Artist Interview: Joel Daniel Phillips

A photo of artist Joel Daniel Phillips working on his life size portrait of Arts United employee Suzanne in the FWMoA galleries.
Joel Daniel Phillips works on his drawing of Suzanne from Arts United in the gallery. Notice the laptop next to him. He takes photographs of his subjects and then zooms in on the area he is working on to achieve the detail we see in his work. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Why did you start drawing your neighbors in your community when you moved to San Francisco?

So the body of work started really as a way to get to know my neighborhood. It was a space that I didn’t know anything about before I moved to San Francisco. I didn’t realize when I met the guys who were building out like a live/work art space, I met them via Craigslist and Skyped with them, but I didn’t have any idea of what the neighborhood was like and it turned out that it was actually one of the rougher street corners in San Francisco. So, I started making these drawings because, for me, drawing is the best way to understand anything. Le Corbusier said that drawing is the truest way to see. And for me, making these portraits was all about trying to get to know my neighborhood and my neighbors. It [where I lived] was the sort of street corner that most people would walk out of their way to avoid because it has a lot of visible social issues, whether that was homelessness, drug abuse, or mental illness; just all of those things that go hand in hand in a very dense urban environment. The work started out as me just trying to understand my neighbors and get to know them and very quickly became about being a response to the way that society pushes people out of it. A lot of my neighbors were the sort of folks who most people would walk past on the street and not make eye contact with, and as I got to know them and started making these portraits, it became about using this tool that society has historically reserved for rich people, for royalty, for the upper echelons of society and reversing it. Instead, using it as a way to break down those social barriers and celebrate the beautiful individuality of all the people who are living in that area.

An installation shot of Phillips' life-size drawings of his homeless neighbors in San Francisco.
The stark, white backgrounds ensure you come face-to-face with his neighbors undistracted. In fact, there is nothing between you and the portrait, not glass or a frame. It’s as if you are walking up to them on the street, exactly as Joel did.
Installation shot of Phillips’ life-size drawings. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

So it was a way for you to feel more comfortable in your neighborhood and also introduce yourself to your neighbors too since you were going to be there? But did you have trouble getting people to agree to be first, photographed so you could draw them and then be subjects for you to draw?

Yes, something I learned very quickly is that a lot of people who you know, not everyone I drew is homeless by any means, but a lot of people who are in that space are very aware of how other people see them. Which shouldn’t be particularly surprising, but there was always the question when I first started doing it where people would respond and say “Oh well what is this for?” They would talk about experiences that they’d had where they’ve felt like their own traumatic experiences were being consumed by people. Where people, I’ve used the term “disaster porn” before, where it becomes entertainment to see people in terrible circumstances. So that was always a question I had to address both for myself, for why I was making the work, and also for the subjects themselves of what are these for and why are you doing them. It was a quick process from being an outsider in the neighborhood to being somebody who people knew because I would make a drawing of somebody and they would tell somebody else about that experience. The turning point, for me, was actually this moment where the city of San Francisco asked me to be part of this program they were putting on where they were activating empty storefronts and hanging art in them. So, for 2 or 3 years straight, I had this empty storefront on the street corner where I was hanging the finished portraits of people from that street corner. Once that happened people were like oh, that’s what you’re doing, and it was part of the space and part of the community and people love that. I mean, there is something about the process of being drawn that is an extremely unique experience and it is hard not to feel celebrated, I think, when you are on the other end of that. It went from me introducing myself and saying “Hey I’m an artist I want to draw you” to having people come up to me and say “Hey will you draw me next”, which was a really powerful experience. Realizing how that could make people feel valued was the root of the whole process, trying to make people feel like they were valuable members of society when they had spent much of their lives not feeling that way.

This life-size portrait, done in charcoal, shows "Blue" holding his bike chain, his bike behind him. He wears a hat, sunglasses, puffer jacket over a sweatshirt, and rolled up jeans. His bike has a basket on the back with miscellaneous objects in it.
Joel talks about preferring to draw portraits where the subject looks straight out at the viewer. Here, Blue is wearing sunglasses. How does that change our interaction with him?
Joel Daniel Phillips, American, b. 1989. Blue with a Bicycle. Charcoal & graphite on paper, 2013. On loan from Kevin King. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

And I’m guessing they felt that way even more when they saw themselves up in the storefront. Is that how you came to your large scale drawing or were you doing that before you had the storefront? How did you get into drawing such large portraits?

