EK Interview: Joel Daniel Phillips


The work of Joel Daniel Phillips is as beautiful and detailed as it is meaningful.  His illustrations depicting homeless and indigent individuals humanize a normally ignored class of the population, as visible as they are forgotten, Joel forces us to face what is around us every day but we do not see.  You can see two of his pieces currently at 111 Minna as part of the Empty Kingdom Art Show that goes through July.  Check it out if you have a moment!

You’re currently driving through Colorado, on your way to Taos, where does your mind go in the silent moments?

It’s actually been wonderful thinking about nothing in particular, allowing my mind to drift. The past few months have been more than hectic, and I’ve found myself depending on the mantra “worry about that when you get to it” more than I’d like. Driving through the open, empty space of Utah and Wyoming on my way to Colorado was a spiritual balm. Nothing to think about but but the road.


Are you a fast driver?

Ha. I’d say I’m middling-fast. I generally only drive when I’m running errands. Recently I’ve been trying to break the bad habit of thinking of any time outside of the studio as wasted, so I probably tend to speed a bit. However, this trip was a change and I found myself enjoying simply driving. Perhaps a bit over the speed limit, (as the kindly State Patrol Officer in Wyoming told me). Happily I was just given a warning.


Do you ever imagine yourself driving off bridges?

Simple answer: yes. More so jumping off when I’m high up and alone. There is something deliciously tempting about the possibility of complete freedom when standing on the edge of a precipice. I’m generally not depressed by any means, it’s more the possibility of the unknown.


‘No Regrets in Life’ is one of your series, your subjects are homeless men and women, removed from society in some ways, more visible in that they are in public so often. You recently quit your day job to become a full time artist and now get to divert your full energies and passion to your art. How do you think your actions have paralleled those of your subjects?

This is a wonderful question. It makes me think about the juxtaposition of choice and homelessness, a question that is by no means a small enough to cover here. However, I’ve met a significant number of houseless individuals who, at least in part, have chosen that path. I think there is an attraction in complete freedom, cutting oneself away from the chores and responsibilities that standard participation in society entails and worrying only about the next place to sleep and the next meal.

However, the fact that there is choice involved by no means negates many of the obstacles many homeless people face regarding participation in ‘normal’ society.

I think there is some sort of parallel between my subjects and myself, in that I’ve chosen a path that many might see as countercultural, and that I’ve chosen to chase after this despite financial obstacles. Particularly, I enjoy the comparison in that the center of my decision to become of an artist is rooted in my drive to fully define for myself what activities are valuable and which aren’t. I stepped back from graphic design because I was tired of being told what to create and how to create it. Creating fine art for a living may be the one of the most autonomous forms of career that currently exists.


Was your name for the series ironic at all?

‘No Regrets in Life’ was actually chosen a bit spontaneously. The text was emblazoned on one of the subjects in the series’ hats. (Kenny, 2013). A good friend and member of an art critique group in which I was participating at the time insisted that I change the title from what had been “Anonymity and Ambiguity” to the text from Kenny’s cap. I didn’t realize until later how deeply the text happened to connect with that I was interested in.


Do you feel stereotyped at all being an artist?

Rarely do I feel negatively stereotyped, but to be honest most of my social circle is connected to the arts in some way. My friends who aren’t have been incredibly supportive and while they may not inherently understand the drive to create, have gone out of their way to connect with my world.

When I first decided that I wanted to be a fine artist however, I definitely felt pressure from my family to choose a career path that they would see as financially valid. I actually created a body of work about the experience (see ‘Les Dessins’, 2011). Don’t worry, we have since come to a very comfortable and mutually supportive place around it.


You currently have a backlog of commissions, how does that feel?

Simultaneously stressful and reassuring. When commissions first started coming in I found them to be a wonderful respite from standard gallery work where I didn’t have any guarantee of a paycheck. However, being booked out significantly in advance has made me feel pressured to stay on a particular schedule. Perhaps more frustrating, it’s made it hard to plan time for exhibition work and other areas of my art practice, as so much time has been spent on commissioned work. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy commissions, but often I would rather spend my time on the work that I find most fascinating, which at the moment is ‘No Regrets in Life’


How do your commissioned pieces compare to the series that you do? How do commissions feel compared to series from a creative aspect? Do you think there is as much of you in your commissions as in a series that you have to come up with and carry out on your own?

