Robert Phillips, who helped build Spiral Jetty on Great Salt Lake, dead at 76

Friday , April 15, 2016 - 5:17 PM

Robert Smithson may have had the vision to create it, but Robert Phillips had the know-how to actually build it.

Robert “Bob” Phillips, the man who helped make artist Robert Smithson’s famous Spiral Jetty earthwork sculpture a reality, died Monday, April 11, 2016, following a long battle with colon and liver cancer. He was 76.

Born Aug. 5, 1939, in Spanish Fork, Phillips was raised in Cache Valley and graduated from Logan High School. He married Judy Crockett in 1961, and flew as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force.

Phillips earned his bachelor’s degree from Utah State University, in Logan, in entomology. His obituary playfully called his insect studies “a degree with great practical application for his chosen field of … construction.”

Phillips worked for Parson Construction, in the Ogden area, and also for Whitaker Construction, in Brigham City.

The obit continued: “For forty years, if it paved, bored, tunneled, dug, scooped, rolled, or dozed, he knew how it worked, what it cost, and the right company from which to source it.”

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In 1970, Phillips got a call from a friend in the construction business, warning him about “a funny band of gypsies who wanted to dump a lot of rocks in the Great Salt Lake,” according to Phillips’ son, Kelly Phillips. No other construction companies wanted to touch Smithson’s harebrained art project.

“But my dad is a curious guy, and he said he wanted to at least talk to him first,” Kelly Phillips says. “And talk about two worlds colliding? The gritty construction worker and the New York artist.”

Smithson hired Phillips to build a gigantic earthwork sculpture on the northeastern shores of the Great Lake Lake. Spiral Jetty is a 1,500-foot-long and 15-foot-wide counterclockwise coil of black basalt rocks and earth, according to the Dia Art Foundation website. The artwork was donated to the foundation in 1999.

Kelly Phillips says his father was the bid-estimating engineer, and oversaw the Smithson project. He says his father also became a sort of moderator between the artist and the construction equipment operators, “who didn’t have a lot of patience and tolerance to listen to this crazy artist.”

Phillips and Smithson became unlikely friends, according to Kelly Phillips, and on a number of occasions Smithson invited Phillips to join him in an airplane for an aerial view of the finished sculpture.

“Dad said the only regret he had in life, is that he didn’t take Robert Smithson up on his offer to view the Spiral Jetty from the air,” Kelly Phillips said.

Smithson died in a plane crash on July 20, 1973, while surveying sites for another earthwork sculpture.

Over the years, Phillips became accustomed to being approached by arts groups wanting him to speak about the project.

“He was proud to do it, but he doesn’t like the limelight,” Kelly Phillips said of his father. “But he did love sharing the story.”

And as important as the Spiral Jetty may be in the art world, it’s not what friends and family members recall best about Phillips.

“Although he considered that the pinnacle work of his career, his pinnacle work of life was his work at home,” Kelly Phillips says. “I miss him already.”

Robert Phillips is survived by his wife, four children, 15 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday, April 19, at the Pleasant Valley LDS Stake Center, 5640 S. 850 East, South Ogden. Friends may visit with family the night before, from 6 to 8 p.m., at Lindquist’s Ogden Mortuary, 3408 Washington Blvd.; and 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. at the stake center prior to the funeral. Phillips will be buried in the Logan City Cemetery.

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SEMarkSaal.

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