May 2, 2014

Spotlight: Phoebe Harris

Phoebe Harris: master guitarist and killer illustrator.

It's not often that I get the chance to write about both music and art, but when I reached out to Phoebe Harris for a Girl Spotlight I knew it was finally my chance to do both. Phoebe is most well-known as the lead guitarist of Potty Mouth (who THE LE SIGH is obviously a huge fan of) but it wasn't until recently I learned that Phoebe also works as an illustrator. You may not have realize this, but if you know Potty Mouth, you're already familiar with Phoebe's art – she designed both of their album covers and the band's canine-themed pillow cases. After reading this Impose interview, I had the chance to look over Phoebe's work and was blown away by all her different projects - from zines to Impressionist-esque drawings that look like they could have been beautiful relics from a past era but also speak to everyday emotions. I got a chance to speak to Phoebe about her past collaborations with Smith roommate and artist Grace Miceli, her recent departure from Potty Mouth and who she is designing an album cover for next.

THE LE SIGH: I'm in love with your recent card series - can you talk a little bit about how you came up with it? What do you think people should use these cards for?

Phoebe Harris: While I love making zines and just drawing for pure pleasure, I also really enjoy making things that are usable – things that function beyond hanging on a wall or sitting on a bookshelf. Don't get me wrong, zines are so, so special to me, and to a lot of other people too; they're magical! But it's energizing to think about drawing beyond the page sometimes. What really makes me excited about illustration is all the different ways it can come to life. I've had illustrations on skateboards, records and t-shirts, and those projects are always the most rewarding to work on. I've always wanted to make cards – it was something to check off the list, a no-brainer. We use cards to send a message, to show support, love, etc. It's an expression of our humanity. But something I've always felt strongly about is that we don't need a special event or holiday to show our friends we care, or let them know we're thinking of them. I guess that's what I hope people will use these cards for. Not to mention snail mail is the best way to win over a crush! I have so many ideas for the next batch.

TLS: Your drawings - especially the cards - kind of remind me of Impressionist art. Is there a particular style that inspires or initially inspired you? 

PH: Ah, I'm so transparent! You're right on the money. I'm pretty obsessed with Matisse. I want my whole world to look like an Impressionist or Fauvist painting. But I'm also heavily inspired by folk artists and illustrators like Esther Pearl Watson, Margaret Kilgallen and Maira Kalman.

TLS: You just put out a zine as well and have done a few zines/book in the past - what's your creation process like for this kind of project?

PH: It's always different. My zines vary widely in content. Some have text, poetry, or prose, some are just illustrations and some are a combination. Sometimes it starts with a single drawing. I'll just be sketching or messing around and then I'll see a concept for a zine. Sometimes it starts with a single phrase or a word. It's usually a result of an impulse that I end up running wild with. 

TLS: What was your first major art milestone?

PH: My first major art milestone was forgetting everything I'd ever learned. I had this great professor during my senior year of college that sort of just made me feel like I could create whatever I wanted to. And that sense of freedom really made me feel powerful – there was no room for self-doubt. It helped me get over a lot of my art hang-ups. I remember feeling so stuck, I remember wanting to impress my professors, impress my class, but I always had this bad feeling that drawing or painting wasn't good enough. It wasn't profound. You know, "painting is dead" or whatever. Eventually I came to terms with the fact that what I really loved about making art was the humanity of it all. I love feelings! I love seeing something and relating to it emotionally. It's like the same reason I fell in love with Miranda July in high school. I'm a water sign. So watery. So many feelings. And with illustrations, drawings, paintings – to me, it's easy to see the humanity there. It's like, a human hand held this pencil and drew this thing or wrote this thing and because of that it's not the same as anything else, you can see the mistakes, the imperfections. It's so real! 

TLS: THE LE SIGH recently spoke in Philly with artist Grace Miceli, who mentioned you two were college roommates and art collaborators! What did you two work on while in school?

PH: There's so much I could say about my Smith years, and particularly the moments I had with Grace. We were pretty inseparable during our first year of college, and during our second year, we began our first collaborative zine "Swimming Lessons." It felt powerful to start this thing from scratch, and the fact that it was a team effort made it feel fun and important. Eventually we began focusing on individual projects and zines, but Swimming Lessons was where my love for zine culture began. It's easy to feel nostalgic for those days. So much growing and shaping went on during those years. Grace is one of the hardest working people I know. She's incredibly driven, she's smart, she's funny. She's a very powerful lady. Hi Grace!

TLS: I know you designed both Potty Mouth album covers - how did you come up with the concepts for each album?

PH: The artwork for the Sun Damage EP just kind of happened without much thought. Sometimes I look back at it and really wish I had taken more time with it. The hand lettering on it bothers me. But, it was my first time doing album artwork! So it was really a big experiment for me. For the Hell Bent LP I wanted to make the cover look like an I Spy book. We all gathered little trinkets to include in the shot, and Abby had the genius idea to use gummy letters for the title. The idea for the insert came from an old sketch I had done. 

TLS: Who would be your dream artist to create an album cover for?

PH: Stevie Nicks! I love Stevie. Ali Koehler made this beautiful embroidered portrait of Stevie for me. Underneath the portrait it says "Saint Stevie." Best thing I own. 

TLS: You recently played your last show with Potty Mouth! What was that experience like? How did it compare to your first show in the band?

PH: It was sad! But it was also pretty perfect. My last show with Potty Mouth was at Smith, my alma mater. Three out of four of us are Smithies, and Abby grew up in this area, so it really felt like a "homecoming," or like things had kind of come full circle. It was pretty awesome to play to a room full of Smithies dancing their faces off. I have fond memories of doing just the same. Our other Smith friends, Sam and Halie, who still live in the area, came to the show and sang along in the front row. So many good feelings. 

My first show with the band was completely different. It was a local basement show, I had only been playing guitar for a few months, and I was terrified. It probably sucked a lot, but I remember feeling kind of euphoric when it was over. Like, okay, I did it, one huge milestone out of the way! 

It was really hard to leave the band. I hate disappointing people and letting people down, so I felt that same kind of fear about leaving the band. I don't think people realize how all-consuming it can be, but fortunately my bandmates did and do understand. I started to get the point where I was feeling incredibly anxious all the time. I felt pressed for time, I felt frustrated about not being able to make visual work to the quality I wanted to, not to mention I had three part-time jobs I was juggling. I was like, always crying. Some people can divide their talents, but I'm just not one of those people! Slowly I realized I wasn't doing anyone any favors by struggling to keep it together. Trying to continue with the band and work as a visual artist and make some form of a living was just driving me insane, and to some respect, it was holding the band back because I was reluctant to go on longer tours. We spent three years working toward our goals, making sacrifices together, going through difficult things together. I'm really proud of our efforts and all we have to show for it, and now, they can take off on longer tours, achieve their goals and be amazing. And I can sit at my desk, draw, achieve my goals and cheer them on!

TLS: Now that you've taken on illustration more full time, what can we expect from you in the future?

PH: I'm working on so many things! It's awesome to be this busy with commissions and projects. I just finished a new full-color zine, I have more cards underway, new prints, and I'm currently working on a promotional poster for a Feminist Film Fest in NYC called "Stories We Tel.l" There's also talk of illustrating a new children's book series, which would be so cool! The project I'm most excited about is doing artwork for the new Radiator Hospital album. One of my fave bands, some of my fave people--it's going to be a magical collaboration.

Find more of Phoebe's art here and check out her Etsy shop here.

Written by Emily Thompson