Commissioned work has been all over the place recently, from rendering a version of a famous Chinese oil painting in charcoal to basic portraiture of subjects close to the collector. Most of my personal work is focused on a particular subset of society – individuals who allow me to peek underneath the veil and gain an unprojected sense of who they are. This vulnerability is a hard thing to find in most people, and hence I sometimes find the process of drawing a commission less interesting. However, it totally depends on the subject and their intent and interaction.

The commissions that I find the most enjoyable are ones where a collector connects with a part of my main body of work and we work together to find subject matter that is fascinating to both of us.

For example, more than a year ago I was sitting on a milk crate talking to my friend Robert. In the midst of the conversation he paused, pointed over my shoulder to the downtown San Francisco sidewalk, and asked: “do you see that horse?” At that exact moment the unforgettable scent of alfalfa struck my nose. I turned, impossibly expecting that there would somehow be a horse on the busy sidewalk at the corner of 6th and Mission. I didn’t see one, but I’m still not sure whose sense of reality was correct. I’d been wanting to do a drawing of Robert exploring the tension between reality and perception ever since I had this experience, and when the collector heard me tell this story he immediately wanted to commission the work. In January I finished the piece and it’s my largest drawing to date (Robert with a Horse, 2013-14) measuring in 72x100inches. I’m still incredibly grateful, and hope that more commissions of this sort happen in the future.


How does the security of the two differ and do you think that factors into the final product?

Interesting question. With commissions, there is a guarantee of a paycheck at the end. Generally with gallery work there isn’t any guarantee as I’m only paid when the pieces sell.

In a funny way, this security might actually be problematic. It makes it easier to settle for work that isn’t quite as strong. Generally I only consider a drawing finished when I have to move on to the next work, I rarely have the luxury of sitting back and tinkering for months. Hence, when a paycheck is guaranteed and I have another deadline fast approaching, I have to push back against the temptation to say ‘good enough’ and let the work speak for itself as to whether it’s finished.


Tell us about the pieces you’re sending to the Minna show. What have you done with them that you haven’t before? What was your goal going into the pieces? How do you think your finished pieces represent that goal?

For Empty Kingdom’s summer show I created two pieces that are part of a very new body of work. It’s been amazing having the feeling of an explorer again – not knowing what will happen with each new mark I make. At the beginning of the year I began playing around with a new approach to rendering where I draw the image on multiple layers of semi-transparent vellum. The areas I draw on each layer are chosen randomly, creating an organic, dreamlike sensibility. Once finished, the layers are framed in a self-contained lightbox, allowing for a greater depth of detail from layer to layer.

I’m fascinated with the way our sense of other individuals is based on layers of experience and interaction, where each new experience simultaneously adds to and obscures the moments before. I wanted to find a process that physically and visually allowed me to explore this idea.


In what ways have they fallen short, reached or even surpassed that goal?

The body of work is still very new – the Empty Kingdom show was the first time any pieces from it have been exhibited. I’m happy in a lot of ways with the drawings, or I wouldn’t have let them leave the studio. That said, I think for the next works in the series I’m going to try and loosen up even more and force myself not to consciously choose what bits are drawn on what layer and how they interact. I feel like I want to go deeper into the organic sense of how the layers interact and let the process decide for itself what the final image looks like.


What are you working on now with your art?

As of this writing I’m holed up in a beautiful adobe studio in Taos, New Mexico, listening to a thunderstorm and enjoying the first week of a 2.5 month residency at the Helene Wurlizter Foundation. I’m going to be taking the time here to focus entirely on work for my upcoming September solo show with Hashimoto Contemporary in San Francisco.

I’m halfway through my third life-size drawing for the exhibition, and am currently working on a new rendering of a subject I’ve attempted to capture several times before – Spaceman O.T. The reference image came out of a wonderful interaction, during the course of which he proceeded to pull a straw broom out of his wheelchair and sweep the sidewalk with more pizzaz than a broadway performer.

