AS PHIL Henshall strode towards me when we met for this interview, I was struck by how much he looked like a Quaker. Quite a formidable presence with his face topped and tailed with a shock of grey hair, shaven around the mouth and embedded with sharp blue eyes.
It was a career thwarted when, as he puts it, “I met a chick and that changed everything”. Surely you could be a missionary and be a husband as well, I countered.
“Not if you’re a Roman Catholic.” (Note to self: do not judge a book by its cover!)
So it was as a young man and newly engaged that Phil first came to our Coast. Driving in his old Cortina, he searched for a vantage point that would provide a great view of Western Port. They found a road that took them up to a ridge and whilst they had “afternoon tea” (I did ask if that was a euphemism) enjoyed a spectacular view all the way to French Island.
After they were married and Phil started to make some money, he made a couple of offers on a property on that same road – to no avail. Instead he bought a property near Mt Baw Baw with five other families, built a house and used it as his holiday home.
In the meantime he ran a very successful business. He hadn’t enjoyed his high school years where lessons were less than inspiring but he had enjoyed art – and interestingly he was good at maths. When it came time for him to consider what tertiary studies he would undertake it was a choice between art and architecture. He chose architecture and loved the environment of studying at RMIT which, he says, was like, “coming out of a darkroom into the light”.
He started work as a labourer for an Italian concreting company. They loved him as he was able to read plans and, because of his studies in architecture, could create in his mind a three-dimensional frame to a two-dimensional drawing. It wasn’t long before he was put in charge – not long after that he went into business with a mate and created a very successful company in steel fixing. What started off as “Just come and work for four days a week and then you can paint on Fridays” became a six-day-a-week commitment.
With the hard work drawing in some money, Phil sold his share of the holiday home and bought some land in Icy Creek where he used his architectural skills to create a cluster village of 15 houses, and chose a home for himself in – his words – “Paradise”, surrounded by bush and a land that has no foreign birds visit. And yet he still craved a bit of land on our coast.
After bringing up a family of five children, Phil’s marriage was over. He contacted a real estate agent and asked him to find a property with exposure to the west that might make a good winery. He was shown four properties – the last one right next door to the spot where he’d had “afternoon tea” all those years ago. And so it was meant to be that he purchased the property. It was at this time, with his parenting responsibilities limited to every second weekend, that Phil picked up where he had left off – he started to sketch and then to paint in oil.
He developed skill and technique. Due to his training where he learnt about space he is able to distort perspective spatially. He says he is almost haunted in a way about space. He prefers a modular system of painting with different perspectives of the same scene, be it from a different aspect or a different time of the day. It takes him time to produce his pieces as he first considers what he wants to express and then uses charcoal until he gets the composition just right.
Baw Baw Council acquired five works of his and he found in the process that the works came together into what he refers to as “Aspectivism”™. In essence this means a scene which contains an unusual aspect and is then developed into an aerial or a moving view.
Phil recently re-discovered the first painting he ever did. He had given it to his aunt as a 16-year-old, and she bequeathed it to him when she died. So now, 55 years later, he is still painting and says he can still improve as an artist. Three panels he thought finished in 2003 found a new life as he added the snow of Mt Baw Baw to them in 2015.
His dream is to create two works that people would be able to remember him by in 300 years. “Not tomorrow – but in the future. I want to be able to offer something that is unique and that no-one else has done.”
Phil says he is blessed with being able to have homes in two Paradises – one in the mountains and one at the coast.