Making His Mark

Phil Porter documents his city

Roughly a dozen canvases sit propped up on an expansive easel. Phil Porter dips a brush into a jar of acrylic paint and applies it to whichever work-in-progress needs a dash of color.

When he’s done, a painting will reveal a vibrant scene, most likely of a place in Madison, Porter’s hometown and longtime inspiration. After being institutionalized for cognitive disabilities as a child, Porter began painting in 1978 and has made a career—and name—for himself as an artist in the city.

He draws from Madison imagery in part because his great-grandfather, Lew Porter, helped create some of its most prominent structures, from the State Capitol to the Red Gym and Science Hall.

“I like more historic buildings,” Porter says. “To me, the Red Gym is like a castle.”

He also enjoys painting old-model cars, New York City, his brother’s barn, duck ponds and the Henry Vilas Zoo.

Porter shows his work regularly at coffee shops and at Art Fair on the Square. He’s also represented in the Waisman Center’s Harvey A. Stevens International Collection of Art by People with Developmental Disabilities. Roughly forty works from the collection, including a Capitol painting by Porter, go on display at the Dane County Regional Airport July 22 through December 31 in an exhibition organized by Tandem Press.

While Porter believes viewers like his Capitol and Red Gym paintings best, he never knows what scenes will strike a chord.

“That’s the way art goes,” he says.

Katie Vaughn is associate editor of Madison Magazine.

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