The show will consist of at least 6 life-size drawings, several smaller works and a couple of layered vellum pieces.


What are you working on with yourself? How do you see these two things playing off each other and expressing one another in your work?

Funny enough, I was just talking about this with someone. I’ve realized recently that I have a tendency that many passionate, creative people have – sometimes I get so excited about what I’m trying to say that I forget to deeply listen to the people I’m attempting to talk to, or in my case, capture. Recently I’ve been trying to step back from any preconceived idea of how a conversation should go with a potential subject and allow the interaction to be fully self-evolving. I’ve realized that my work is more interesting the less I attempt to define it and the more backstage I become to my subjects. In a nutshell I’m trying to shut the hell up and listen more. This is resulting in more variety in pose and interaction with the viewer in my work, but most particularly I hope it results in deeper honesty.


Is there anything that you feel you don’t get asked about in interviews that you want to talk about?

If it weren’t Empty Kingdom asking the questions I might have a different answer, but you guys ask the best damn questions. So I guess not.


What are your passions? How are you realizing them with your work and with your life?

Would you hate me if I said drawing? Haha, the obvious aside, I’ve recently been attempting to get outside of the studio more. I’ve become aware of how many things I used to enjoy that I no longer take the time to do. Particularly outdoor activities – I love to rock climb and hike. The past couple of years I’ve turned into a bit of a vampire, only venturing out of my studio and night. I’m working on changing this and maybe getting a bit of a tan in the process. It’s been great so far, and I’ve feel like the work has come more easily when I allow myself to step back occasionally.


What do you think artists and galleries and the arts community can and need to do to become more relevant in and integral to society?

I’m supposed to answer this without getting anyone mad at me? Geeze.

There’s a lot to talk about here. One thing I get frustrated with regarding the art-world actually comes down to communication. So much of the art touted as ‘the best’ that’s been created in the past few decades has been a direct product of post-modern philosophy. I love the freedom that came with post-modernism as much as the next artist – thanks to my predecessors I have the autonomy to decide what ‘art’ is. Art is what I say it is, or anyone else for that matter. Hand in hand with this carte blanche has been the prominent idea that the quality of art comes entirely from the concept it conveys.

While this is a certainly a blatant simplification, these two prominent philosophies have resulted in a lot of art that the average person doesn’t really give a shit about. In this atmosphere, there is a pressure to create work that is valid because mostly it says something new, rather than because it connects with the viewer. To quote Robert Heinlein,

“art is the process of evoking pity and terror. What modern artists do is pseudo-intellectual masturbation. Creative art is intercourse in which the artist renders emotional his audience.” (Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land)

While I might step back from the intensity of Heinlein’s frustration, much of his critique rings true for me. At the root, I do feel like the role of the artist is to speak into the world around them. However, this involves speaking a language that an audience can respond to. I believe that the artist has the responsibility to make the viewer care about their work. At the moment, it seems to me that the much of the art-world isn’t doing a particularly good job of this. Heinlein goes on,

“it’s up to the artist to use language that can be understood. Most of these jokers don’t want to use language you or I can learn. They would rather sneer because we failed to see what they are driving at. If anything. Obscurity is the refuge of incompetence.” (Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land)

Again, I’m not quite as virulent in my critique as Heinlein is. But I do think that I’m pretty tired of being force-fed the same overtly conceptual, academic ideation that the modern art-world churns out in droves.

I want to make art that forces the viewer to care about it, that strikes at something deeper, something common to everyone. Not just people with a degree in Art History.

***Addendum: Now that I’m down off my soapbox, I want to apologize to past Art Theory professors for basing my critique of contemporary art off of a quote from a Science Fiction novel. This is obviously my take on things, and people probably shouldn’t take it too seriously.


What is the coolest place you have stopped on your trip so far? What did you like about it and what brought you there?

I’m not very good at stopping on road trips. In fact, I pretty much only stopped for pee-breaks, gas and sleep between San Francisco and Colorado. I did drive through some beautiful country though, and I spent a wonderfully rejuvenating few days in Fort Collins, CO with old friends before heading on to Taos.