Street Art Profiles is a series profiling the artists who make our communities beautiful and inspire us to think, move, create, love and learn. Do you ever wonder how they create the stunning murals we see? Or what inspires the art? Learn more about the artists behind the walls in this Runstreet special series.
It's no secret that I'm a big street art fan and Instagram nerd, and when I stumbled across an enigmatic collage character on posts and walls around NYC, I instantly had to do some Insta-digging to find out more about this little woman making big statements in the street. I wasn't the only one fascinated by Phoebe New York, I realized, seeing her thousands of comments, likes and followers on a very active IG. Phoebe and her creator artist Libby Schoettle indeed charm, mystify, inspire and ultimately engage us as we follow Phoebe's adventures in love, loss, disappointment, risk, reward, seduction and modern living. With her complex and sometimes contradictory statements, and her friendly and playful IG comments, Phoebe quickly became one of my favorite street art and IG characters.
When I come across Phoebe New York during a run or when I'm out walking in SoHo or the East Village, I always have to stop and snap a picture (some of which are below), and I go on with a spring in my step, feeling like I'm a little less alone in the chaos of NYC, life and love. Indeed Phoebe's steps forward, backwards, sideways, and pauses to question are so relatable that she feels like a very real person. I am very excited to bring you this interview with the creator of such a vibrant, 3-dimensional character.
Here is our interview. Thank you so much Libby for taking the time to answer my million questions:)
How long have you been creating art for?
I’ve considered myself an artist since 2001. I grew up in an artistic family, though. My grandparents were both artists who met at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in Philadelphia, so art resonated strongly with me even as a child. The freedom and beauty it served to fill loneliness I could never explain, but I felt happy with a purpose when I was drawing or making things. I feel that way now when I’m creating art.
What led you to become an artist?
I don’t think art is something you can plan; I think it’s something you find yourself doing one day and years later you realize you’re in something that is real and true.
Phoebe initially began as a character in the memoir I began writing in 2001. At that time, I don’t think I would have been confident enough to say I was truly a writer, or truly an artist. I didn’t think I was one or the other, but it felt right to do the two things together. In fact, I didn’t even realize I was making art until I started showing people what I was doing and they referred to it as art. I didn’t think it was possible that something I loved doing could be considered a job. I didn’t think it was possible that something I loved doing could be considered my work.
What did you do before art?
I am overly aware we are only here a short time and I have always believed from a young age there was something destined for me. I have had more jobs than I can I count, constantly searching. I was always good at things and have a strong work ethic, but never felt real passion until I discovered art.
For example, I worked on film sets just out of college (film production was my major). I had a job at a talent agency, later a casting agency, both very good agencies - and I’m sure had I stuck with it I could have been a successful agent with a stable career by now.
Art is not stable, this is its one fault: it’s not a guarantee, and yet I try not to think about stability or guarantees. I devote myself to it fully, day by day, it is my life. It is as if I have been in a trance, looking back I have little memory of how I got here.
Phoebe seems very New York. Are you from NYC?
Haha, thank you! I love New York, of course I hate it too. But I must live here, because the energy (like electricity) drives me. I am not from New York, I am from Pennsylvania where I grew up on a farm. I was petrified of cities and people as a child, so it’s the most ironic thing in the world that I, a shy person, end up here up in the one of the biggest and craziest cities in the world. At the same time makes all the sense: opposites attract.
How did Phoebe come about?
Slowly! Phoebe has been a process, like raising a child. She started quite primitively as just a square with an eye and small mouth and has gradually, over the years, grown into nearly a real person to me. Phoebe has provided me a place to disappear and yet show myself as well. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m thinking or feeling until I make something out of her. She evolves everyday and I try not to repeat, which is challenging when she experiences the same themes and routine, but then life is often about routine (and challenges it can bring).
Phoebe captures the complexities of modern love and romance so well. How much of her is based on your life?
Oh gosh, that’s a good question. I would say a lot is based on my love life, but also the absence of love life for me, so I’m drawing upon the fantasy of my subconscious.
I have feared love, feared being loved. Loving myself has been hard because I have been through many issues that have prevented me loving myself…If you can’t love yourself first it’s hard to let a man love you, therefore I’m seeking the impossible. It’s taken me years to realize it’s okay to be alone, in fact lately I have found it’s better.
And yet Phoebe is a romantic and a dreamer and so much of my art tries to find the beauty in this: the dream, and the magic of love one day. My artwork gives me the ability to put myself in as many situations as I want, with endless roles for Phoebe to play. I am many women and things to myself, and Phoebe becomes those women and things to me. I appreciate how some people on IG comment, “We are all Phoebe.”
As a woman in New York, I can definitely relate to Phoebe's struggles and confusion in love and dating, and I'm sure people everywhere can relate. What keeps Phoebe hanging on through the difficult times?
