Phoebe Derlee

— To start, how long have you been painting—or otherwise creating—portraits? Is this series a new direction in your artistic practice or a continued thread of earlier investigations? How did you arrive at this subject matter?

I have always been painting, though it has taken many different forms and different trajectories. But now (in the past two years) I am more focused on how to paint the world around me, and to record the moments of daily life. The subject matter of portraiture and the human figure has been a constant theme in my work. I have made different series of photographs, sculptures, and drawings and they all led me to where I am today with these paintings of portraits and human figures.

— You are an artist who works across different mediums, including photography and sculpture. What draws you most to the act of painting?

All these mediums exist under the umbrella of visual art, and from a young age and throughout my education I believed they are all tools for expressing and communicating. As you mentioned, I have done, and still do, a lot of photography and sculpture, and those works also inform my paintings, but I am more satisfied with what painting allows right now.

— If eyes (and faces) are windows to the soul, the souls you are presenting here are tantalizingly difficult to read. With their wide, dark eyes and striking triangular noses, these portraits bring to mind the image of the mask, as in
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. In many of the compositions, the sitters (real or imagined?) confront the viewer with a direct gaze that seems to be both seeing and unseeing, outward-looking yet imploded, with a painterly quality to the eyes that remind me of the portraits of Mary Cassatt. Or, in In Queue, the two figures seem to look both at each other and past each other. How do you think about this quality of "looking" in relation to your work? How do you think about the relationship between a work of art and its viewer?

These paintings exist somewhere between an imaginary world and real life; imagination looking so real, and a reality looking so imagined.

The quality you are bringing up is something I also think of a lot. I imagine the paintings look the way they do, especially their eyes, because while I paint them they look at me painting them.

An artwork can offer an audience a new way to look at the world, can give them a different way of seeing something they know very well. In the same way I myself am also an audience for the work I am making, and this is a very exciting part of it.

— One of my favorites in this group is
Smoke Break. I love the self-possessed air of the sitter, and the way the smoke floats above the dark background. I was reminded of Alice Neel's Self-Portrait—the stance of the open legs, tool in hand, green triangle appearing from the lower right corner. Are there any artists or styles in particular that you look to for inspiration when you are creating?

As much as I love all the artists that I have learned from or interact with, when I am in front of the canvas I try not to think of them and let my inner self express my visual understanding of the life we are living. I also love Alice Neel's work, and I believe she was doing the same thing in her time.

— What sort of literature do you turn to? What else inspires you?

I love the literature world. I have been lucky to have a circle of close friends who are writers (fiction / non-fiction) and poets. As a visual artist it is a privilege to be close to people who explore and explain the world through text, and the connection between literature and visual art is one in which both are nourished from each other. I also love what you have built with Volume Poetry, bringing together artists and writers into a dialogue and forum.

— What direction do you hope to take your practice in for the near future and beyond?

I am very happy where the work is taking me right now, and for the near future I am going to be just more focused on dedicating my time to making paintings that I think are necessary to live in this world.

Phoebe Derlee was interviewed by Madeline Gilmore via email on May 8, 2023.


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