m not getting paid for it. But really if I have some time I’m either outside or sculpting.

Where do you hope to be in 5-10 years?

I’d like to have a nice balance between a well-managed market garden system, our orchard should be producing by then, apples and other perennial fruits, healthy productive soil, but at the same time I want to focus more on being an artist and less of a craftsman doing custom furniture. If it goes well, the opportunities keep coming and it becomes more financially viable I think someday I would devote more of the growing season to woodworking and hire someone to manage the farm. I love woodworking, getting on a creative project is so satisfying. I want to keep doing what I love.

Thanks Phil for the great visit, we’ll have to come back and see the farm when it’s in full swing!

Find out more about Phil below: