Mark Phillips: Returning to a Aassion for Art and Design

Bank executive gives to GSU art and design  
Practicality led GSU alumnus Mark Phillips into finance, but his passion remains in creative pursuits

Mark Phillips enrolled at Georgia State University to pursue his passion for art. To make ends meet, he began working at a bank. He discovered that he had a head for business so as he built a career at Bank of America, art became his hobby.

Today, Phillips is investing in the artistic potential of a Georgia State undergraduate by funding a scholarship for an outstanding student at the Ernest G. Welch School of Art and Design. The Mark Phillips Scholarship gives funding and encouragement to pursue a professional career in art.

“The equipment that I can get with this funding increases the quality of my art, which I couldn’t get without the scholarship,” said Steffen Sornpao, a junior from Gwinnett County who aspires to be a fine art photographer. In a society where cellphone photography is common, the scholarship helps inspire him to seek originality in what he sees. He also felt inspired by Phillips’ own story.

“When I met Mark Phillips, he told me he started in the mail office of a bank and slowly rose to success,” Sornpao said. “Anytime someone gets somewhere by doing the right things with the right motive is inspirational.”

Phillips (B.B.A., 1974), is an Atlanta native whose parents, Norman and Anne Phillips, also attended Georgia State. As an undergraduate, he began working in the downtown mail room of Fulton National Bank, a job that ended in time for him to walk down Marietta Street to mid-afternoon art classes at GSU.

“I took my art portfolio to an advertising firm, and when I was told what I might make working there, I decided I should take a more practical path and have art become my hobby,” he said of his 42-year career, in which Fulton National Bank ultimately became part of Bank of America. “Of course, I was under no delusion as to the degree of my artistic talent which also played a part in my decision process.”

Phillips did not regret his decision. He used his creativity on the job by crafting credit structures that work for individual companies, from mom and pop companies to worldwide corporations. In his personal time, he created large landscapes on canvases, up to 5 feet in dimension, with layers of sponged acrylics. The process creates a sense of depth and softness that complement the concrete numbers of his day job.

“The time at GSU helped me have an appreciation for loosening up in my art,” Phillips said. “I still have some of my artwork, including a piece made with a block of indented wood rolled in India ink and then over paper. I still have that piece framed today.”

Phillips returned to GSU as a trustee of the GSU Foundation in 2005 to represent the bank and re-engage with his alma mater. When he began thinking about endowing a scholarship, “my heart was in the art school, even though I graduated in business,” he said. “The Ernest G. Welch School of Art & Design was a place where I felt I could make a difference.”

“Your scholarship for undergraduates is something the faculty has wanted for years,” Welch School director Cheryl Goldsleger told Phillips in appreciation for his gift. “We meet and teach so many highly talented students and your scholarship allows us to encourage the best among them. Steffen is one of those. … The faculty is very impressed with his work and expects he will mature into a serious photographer who will achieve success with his work.”

This type of funding is important because art involves an investment into materials and often technology, said Jill Frank, a faculty member.

“Photography is a very expensive medium – the Mark Phillips Scholarship in Art and Design enabled Steffen to buy equipment that will serve his future endeavors in the photography program at GSU and beyond,” she said.

The Phillips Scholarship also represents an investment into Sornpao honing his “inner eye.”

“Steffen is self-motivated, curious and willing to take risks,” she said. “Throughout his first two semesters in photography courses at GSU, he worked hard to master techniques that enabled him to investigate ideas that were distinctly sophisticated for an introductory course.”

Like Phillips, Sornpao has a family connection to GSU. His mother, Anne Jorgensen (B.B.A. 1990, MBA 1992), came from Denmark.

“I like his photography,” Phillips said of his recent meeting with Sornpao. “Funding this scholarship is something I plan to do the rest of my life. It was satisfying to hear that somebody was able to benefit as he was just starting out. I hope it allows students to obtain more from their art studies than they might have otherwise been able to do. Sometimes you do get drawn away from your passion because of the practical side of life.”

—By Michelle Hiskey; Contact Kim Cretors, (404) 413-3424