Maker Crush - Phoebe Wahl
Meet Phoebe Wahl- an illustrator, sculptor, and children’s book author based here in Bellingham, Washington. Working with themes of comfort, nostalgia, and intimacy with one another, Phoebe uses multiple mediums such as watercolor, collage, fabric sculpture, and more to show us the inner workings of her colorful imagination.
We got the chance to hang with Phoebe in her studio, and peek into the life of this vibrant artist, talk about what it takes to be a small maker, and visit her new brick and mortar location in Bellingham.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
“I’ve always drawn a lot of inspiration from the northwest landscape. Islands, forests, neighborhoods with mossy-roofed houses. I found Bellingham’s landscape showing up in my paintings a lot when I moved away for college, to Rhode Island. My connection to this place felt so intuitive and unavoidable. It became the regular setting for my stories and illustrations very organically, I think because it’s details felt so engrained in me. I’m still very inspired by this landscape, and by gardens, by other illustrators, especially old children’s book creators like Dahlov Ipcar and Barbara Cooney and Elsa Beskow. By artists like Matisse and Maud Lewis and Suzanne Valadon, and designers like Josef Frank and Jerry Roupe and Maija Isola. By my friends, by textiles and books and films and as ridiculous as this is going to sound— things on Pinterest…!”
Do you dedicate time to come up with ideas, or wait until creativity strikes?
Kind of a combination of both— I work every day in my studio on something, whether it’s a children’s book, surface design project or admin on the computer. So I’m always dedicating scheduled time to work on specific projects, which often leads to other creative ideas (and procrastinations…) too. I find it difficult to allow myself not to be busy, to be still and sit with times that I don’t have a lot of creative ideas. It’s hard to trust in those times that I WILL be inspired again. I convince myself regularly that I’ve used up all my ideas and that it’s basically time just to close up shop and find some other job… but usually by the time I finish that thought, I’ve come up with a new idea!
How does your identity as a woman inform your work?
I guess I would say entirely— since I’ve never identified as anything else, it’s hard to separate what of my experience has been informed by (cis) womanhood and what hasn’t. From a very young age I was extremely interested in drawing and painting women in very traditional gender roles, motherhood and babies appear very heavily in all my childhood work, and in my current work as well though now I have a more nuanced view and intent of what I’m representing. There’s always been themes about the gaze on (cis) women’s bodies in my work as well, I recently found a tiny miniature magazine I’d made for my dolls called “Teen Bakini” (bikini misspelled). It was just tiny drawings of thin women in swimsuits doing goofy sexy poses, I couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8 when I drew it. It’s such an interesting and clear regurgitation of what I saw in culture of women’s bodies and sexuality, especially when coupled with all the maternal images I was making too. It’s fascinating to see how representation of women’s bodies has grown and changed within my work alongside my own journey through the minefield that is life in patriarchy and diet culture. There was a shift, at some point in college when I began to learn about feminism and the burgeoning body positivity movement, where I began to move away from drawing thin bodies as aspiration, towards drawing the larger bodies that I was hungry to see in visual culture, which has only gotten clearer and more intentional as I’ve learned more and gone deeper into fat liberation politics in ensuing years. I began creating the representation that I personally needed in order to feel seen, which has proved not only therapeutic but incredibly empowering, not only for myself but as it turns out, for others too.
What advice do you have for young artists and makers?
Draw as often as you can for as long as you can. Trust that your ideas won’t run out (I have a hard time with that one.) Seek out culture that excites, nourishes and inspires you. Know that there are problems you will only solve through drawing, and through making hundreds and thousands of sketches and mistakes. Don’t wait until your art is perfect to show it to the world, because it will never be. You will never wake up one day and be 100% secure and satisfied with your art, it will always be imperfect to you and that’s why you’ll keep on making it. Seek out feedback from people whose opinions you value, even if you’re insecure, and don't make the mistake of thinking that compliments always equate to "good" feedback. Growth isn't always comfortable, often times it's the constructive criticism that will point you where you need to go.
Tell us a bit about your new shop in Bellingham, and what it means to have a storefront for your work.
Phoebe Bird has been such a fun experiment. It’s a small home goods and gift store on State St. that I opened in June, we sell not only my products but also a curated selection of items from small brands and artist I love. It’s been really fun to have a home-base for my world, so to speak. I was operating my online shop out of my bedroom, then spare rooms, then most recently my attic, and it became increasingly clear that we had outgrown the space. I’ve always dreamed of having a shop, because it feels like one big art installation. I wanted to give people the feeling of entering into my world, both by getting to touch and interact my products in real life and also by seeing what other makers and objects I envision as being a part of kind of the extended universe of my work. Plans for a storefront were always very far down the road but when we (my employees and I) found the space we’re in on State St., the fact that it HAD space not only to be our fulfillment headquarters but also have a shop in the front made it feel like a good time to give brick & mortar retail a try! I love the interactive element that it brings into my life— it’s easy to feel very isolated from my customers and audience since I work alone at home. But having a shop gives my community a place to find and interact with me (if I want to be found, that is, I’m only there when I feel like it) and my work. It’s been fun too, to see how my product development has changed now that there is a physical space to display things in. I’m finding a lot more of my ideas being guided by what I want to see decorate or function in our physical space, which I like because it makes me more attuned to my objects existing in peoples homes, rather than only in my studio and imagination.