L.B. Woods says it with a simple certainty: the world doesn’t yet know the talent it lost in Bill Phinnie. Given time, though, the local painter’s skill will shed its ‘undiscovered’ status.
“I think his legacy is he’s one of the world greats. I think his paintings will be worth millions one of these days,” Woods said. “I think he will be extremely famous.”
Eager for the day, Woods is working to make it a reality, loaning most of his collection of Phinnie’s artwork – the bulk of the painter’s pieces – for an ongoing exhibit at the Longview Museum of Fine Arts.
“I thought some of that in the early days. Now that I see it in the museum, I think that’s correct: he will be one of the world’s great artists. And Kilgore produced him.”
The exhibit opened July 8, drawing scores of people to the Tyler Street venue, one of the museum’s best turnouts, according to director Tiffany Jehorek. A signature piece of Phinnie’s welcomes guests immediately inside the door, an orange, black and cream-colored painting in an Asian-style that hung in the former Kilgore Community Inn for about three decades.
Kilgore’s Wendy Crim could barely sweep her gaze around the gallery Saturday without her eyes brimming with tears.
“He was Sonny to my Cher,” Crim quipped. “We had so much fun.”
Dimi DeSantis was their third musketeer: she and Crim were devoted to the artist, friends and caretakers in the final season of his life, and both were on-hand for the weekend’s opening.
“I don’t know a lot about art, but I loved Bill,” Crim said. “I’m just overwhelmed, to see his pieces as they should be. I can’t believe he’s gone, but I know he’s here. Look at it: it’s just beautiful.
“He would just be reveling in it – he was a performer.”
Phinnie succumbed to esophageal cancer in March 2016, aged 83. His last show was a joint exhibit with another East Texas artist, the late Jan Statman, in June 2015 through the East Texas Pipe Organ Festival.
Born in 1932 in Laird Hill, Phinnie graduated from Kilgore High School in 1950 – he’d been the feature twirler for the High School Band – and continued his education at Kilgore College before moving on to the The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and, eventually, the University of Texas to finish his bachelor’s degree.
“The faculty there at the University of Texas were so impressed with him they decided to get him a two-year grant to go and finish his masters degree,” Woods said, and he takes a touch of credit for helping convince Phinnie to finish his studies.
He’d met the painter a few years prior. Woods has worked as an antique dealer for almost 30 years, but he previously taught in the library school at the University at Rhode Island and, prior to that, as a science teacher in Los Angeles, California, as well as in Texas in Marshall and New London – where he bought a house and soon met his next-door neighbor, Phinnie.
“Just pure accident,” Woods said. “I had a fairly good eye for art,” and in his year in New London saw great potential in his neighbor’s work.
Decades later, that potential is given form on the walls of the Longview Museum of Fine Arts, and Woods basked in his longtime friend’s posthumous success Saturday.
“It’s amazing how coincidence affects all of us in our lives,” Woods told the crowd, surrounded by spotlights revealing the vivid intricacy of Phinnie’s paintings. As a whole, “It is so impressionistic, and very intricate brushwork.”
Kim and Mary Kokles first encountered Phinnie’s artwork in Woods’ home in Tyler. They drove in from the Metroplex for Saturday’s opening.
“We saw some in his house and said, ‘You have a treasure trove,’” Kim Kokles recalled. He prodded Woods to find a way to exhibit the pieces and, meanwhile, went in search of a piece for himself, running ads on Craigslist and elsewhere in search of one of the Kilgore artist’s paintings. “Bill Phinnie is pretty unknown, but he’s just as good an abstract impressionist as any I’ve seen.”
There are a few more Phinnie paintings in Woods private collection, but the collection at LMFA shows the range of the man’s career over more than five decades.
“It shows a genius at work,” he said, “in a way that nobody else has ever compared.
“His work, if you had it next to all the great artists, you would be able to pick out a Bill Phinnie. It’s unique. He could mimic any artist, and yet he had his own distinctive style as well.”
According to Woods, Phinnie had an idea of the value of his work but, as time passed, so did some of that confidence.
“Like so many gifted people, he lost that concept as a he got older. I had to fuss at him to get him to start painting again,” Woods said. “The paintings he did later in life were not as good because he was losing his eyesight.”
For example, Phinnie created several sold works in 2015, Woods said, but his eyes were failing him.
It cannot diminish, though, the vitality of a long career.
“He’s a painter. And that’s what he called himself. A painter,” Woods said, one others will come to appreciate in time. “Anything we can do to boost people’s knowledge of what he has done will help.”
Learn more through LMFA.org or contact the museum (215 E. Tyler St.) at 903-753-8103. Phinnie’s work will be on display through Sept. 26.