Proud2Bme | Meet the Artist: Phoebe Wahl

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Meet the Artist: Phoebe Wahl

By Emma Shakarshy--Some body positive art makes you feel warm inside, glowing and full. Phoebe Wahl's art makes me feel just that, alive and connected to myself. An artist currently living in Bellingham, Washington, Phoebe graduated from Rhode Island School of Design in 2013 with BFA in illustration.

She is a passionate feminist & environmentalist, loyal friend, enthusiastic dancer, creator, lover, hiker and snacker. Phoebe is a frequent contributor and this year’s cover artist for Taproot magazine and her first children’s book, Sonya’s Chickens, will be published August 11th, 2015 by Tundra Books. I was so lucky to chat with Phoebe about her incredible artwork, feminism, and self-love.

Emma Shakarshy: How would you describe your art?

Phoebe Wahl: Folky, textural images exploring tender, intimate interactions between people and nature, or between families, lovers and self. I’m greatly inspired by the landscapes of the Pacific Northwest where I grew up, and the free spirited, earthy childhood I experienced there.

ES: What is your definition of body positivity?

PW: I think it is holding on to the core value that my worth does not lie in my physical features. It is a process of restructuring my vocabulary and actions surrounding my body to not only be radically positive, but that also rewards honesty and vigilance and sees vulnerability as strength rather than weakness.

It is being gentle and patient with myself, because truly loving, sustainable relationships are a two steps forward, one step back process. It is HARD work maintaining an appreciative and honest relationship with yourself. Above all it’s about trusting myself. Sometimes I breach my own trust and have to rebuild. But then again, sometimes my own strength and beauty will impress me beyond what I thought possible.

ES: Why do you create body positive art? What inspires your pieces?

PW: I think at its root, my own body is what I know how to draw best, because I look at it every single day. So whether the work I’m making is labeled as ‘body positive art’ or not, the female figures in my paintings usually have a fullness to them that is reflective of my own reality, and my own hunger to feel normalized in media. It’s a way of recording and processing my own relationship with my body. My original “Practice Radical Self Love” painting was something I drew in my sketchbook as a little mantra, a reminder to myself.

I was so blown away once I put that image up on my blog, how excitedly people responded. How thirsty so many women are for bodies that resemble their own to be given a space, a voice. The feedback I receive from women astounds me, I feel so humbled and so touched when I get a message about an image I created playing a positive role in someone’s body journey. It reminds me of the first time I saw Lena Dunham’s character naked on Girls, I was so surprised how moved and empowered I felt. It took me 21 years as a white, middle class, cis woman to see a body that looked even remotely like mine on television. I cannot begin to imagine how deeply failed and completely marginalized I would feel by media if I identified as anything else.

ES: What do you hope people will feel or think when they see your art?

PW: I hope it evokes emotions people can relate to, feelings of tenderness, joy, strength, comfort or vulnerability. If all my work does is remind you of a person, place, book, toy or moment you once loved, then to me it is a success.

ES: Tell me a little bit about your own body journey.

PW: I’ve carried a lot of insecurity for as long as I can remember about my weight. It never ceases to amaze me how easily I can trace the roots of my shame. That no matter how sheltered I was from most media, how active, healthy and staunchly feminist my upbringing, the culture of fat-shaming is so rampant and toxic that it only takes a small handful of painful experiences to make a serious crack in a child’s foundation of confidence. Praise, love, and support begin to weigh less against the heft of negative feedback spewed by so many. In spite of all messages received to the contrary, I grew up thinking that somewhere I had taken a wrong turn and that’s why I was heavier than other kids around me. That I should punish myself, in some way for being bigger, that it aligned me with all sorts of vices, that I wasn’t desirable, when being ‘desired’ in itself was an abstract and foreign concept.

However, though turbulent, my relationship with my body has never been my everything. My insecurities run deep and close to many nerves, looking back I feel that in general I never let the seeds of shame overpower me and my identity as a whole. I think that had much to do with the fact that I was unschooled and spent vast amounts of time by myself, free to explore who I was in relation to the world around me. I spent all my time running wild in my back yard, playing dress up and drawing. I was trusted with ample time and space to develop a confidence in myself and my passions that can only be born from years of hard work, only boosted by high expectations. I think having that intense focus and the constant affirmations in regards to my art from my community helped me develop a set of values in myself that didn’t rank my appearance as most important. So that even still on bad days when I can’t bring myself to wear the shorts I want to wear because I can’t deal with the way my thighs look in them, I still have plenty to be proud of and work for.

I’ve watched the women in my work evolve along with my relationship with my own body. They have become fuller, softer, fiercer than they once were. In my height of middle school-aged angst and body shame, I drew emaciated, mysterious and angry women, because that’s what I wanted to be. Now I look no further than my current work to see how comfortably I have settled into my relationship with my body. I am the women in my work; strong, warm and earthy. Wide hips, hairy armpits, rosy cheeks. They impress me with their wise acceptance of themselves as they are, and then remind me that they are that way because I am. Drawing bodies that look like my own is like sighing with relief, putting myself on paper gives me nowhere to hide both my shame, and my strength.

ES: If you could transform the media, what would you change?

PW: I would want to see a complete dismantling of the media structure as it exists today, fueled by capitalism and sexism and racism, of greed and fear. I guess a more immediately manageable change would just be to see a much broader and diverse range of voices and perspectives being LOUDLY and FIERCELY represented. A focus on positivity and equality, an end to fear mongering and policing of bodies. I think we would need to see big changes in our country as a whole, to see truly meaningful change in media though. A complete re-prioritization of what is important; a social and political movement to uphold health and happiness of humans and our habitats as sacred.

ES: What’s one piece of advice you would give to young body positive activists?

PW: To exist unapologetically, honestly and vulnerably in this world is to be an activist. The traps to succumb to self hate are inescapable. Society INVESTS in us hating ourselves, one of the most powerful ways to stick it to the system is to decide that’s just not an option, that hate is a waste of time and you’ve got bigger things to do. Self love and self care are not selfish acts, choosing to love yourself indefinitely and unapologetically is a radical choice that strengthens the climate of justice and positivity in our communities as a whole!

For more body positive art, check out: 

Fat Ladies in Spaaaaace

Meet the Artist: Vanessa Papastavros

Cosmic Cuties

The Body Hair Project

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