Phoenix Herring: A Multidisciplinary Artist


Phoenix Herring is a multidisciplinary artist working primarily in drawing, printmaking, and sculpture. She received her BA in Visual Arts from Rutgers University in 2020 with a minor in English Literature. Herring’s work examines the spectral qualities of experience, memory, and history. Her interest in liminal states of being become materialized through the use of symbols, which function as entry points for the viewer based on their collective representations. Herring references memories and research in the objects she constructs, viewing her work as situated in the space between a diary and a palimpsest. She invites viewers to become entangled within her labyrinthine constructs, spaces where they become confronted with various aspects of the human condition in ways both lucid and just beyond reach. She lives in New Jersey where she currently works as a freelance illustrator.

You can contact Phoenix at phoenix.herring@gmail.com

Phoenix Herring, multidisciplinary artists, talks about her art practice with Char O’Dair-Gadler for Indie Arts Montclair.

I AM: You and I have known each other since third grade, since you came to Montclair, and I can remember you being a very talented drawer back then. Could you talk about your early interest in drawing, and how that developed into what you do today?

Phoenix Herring: It probably all started with my mom introducing me to the world of anime and manga. I instantly felt some sort of magnetic connection to how each of the characters were flushed out in terms of their personalities, quirks, and for a 11 year old me--what they wore. Being a little awkward kid, I always had a hard time expressing myself, so I loved worldbuilding and immersing myself in fantasy. It started with me trying to replicate these characters I developed connections to, learning “how can I render this or that character I have in my head?”. I studied a lot of manga that I would get from the Montclair Book Center--literally anything I saw that looked cute, or involved knights, sword fighting, and magic. As I was reading more narratives, I became interested in writing my own. I always liked the idea of having half of it be about me, and half of it be totally fictitious. My mom would talk about how the characters that I was making kind of seemed like they were about me, but she wasn’t quite certain. I always liked that, and feel like I kept that going with that through the years in different ways.

I AM: You are a multidisciplinary artist, what different types of media do you work in?

PH: Everything started with drawing, and drawing was the thing that I worked at the most. I did end up going to art school, but not until much later. I was majoring in English, and then I tacked on an IT major as well, so for a while I was just drawing in my dorm room, drawing in class, creepily drawing people on the bus, and jotting down ideas I had for future dream projects. Once [I started studying art] I had exposure to different art forms that I had been interested in, particularly printmaking, which felt like the next step [from drawing]. I’ve also found a home in sculpture. Before, I had all these preconceived notions about what sculpture was, who was making sculpture-- like, Greek statuary for example. Metalworking has been the thing I’m most drawn to and have the most fun doing since I’m still able to draw just in a new dimension. Video is something that I’m trying to pursue a little bit more. I’ve made a few videos accumulating footage from YouTube and compiling it in a fragmented way. I want to explore this more, since film is so important to the imagery that I’m working with in general.

I AM: When discussing your work, you use the term “palimpsest” a lot--writing material where the original writing has been effaced or erased to make room for later writing but traces of the original remain. Why is the “palimpsest” so important to you and how does it manifest aesthetically in your work?

PH: In my drawing process, I cross a lot of things out, and what I’m crossing out to me is just as important as what I’m replacing it with, which for me is what’s interesting about the palimpsest--those traces that can still be deciphered but not in their entirety. This correlates with my interest in memory as well, since oftentimes I’m not only working with memories I can clearly recall but those at the furthest peripheries of my mind. Also-I don’t like erasing. With drawing, I like erasing, since I’m very obsessive--but I keep certain sketchbooks designated for my scrawl. Usually a good amount of it isn’t coherent, but sometimes I’m jotting down words, phrases, and small doodles. I’ll also take note of what time I’m working (usually what wee hour of the morning I’m stopping) and how I’m feeling, just as a general record as I’m working through executing a concept. The process is pure chaos, but I like it that way. I’ve made a comfortable home for myself in between palimpsestic and diaristic work because while I do want to insert myself into a work sometimes I don’t want everything to be immediately accessible. Some things I intentionally leave vague, some become clarified, and usually these decisions are made as I go. I guess an aspect of this intentional obfuscation is for when I’m making work about something that leaves me feeling vulnerable, but I still feel like I need to express it. No matter what I’m making, I use art to process what I’m going through, and in general feel like I learn a lot from other artists based on how they are processing and deciding to express what they’re navigating.

