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Philip Phillips, 65, owner of Dixie Leather Works, uses an old technique called "block-barnishing" to apply dye to his leather goods. "Contemporary workers use airbrush, they use machines," Philip says. "They don't let the leather speak for itself."

Never Giving up on Art

story by Lora Sparks

Mouths agape and eyes wide as they soak in the visually stimulating pieces that fill Dixie Leather Works, customers exclaim their love for the smell of the shop. Its 65-year-old owner, assisted by a walker, greets them with a friendly smile. Philip Phillips has been a leather artisan since 1969. His business is located in the Lower Town Arts District, one of Paducah's oldest and most historic neighborhoods. Philip, who describes his style as "old rocker," spends his days creating everything from wallets to pocket-watch holders to handbags. Customers John and Maria Hunt purchase $100 of Philip's work within an hour of walking into the shop. The Texas couple decided to check out Paducah because they heard the town was known for its affinity for the arts. John and Maria express admiration for the business, calling it unique and commenting on Philip's friendly, informative demeanor. Recently, the bone infection osteomyelitis has left Philip disabled in his right leg. He struggles to ignore the pain and to walk, and still finds the determination to dedicate time to his craft. He accepts his failing leg and doesn't let it bring him down. "It hurts me, it disables me, but I'm like a chameleon," Philip says. "I've had to adapt and to change with the times."


A self-portrait of Philip in his youth sits on a shelf in Dixie Leather Works. Philip says he was wild in his youth, having quite a reputation. It was that time in his life that he figured out that he is an artist.


Philip was in a skiing accident in 1985, wearing a cast on and off for the next four years. A bone infection recently recurred, leaving him disabled. He says his art is what motivates him to get up in the morning. "Instead of burrowing myself in my sorrow, I decided to be creative, to be productive and to give back to this dying art."


The swelling in his leg caused by the bone infection is painful and keeps him from getting around. Philip changes his bandages regularly throughout the day to keep the wound clean. He used to be involved in the LowerTown Arts District, but his injuries keep him from socializing with other artists.


Philip likes listening to music while he works. He likes the stories that are told in country music.


Philip's art is influenced by his Native American teachers and heritage, and the 1960s era. He describes it as "hippiesque."


Philip marks his pieces with his signature. "I started to see my work being sold on eBay as 'vintage work,'" Philip says. "If my name was on it, it was being sold four to fives times its original price. Usually an artist has to be dead for their signature to be worth something."


Customers John and Maria Hunt bought $100 of Philip's work within an hour of walking into Dixie Leather Works. The Texas couple decided to check out Paducah because they heard the small Kentucky town was known for its affinity for the arts. Maria asks Phillip for a photo of him and her husband to show her friends.


His infected leg and arthritis cause Philip intense pain, requiring him to take frequent breaks.


After taking a break to talk with friends, Philip heads back into his shop to complete the day's work.

68 of 70 stories