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An islander in America, ‘Landlocked’ artist speaks on reaching for his Palauan roots

Updated: Sep 20, 2022

For Jerry Bedor Phillips, art is the bridge that connects him back to his island origins.

On display at the Leu Center for the Visual Arts’ Gallery 121 through Sept. 24, the artist’s “Landlocked” exhibition offers a glimpse into the life, history and culture of his family homeland — Palau, an island nation in the western Pacific.

Phillips’ work not only explores his own self-identity and family history, but gives voice to a heritage often overlooked in the U.S., and especially in Tennessee.

“It’s a unique perspective. You don’t meet many islanders out here in the south, so having a space for him to talk about his really unique experiences is really important,” said Ana Stringer, a member of Vanderbilt University’s Indigenous Scholars Organization.

Phillips was born in the U.S. to immigrant parents; he only knows how to be an American, he said.

“I feel it’s important to make this work because I’m trying to reconnect with my extended family and the history and heritage that they’re leaving for me that I just feel separated from,” said Phillips.

Phillips currently works as a studio manager and gallery coordinator at Vanderbilt’s Space 204. Before his move to Nashville a decade ago, Phillips earned a master’s degree from Bradley University in both drawing and printmaking, so the artist is used to working with a lot of paper.

His exhibition features drawings rendered in dry materials and graphite colored pencils, and he also began working with calligraphy ink on a type of polyester film that resembles plastic paper, using it to make family portraits and photographs.

The artist also reimagined the use of paper in his sculpture, “A Paper Boat,” which features folded white boats clustered together in fleets, suspended in wooden garden boxes similar to ones his mother tended in her own garden.

The piece calls back to a memory from Phillips’ childhood: his mother teaching him to make paper boats, which led him to his fantasizing about folding enough to sail across the ocean.

The historical context of the piece is more somber — the cluster of boats pays tribute to the Battle of Peleliu, which occurred in Palau near the end of World War II and was one of the bloodiest, most devastating battles in the Pacific, said Phillips.

“The paper boats here represent the people who fought this battle, those that were lost in the conflict, and the remnants of this conflict still present in the waters and on the land of Micronesia,” wrote the artist on the placard accompanying the piece.

“A Paper Boat” is the favorite of Phillips’ colleague at Vanderbilt’s Department of Art, studio technician Taylor Raboin.

“I just love the boats in general,” Raboin said. “I love how much they can kind of scale, and I can easily imagine the whole room being filled with them and only them, so I just love how he spaced them out on these islands around the room and really made you feel at sea as much as you can in an art gallery.”

Phillips challenged himself, he said, by branching into other media in several pieces, including Plexiglass etchings of paraphernalia native to Palau — including coral and a traditional necklace — illuminated by LED lights.

Artwork by Jerry Bedor Phillips. Belmont Vision / Olivia Peppiatt

“Landlocked” first began to take shape when Phillips moved to Nashville ten years ago as a postgraduate.

His geographical transition, combined with the notoriously awkward shift from being a student to joining the workforce, robbed Phillips of a sense of what his future would look like, which in turn drew him back to the islands of his ancestral past.

“I was starting to really think about myself again in terms of my disconnect with the islands since I have lived here all my life,” he said. “I’m more focused and open to learning about the history and the legacy that my ancestors and my family have built for me.”

Phillips hopes that people who visit his exhibition will learn Palau and its people are rich with culture and history and that learning about one’s personal ancestry is a gift that should be celebrated, regardless of the country they land in.

“I just wish they would come in and experience the work, and then leave reflecting on their own family history and how they relate to those not in their immediate family but extended family,” he said.

“Everyone has family past their immediate family, and there’s a history there for everybody.”

PHOTO: Artwork by Jerry Bedor Phillips. Photo courtesy of Watkins College of Art.

This article was written by Olivia Peppiatt.

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