I AM: In your drawings and metal sculpture, there are some recurring motifs, maze or labyrinth-like structures, ladders going nowhere, and long, dark corridors. I was wondering about your use of these motifs and how this relates to your interest in liminal space.

PH: I view symbols like ladders and the mazes as markers of liminality, objects that signify the transition from a point A to point B. In-betweenness is something I’m always thinking about, primarily in-between states of being, the self in transition more and more into who they truly are. When it came to my work, I found myself dwelling more about the non-contemporaneity of the present, wanting to embrace these discomfort states because ultimately this transition ends in new growth. Mazes and ladders were some symbols that immediately came to mind, alongside stairs, which are only engaged with to pass on to a new location or territory. The mazes and the ladders I make are never perfect, and are often personalized because all of them are connected to a certain memory or set of memories from one point in my life or those I have been told in the form of stories by my family members. In a way they’re all material self-portraits.

I was also always really interested in non-functionality, so I began to play around with these forms in a way where they became more difficult to, theoretically, navigate. You walk in, but you can’t get out. So, you just go back in this loop. Sometimes a lot of life can be cyclical in this way, and you find yourself stuck in the middle. You’re on the precipice of new change, new growth, and new understanding of you as you exist in the world, but the loop isn’t quite broken. For me, it was total acceptance and self-love that I had been working towards--and still am. That’s where those symbols started.

Then I read House of Leaves, with one aspect of that text being the corridor that’s ever expanding. The ever expanding discomfort that occurs within spaces / states that continue to change--that was fascinating to me. That text itself is a maze all on its own.

A lot of things become unclear in states of great change, but I am really interested in embracing the discomfort and not just seeking a resolution out of it. Just embracing the ambiguity, the general vagueness of that in-between liminal space.

“Mama’s Touch”

I AM: I’m curious about your kinetic sculptures, “Mama’s Touch” a machine-like sculpture which braids hair, and “Fluid Course”, a maze like metal structure intertwined with a metal tube that runs water through it into a basin. When did you get interested in making sculptures that move? How did you accomplish this, and why was it important for these pieces in particular to move?

PH: For “Mama’s Touch”, we got an assignment in the first sculpture class I was ever able to take where we had to design a hybrid. I had been thinking about memory as usual, since it plays such a central part in my work. I was thinking about the experience of having my hair braided by my mom and how vivid that memory still remains in my mind. I wanted to create a sculpture that fell somewhere in between the physical, in-the-world experience of getting my hair braided and some sort of machine that could potentially exist in the future that would try and automate that process. I had a good friend from class interact with it rather than me, because I wanted to insert someone else into this experience. Parts of it were very strange, people were telling me, which I kind of enjoyed. I had hair suspended from the ceiling, where the hands could touch it, but the hands were made of plaster and set on steel rods, so they couldn’t actually grasp it. It was this kind of in-between place of knowing what it is supposed to do and having an understanding of how this machine operates, but what makes this memory personal and intimate --the figure of my mother--is absent. Her presence is alluded to by the suspended synthetic hair and the grown hands with dark red nails (a color she often wore), but a lot is off, like what would be off about trying to automate this process to begin with.

“Fluid Course”- that piece, I was thinking a lot in the context of liminality and how certain elements are viewed in dichotomous relationships in terms of material. We had all this metal, and I was really excited working with that, so I was wondering “how do I invert that?”. What would, if entered into a relationship with metal, generate a kind of harmonious dissimilarity? PVC- it's malleable, flexible, it's cold. While the steel that I was welding together gets very hot, it's hard and it's rigid usually unless you're bending it using heat,if you're working vertilinearly. I sort of wanted to focus on the harmony within that dichotomous relationship, because I don't really believe in binaries at all. I don't like how items are sort of viewed as one or the other, so I wanted to intertwine them. That's why I literally have to PVC wound around that piece along this trajectory, a trajectory [which represents] sort of coming to being, coming to acceptance of who you are as a person. This is my first entry into trying to obscure things that I didn't feel comfortable sharing within the work itself. I took the PVC with water running through it in this irrigation system to represent a cyclicality that occurs within the in-between. But, there is also an exit point, the water flows into a basin so it's resolved as opposed to my mazes, which often cannot be resolved.

I AM: You're exploring your own memory and identity as part of your work , but you're also exploring those ideas of “memory” and “identity” as concepts. A ghost is this amazing symbol… like the palimpsest, the ghost is the trace of a person that’s died.