 I kind of just started out doing that. I didn’t go to art school, I have a degree in graphic design. So, when I started drawing one of the first drawings I ever did, it was a 1:1 scale life size portrait and it always just felt natural. It felt like that was just the right way to try to make drawings of people. What I want the viewer to experience is to feel like that person is in the room with them. That the drawing itself becomes a vehicle for bringing that individual into the space, and so there is something about that 1:1 scale where you are not looking at an art object. Instead, you’re looking at a person, and I’ve always wanted the viewer’s experience when they are in an exhibition of mine to feel like they are in a room full of people.

The 1:1 scale, when you compare that to how you’re breaking down the barriers of portraiture itself, when you think of the older paintings of kings and queens or even Napoleon’s coronation, they are massive. It’s like that scale with your drawings?

I think there is something like an unavoidable confrontational experience when you are in a room and there is someone staring back at you. That’s also the reason I’ve mostly only drawn people when they are making eye contact with the viewer. There are a few pieces I’ve done that aren’t that but, for the most part, I’ve very purposely tried to make that connection happen because it is about a confrontation. It’s about the viewer confronting their own fears and prejudices and asking themselves questions about how and why they might respond to someone in a certain way or not respond to them. It’s a really powerful thing to be forced to come to terms with that.

Why have you recently moved away from portraits and done more installations or work like the piece that we have currently, There is Something Delicious in the Absurdity (see photos below)?

There are a few answers to that question. I’d started to feel, and this was a couple of years ago when I started to make that transition, that as much as I felt that the portraits were an important thing to make and an important thing for people to respond to that they didn’t fully answer a lot of the questions that I wanted to be posing. They would you ask you, the viewer, questions about how you responded to the people around you and who you were overlooking in society; but they didn’t really get into how and why those things happened. They also didn’t really get into what next—How do we fix this? How do we respond to that? And so the portraits started to feel like, on their own, they were a little bit symptomatic and I wanted to dive deeper into questions around how my neighborhood became the way that it was. So I was thinking about a lot of those questions and then I actually moved studios in San Francisco to a different neighborhood, to the Hunter’s Point-Bayview neighborhood. I was still working on the portraits and still drawing my neighbors, and I did a portrait of a gentlemen in the Bayview who passed away about a year later from cancer. When he passed away from cancer that most likely came from being exposed to radiation in that neighborhood; it was a really intense experience for me, and it really catalyzed me to shift how I was thinking about making work to say well what is the history here? How did this happen? And I learned in that process that this gentlemen’s mother had also passed away from cancer from growing up in the same neighborhood, which made me want to dive into more historical questions, I guess, and try to get a deeper picture of how society shapes itself in certain kinds of microspaces. That, also combined with the 2016 election, it felt like it was a really important time to be making work that was part of that larger conversation about who we are as Americans and where do we want our country to go [in the next few years]. I felt like it was just time to start diving deeper into some of these historical questions about how did America come to be what it is and who are we and who do we want to be.

It seems that you work almost exclusively in graphite and charcoal. Why is that and have you thought about branching out to other mediums?

I ask myself that same question all the time! I’ve always loved the simplicity of drawing; there is something about that process where it’s an observational process but it’s boiled down to the kind of simplest way you can see things. When I first started drawing I told myself: once I learn how to draw I’ll start painting or I’ll bring color in or whatever. But I’ve never felt like I wanted to, it just felt like charcoal did everything I wanted it to do. There is also something about that kind of barebones way of looking that is similar to the reason that the portraits are all isolated, where part of my process is about paring away distractions and things that distract you away from the real question. So I’ve never felt like I needed color to get to the root of something. I just never really started painting. Maybe someday I will, but at the moment I feel like this process kind of checks all the boxes I need it.

Want to come face-to-face and see the portraits for yourself? Visit FWMoA quick! Charcoal Testament: Drawings by Joel Daniel Phillips ends Sunday, May 12th!

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