Book Reviews, Commentary

On PageBoy Magazine

Dear artistes, watch out, we are officially courting you, beautiful you. As of today, Poetry Northwest hereby dedicates a whole section of the Community Page to the local visual arts community—especially to artists who work symbiotically with poets and/or somehow make use of the art-of-poetry. In this space we hope to showcase existing cross-genre collaborations as well as forge new love relationships based on the laws of opposites-attract, bitter grass-greener jealousies, and the other forces that bring us together but keep us apart.

The inaugural entry for Pen to Palette features an excerpt from the second issue of PageBoy Magazine, a literary journal whose work in this particular domain inspires us. PageBoy, edited by longtime Seattle resident and poet Thomas Walton, designates a portion of each issue to a Q&A with the cover artist. Several full-page color plates of additional images by the artist appear at the centerfold, alongside the aforementioned editor-to-artist banter.

Below Walton chats with Portland-area artist Natalie Phillips about her early childhood forays into drawing kissing people & accordions, the power of narrative suggestion in Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World,” and the subtle differences between egg tempera and shrimp tempura.

Please be sure to cruise the PageBoy blog for more such tempera/tempura confusion, more un-closeted cross-genre curiosity, hoecakes, hokum, hog peanuts, and other dictionary-love affairs. Also, if your vita D and/or inspiration-level is on “low,” Natalie Phillips’ blogspace is a veritable web-museum of the anything-but-drab. Her work, which does feel sort of subterranean, is also electric. Knuckles, eyes, lips, interstices, vibrating chignon ropes, a feather heart actively molting—her scenes, founded in swipings of black ink, are styled with aqua blues, tropical oranges, and carnival pinks.



PageBoy interviews Natalie Phillips
PB: How long have you been painting?
NP: It sounds ridiculous, but I really don’t remember a time when I wasn’t painting. I think there were always finger paints in the house from preschool on. I didn’t commit myself one hundred percent to being an artist until about four years ago, but it’s something I’ve done for my whole life.
PB: Do you ever go back and look at any of your childhood paintings? Are there any that stand out to you?
NP: No, I don’t have a lot of them left. Besides the rainbow over the house phase that every kid goes through, I was big on drawing people kissing. And accordions. Sometimes people kissing and playing accordions. My mom is a fan of a drawing I did in kindergarten of a ghost family having fish for dinner, I wish I could find that.
PB: When and how and where do you paint?
NP: In my bedroom, anytime. I work from home part time as a freelance copywriter so whenever I want to draw or paint, I do it. My drafting table is about two feet away from my bed.
PB: What kind of copy do you write?
NP: It’s total garbage…how to keep rabbits out of your garden, etc, not really worth going into.
PB: It’s true, my garden isn’t worth going into, especially if you’re a rabbit… What’s your favorite quote regarding the creative process?.. or a few of them?
NP: “Stay hungry,” from a Talking Heads’ song. I used to have it painted on my wall so I’d see it whenever I woke up. I think when artists (or filmmakers or writers or musicians) get too comfortable or successful, they lose their touch. Even if you get to a point where you’re not a starving artist anymore, you should still keep that focus and ambition.
PB: Your works are very narrative. Story is very important, at least the implication of a story. Can you elaborate on what draws you to visual narration, the illustrative quality of your work?
NP: The works that have spoken to me have always had a little bit of subtext. Like “Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth…when you can feel that there’s so much more going on, that it’s not just a woman lying in a field. You don’t need to know the back story of the painting to have that emotional connection. I really want people to imagine a story that goes with the characters in my paintings, because that’s what I do when I’m making them.
PB: I like that idea of an active audience. We’re so lazy now, perhaps we always have been. If a viewer/reader has to work too hard, they just walk away. They leave the gallery and go to a movie, or put down the poetry and pick up a novel. Do you think about that at all, the play of what is given to a viewer, and what a viewer has to supply himself?
NP: Some times more than others. Most of the time I try to draw something that is a little bit ambiguous, so that whoever is looking at it has room to interpret what’s going on. But there are definitely times when a painting just sort of falls into the “trippy” category and what you see is what you get: lots of colors and patterns that you can’t look at for very long.
PB: Have you worked in watercolor?.. That’s always struck me as one of the most remarkable aspects about Wyeth, they’re watercolors for god’s sake!
NP: Andrew Wyeth works in egg tempera, which is a really archaic style of oil painting. I don’t really use watercolor, but I do use gouache, which is basically an opaque watercolor. The number one question I get asked about my art is “what is gouache?” It’s become kind of a long running joke because it’s almost always the first thing someone who doesn’t know me asks at an art opening. That or, “so how do you pronounce “gouache?” I guess it’s better than “so what inspires you?”
PB: Is egg tempera kind of like shrimp tempura, or am I way off here? and gouache, that’s like a Hungarian soup, right? How do you get such vivid colors from a meat stew? Is it the veal or the paprika? And does this all have anything to do with the Talking Heads’ line, “stay hungry?”
NP: Egg tempera is from the early days. When the old masters failed to make a commission, they would deep fry their artwork and eat it piece by piece… No, egg tempera is when you mix raw pigment with the yolk of an egg, it allows for really fine detail but the paint dries incredibly fast and you have a very limited amount of time to use each color. It’s something I’ve always wanted to try.
PB: I guess Wyeth’s early works were done in watercolors, what were your early accordions drawn in? Don’t tell me alphabet soup and Velveeta, uh, cheese?
NP: Probably a mixture of chewed up crayola and snot.
PB: In much of the poetry that PageBoy publishes, the emphasis seems to be on form (music, sound) over content (narrative, meaning). At the very least form informs content rather than vice versa, though of course each must color the other. Can you talk about how narrative develops in your work, i.e. the play of form (color, line, etc.) and content?
NP: It’s usually very organic. I’m definitely more of a drawer than a painter, and I don’t think about colors much until the drawing is completely laid out. It’s pretty simple, I just try to choose interesting colors, and to use color to accent what I feel are the important parts of the drawing.
PB: So do you feel that when you start drawing a story develops, or do you have a certain narrative in mind, and draw toward that end? And how would you describe the relationship in your work between line and narrative?
NP: It completely depends on the drawing. Sometimes I already have a narrative in mind before I start drawing, and sometimes I sketch aimlessly until I start to see something appear. I tend to work on all my pieces for a show at the same time, so they all influence each other and become part of the same story line.
PB: Which artists do you look to as a painter, and in what way?
NP: In the last two years I’ve been more inspired by the natural world than other artists. Portland is such a lush, green place that it’s hard not to be influenced by that. The aquarium in SF, the museum of natural history down in LA… For some of the concept art I did for a comic, I took colors from a king tut exhibit (black, gold, turquoise and pale yellow). But some of my “core artists” that I’ve consistently looked to have been Andrew Wyeth, Georgia O’ Keefe and Jeff Wall.
PB: And I guess the last question is, how do you keep rabbits out of your garden? Do you let them in every once in awhile to see how they influence the work you happen to be working on, or do you have a more cloistered approach?
NP: You’ll have to ask my fake byline, which I will never reveal!