PH: Thinking in the context of a horror or sci-fi movie, for example, there's like a trace of something that's unknown whether that's paranormal or fantastical-- there’s traces of the other in the moment of suspense where you don't know what's going to happen next. I was really drawn to the waiting and waiting and waiting to see what’s going to happen.

I AM: Tell me about the use of color and monochrome in your work. For the most part you utilize black and white, and when color does show up, it makes this big statement.

PH: Growing up on manga and comics, I didn't really like using color at all and I avoided

it at all costs for a really long time. Then I was trying to evaluate what place color could play in my work because I was interested in the symbolism associated with colors. When I'm mapping out all my ideas for a piece I'll think about my personal associations with a color and also think about how people have different associations with colors. Like the one piece that uses red “Dichotomous”, for example, I was thinking both about blood and about passion. When I was speaking about this work to other people a lot said one or the other so I was interested in our differing associations. When I'm working in terms of value I’m mostly just thinking about gradation as a tool and always referring back to the ideas of liminality… If I’m working with high contrast like I want you to hyper focus on the elements that are in the drawing. With that Swan drawing for example, there was nothing else there. I just wanted people to look and notice the details of the feather and focus on the shadow. With the like the sort of hyper detailed horror vacui with a million different little markings, I am trying to hide things so it takes you a bit longer to see. That comes with the [question] of am I concealing my concept using symbolism or am I literally hiding it in the bushes of a labyrinth in a drawing where you have to search and search as if you're walking through the Labyrinth to find it.

I AM: You’ve said Jacques Derrida and Mark Fisher’s writings on the concept of hauntology are highly influential to your work. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about your other influences- artists, films, writers, etc.?

PH: Beloved by Toni Morrison is a huge inspiration of mine-- since usually most of my inspiration for work comes from books I’m reading or films I’m watching, although there’s definitely a long list of visual artists I love, like Junji Ito and Julie Mehretu. Just engaging a text like Beloved that made me feel so deeply and so many different things is an experience that really made me want to create in some way. I recently reread it when I was working on final projects for school. I was making work all about sort of delving into gaps in memory and Black history more generally by focusing in on more of my own family history. At this time I had found information about this cemetery in South Carolina where a number of my relatives were buried, and while my nana Celia had never met many of them just reading off those names out loud and knowing where their final resting place is was very important to me. My nana grew up in the rural South in the middle of nowhere with many brothers and sisters, and growing up there were so many gaps in the stories that she would tell me. While I’ve been able to discover new information through research and speaking with other relatives a lot still remains unanswered and will just forever be experienced in fragments. To speak more broadly about African diasporic peoples, our family histories have often either been systematically erased or were just not viewed as being worth preservation to begin with. While all the pieces aren’t there, the act of storytelling itself has been a tool of bringing my family together as we continue to create new memories.

So this decision to re-read Beloved really came at the best time, in particular because of the central aspect of the text which is the idea of rememory--this afterlife of slavery that Sethe can’t quite escape. In thinking a lot about the spectral aspects of existence I always find myself dwelling on traces of the past, whether a pleasant memory from childhood or trauma, that manifest in ways sometimes so subtle and others so visceral, as if you’ve been transported back in time. These traces are everywhere in that book, in particular encased in the very architecture of 124 or the emerald closet. That book really left a mark on me. I had read it in high school but I don't know if I was ready for it…I think I had a lot of growing to do.

Some other big inspirations for me include mostly films, like Daughters of the Dust, Stalker, and The Exterminating Angel. Neon Genesis Evangelion and Uzumaki by Junji Ito are very important to me as well, with Uzumaki really influencing my drawing style itself. And, spirals!

I AM: Is there anything else you would like to add?

PH: I have finished pieces obviously, but I feel like all my ideas are continually changing and expanding just like I am. For me, art is one of the only ways I can make sense of how I’m feeling or what I’m thinking, especially during this present moment when we all are grappling with the COVID-19 crisis, the popular uprisings for Black Liberation, and generally navigating or witnessing the system fail us--like we knew it would. While everything feels up in the air, I’m especially grateful to be able to enjoy art from people through social media, whether that be art from friends and peers, or that of people I don’t know but follow. Just being able to witness how people are engaging with and expressing themselves at this time has mitigated immense feelings of isolation and been motivating as well.

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