Thank you, it’s always nice to hear I’m not the only one! It often feels like you’re the only one - I’m sure to each one of us experiencing aloneness and frustration with love. It seems the more art I make as a result of my frustrating experiences from love, the more good experiences result from it.
An artist isn’t an easy person to have a relationship with. My relationship, I realize after many years, is to Phoebe (and to my writing and photography), and I am content with that. I don’t count on romantic love anymore as a reliable source for happiness, which means Phoebe doesn’t either.
Runners often have routines they perform before big races or hard workouts. Do you have a process for creating, anything that gets you in the mood to make art?
The truth is (as I recall with running) you really just need to show up, and then the focus happens…if you stand there long enough something is going to occur (if you run far enough you are going to get somewhere).
What have been some of Phoebe's biggest challenges?
Loving herself, liking herself, living her life, staying strong and letting go of expectations.
Fear is a HUGE challenge, and it’s Phoebe who allows me to jump into the dark—I never know where I am going with her but I am enjoying the journey.
When did Phoebe first appear on the street? How has this changed her? How has street art changed your art?
Phoebe’s foray into street art has been her number one change, and came about quite unintentionally. In 2014, I found myself looking around the city, really noticing stickers and wheatpastes. I remember thinking, “I wonder if my art could fit in out on the streets?” But I was really asking myself if I could fit out in the street. I thought it was a valid question as I am a rather introverted person who chooses to spend almost all my time creating art, alone, inside my apartment. I felt overwhelmed and very intimidated in the beginning.
I took a chance and began the adventure of getting out and putting stickers up, which quickly became a fun ongoing “social” activity through Instagram. I found stickers are an amazing way to show my art. The street organically becomes your gallery. Until I began to sticker, and later wheatpaste, I had no idea what impact repeated symbols on the street could have. I have received a tremendous amount of positive feedback from this side of the work (it’s hard to imagine what I’d be doing had I not found this crazy outlet), and am so excited when I find people have publicly posted pictures of Phoebe on Instagram. I hope for this to evolve further and hopefully continue to inspire.
As a writer, I noticed in school there were not many female authors that we studied, and the same with art. As a woman artist, have you experienced any obstacles?
I do feel strongly about the limited presence of serious women voices on the street, at least in terms of female artists and characters making artistic statements. Phoebe is about statements, and I believe she is both male and female in that both sexes can see themselves in her, and I am happy about that.
Phoebe touches on various underlying dynamics that are at play but aren’t readily discussed. I had one comment from a man the other day that took me by surprise when he said to me, ‘You’re pretty, you should use your looks to get ahead in your art.” In response, I thought “I don’t think I’m very pretty, and isn’t it the art that is supposed to be valued?” I have always had an insecurity based in the belief that you need to rely on your looks to get you in doors (for all kinds of jobs, even restaurants ask servers for headshots these days). When I found Phoebe, and my ability to comminute through her, I let go of the pressure I was putting on myself regarding my looks. I guess the artist’s allure and her art are both parts of the package some galleries seek, but I want to rely on my art--- not me and my appeal — to make it.
I'm excited that your work has been in the press a lot recently. What are some of your proudest accomplishments?
Thank you!! Yes, it’s been in the press!
I am just so happy that it’s getting out there and that people are understanding and wanting to learn and talk more about what I kept hidden for so long. For a long time, my art made me happy during troubling times but I wasn’t that confident about showing it. The only downside to the art getting attention these days is that I can put too many expectations on myself: I feel the need to keep up with my impossible standards. And if I don’t see myself keeping up, I tend to think I’m failing. That feeling is something I work into my art.
What projects are you working on right now?
Well, I have been working on a film project with director Jyll Johnstone of Canobie Films, that she plans to turn into a docu-series sometime soon. We’ve been shooting for three years now and she’s filmed me and my art evolving! I am also doing a few street projects and possibly a popup show at a high end NYC hotel this winter. Exploring new areas in my art is always my biggest project.
Where can we stay updated on Phoebe and your latest projects?
Instagram. I prefer Instagram to other social media platforms because it feels fast. I like its immediacy: people see things instantly.
Phoebe has a huge Instagram following and is so responsive to her fans! How does she keep up with it all?
Thank you!! I look very forward to reading what people say about something I have done and I also love emojis! (I think emojis will eventually run the world.)
I must say, I love when people make comments and I love to reply to people individually. I was taught from early on how to write thank you cards and the importance of them. I think one of the most important things in the world is recognizing an individual and acknowledging an appreciation for something they said or did.
I remember when I first began using IG and I only had 10 or 15 likes on a picture and maybe one comment. I was excited even then that someone, anyone, liked it. I am just so happy people are connecting; connection is what my art is about.