Hands contain knowledge: exploring the drawings of Lee John Phillips

Washers, nails, screwdrivers, tubes of glue and electrical socket covers fill the sketchbook pages of Lee John Phillips. But while the subject might on first mention appear mundane, this is an extraordinary and nuanced undertaking.

From Lee John Phillips, The Shed Project (2014-15)
From Lee John Phillips, The Shed Project (2014-15)

The first volume of Phillips’ work, The Shed Project (2014-15), on display as part of the Jerwood Drawing Prize exhibition, is a lovingly drawn and numbered inventory of 3672 objects found in the shed of his late grandfather. Drawing in fine black ink and sometimes working up to 15 hours a day, by the end of the project Phillips will have catalogued more than 80,000 separate objects.

Traces of the artist’s grandfather are recorded through these meticulous drawings across 88 sketchbook pages. The accumulated smudges, dents and chips refer to the material memory of each object and of time spent making; the tools and parts left abandoned by Phillips’ grandfather reveal the potential of projects never started and never finished.

This is a catalogue of emotional memory too; a slow and considered way of coming to terms with loss. Drawing and making coalesce on Phillips’ pages, metaphorically layering two sets of working hands in time; family hands that mirror each other.

Our hands, as the artist and maker Linda Brothwell noted, contain knowledge. Hands are to be trusted: they are our most direct interface with the world and the basic vehicles for making everything, from a line drawing to a chest of drawers.

This recognition of the hand made, of ‘hand skills’ and hand tools – be they a pen or plane – is important within the context of the Jerwood Drawing Prize.

As ordinary lives become increasingly dependent upon the digital, our hands are still vital in the clicking of keys and the swiping of screens. They remain the finest tools we have at our disposal – and especially when it comes to making and to drawing.


My text was produced as part of the inaugural a-n Writer Development Programme led by a-n News Editor Chris Sharratt. The five texts produced by the programme participants are available as a small publication at Jerwood Visual Arts as responses to the Jerwood Drawing Prize 2015 and were published on the a-n blog, October 2015.



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