Artist Joel Daniel Phillips Talks About His Work

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A man with dark shoulder-length hair dressed in a t-shirt, white cutoff shorts, and slippers wears a blanket as a cape

Artist Joel Daniel Phillips, whose life-size drawing Dyos is on view on the title wall of the Ackland’s summer 2021 exhibition Drawing Attention, talked about his work, his process, and how he discovered drawing, in the following interview with the Ackland’s Ariel Fielding. Click on the arrows below to listen to Joel’s answers. Click on the transcript buttons to read along. Scroll down to see the whole drawing.

Tell me about how you met Dyos and other people depicted in this series of drawings. Did you already know them from your neighborhood, or did you approach them for the first time to ask to make their portraits?

How did I meet Dyos? Well, this is a body of work that I spent about seven years on, and it all started when I moved to an old warehouse in San Francisco that had, prior to that, been a sewing factory, and helped build it out into a live work clandestine art studio of sorts. This series of portraits started out with me wandering around the neighborhood that I had just moved into and trying to get to know my neighbors. The drawings were drawings of people that I met within 100 feet of my front door for the first several years of this series. It was all about me trying to dive into this space that I was was now a part of and get to know everyone in that neighborhood. And while it started initially sort of just as a personal exploratory project, it very quickly became about reversing the traditional relationship that portraiture has with society, where portraits are reserved for people at the top of society, for rich people, for you know, traditionally, royalty and so forth. The neighborhood that I found myself in in San Francisco was one where there was a lot of visible poverty, and so these portraits became about reversing that relationship and using this traditionally hierarchical process as a way of telling the stories and shedding light on individuals who I had gotten to know in my neighborhood.

Dyos’ was actually one of the last portraits in that series, and he was somebody that I met after I had begun to move away to Tulsa, Oklahoma for an art fellowship. I actually met him on my first trip back a couple months after leaving, and I went to say hi to some folks back in my old neighborhood, and I met him. I snapped a photograph with my iPhone and I ended up bringing that back to my studio and making this portrait. By the time I went back to San Francisco, I wasn’t able to track him down again. It was a big regret of mine, actually, that I wasn’t able to to find him again. So, yeah, it’s sort of a funny portrait to talk about, because it happened as I finished this series of work and as I was in the process of moving away, and I didn’t quite have the same connection with Dyos as I had with some of the other folks who I became very close with as part of this series.

What was your process for creating Dyos? Was there much conversation between you and Dyos, or some sort of process of establishing trust? Did he have a chance to see the finished work?

The process of creating the drawing was one of meditation. The process for me was, from the beginning, always about the process of observation. For me there’s there’s no better way of understanding something or someone then by taking the time to truly observe them physically and emotionally through the process of creating a portrait with a pencil or a piece of charcoal. For me, that process starts with an underdrawing, and then I basically work from the top left to the bottom right and finish the portrait as I go. In most cases with these large drawings, that process would take one to two weeks of drawing, and then it would be finished. As far as whether or not Dyos got to see the finished work, sadly, no, because this portrait came out of me visiting the neighborhood for one last time. As I was in the process of moving away, he never got to see the finished piece. It was actually created in Tulsa from that last photo shoot in San Francisco. I didn’t have any sort of contact information or availability to send him the finished piece. I’ve asked around and haven’t been able to connect with him in San Francisco, I’m sorry to say.

One thing that I find really phenomenal about your work is what you are able to do with graphite and charcoal. What is it that drew you to these materials and to your way of working?

What drew me to graphite and charcoal? To be honest, it was sort of something I fell into. I was in in college, I was studying graphic design, I didn’t study fine art. I did this off-campus “study abroad,” an off-campus program in New York — my school I went to is in Santa Barbara. And so on this program in New York, there was a studio art class, an open studio art class, and I had no idea what I wanted to make for this class. I’d come on the program for the internship side of it, and was interning with a fashion studio as a graphic designer. So I sort of was just throwing stuff at the wall, I mean quite literally. At one point I think I was dipping used tea bags in paint and throwing them at the wall, because I had no idea what I wanted to make, or even how to approach making “fine art,” if you can hear those air quotes. Someone gave me — a friend of mine was was at Pratt at the time, and she gave me a jar of charcoal pencils left over from an illustration class, and was like, “Maybe you should try drawing.” I did, and I very distinctly remember the moment where I sat down to make a drawing from a portrait photograph I’d taken. I sat down at like seven o’clock at night, and I didn’t get up from the chair until I’d finished the piece. I was so captured by the process. It was a terrible drawing, looking back, although at the time I thought it was, you know, the most incredible thing ever. And I remember I got up and I watched the sun rise over Manhattan from the roof of the studio building in Midtown, and I had a beer and a bagel, and I watched the sun come up and I said, “Well, shit, I’m doing the wrong thing. I need to to do this.” From that moment on, it was a process of trying to figure out how to do it, and of course of actually learning how to draw, because I didn’t know the first thing about it.

As far as what drew me to those materials, honestly I think it was really just one of those right place, right moment things. I immediately, when I first started drawing, loved charcoal, and I loved graphite. Because it was sort of a process of me teaching myself, for the most part, how to draw, I never had anyone tell me that you’re not supposed to mix charcoal and graphite, which is apparently a thing I learned later that you’re not supposed to do. But I always felt from that first moment that there was something about the process that connected with my way of thinking and my way of looking at the world.

It’s something that, ten years on, still, I’m delighted to wake up and do everyday. I think there’s something, like I said earlier, about the process of drawing that forces you, or forces me, excuse me, as the person making the work, to truly stop and look and meditate and to see things in a way that I would not otherwise. It’s become an indispensable part of my own mental health and way of questioning the world and looking at the world, and I think I think that process is an irreplaceable part of my my psyche at this point.

I’m fascinated by how you are able to convey light in your work. I have spent a fair bit of time in San Francisco, and I feel like, in Dyos, you capture the unique quality of light from that part of the world so vividly. How do you approach or think about light in your work?

That’s that’s a really lovely question, and I’m very flattered to hear that you think I captured that particular sense of light. I agree San Francisco has a truly unique light to it, as a space, and the way that the light hits people and buildings in that city is one-of-a-kind. As far as how I approach light, the process with these portraits was very much a collaborative one, in the sense that I never wanted to tell anyone how to stand or how to pose, because for me, these portraits were all about letting this this other human be who they were and trying to capture this little slice of who they were. So I would never tell anyone you know, “Stick your hand out,” or, “Pose this way,” or do any of that, but I would tell people to turn until the light hit them in a way that it crossed their their face, in particular. So that for me, as a draftsman, there would be a sense of volume and a sense of shape and form with where the shadows landed versus where the highlights hit. So I would always try to get the portraits either shot in the morning or in the evening, when the light was at approximately a 45 degree angle, when the sun was hitting at that angle, and then tried to turn them so that they sort of faced partly into the light, but partly away so that there was a distinct shadow as well as a as a highlight on their their face.

I’m struck by the nobility and beauty that you find in people who are often invisible (or, as you say, people who are “dark matter in our communal space.”) What do you think the relationship is between what you’ve called “the voyeuristic tendencies toward the indigence surrounding us” and our willingness as viewers to participate in elevating forgotten people? Can those two things exist side-by-side?

Hoo, this is a tough question. I think that the tension that you’re speaking of, the tension between voyeurism and exploitation, and a narrative and learning about another person is one that inherently exists in this series of portraits. In fact, in a lot of ways, it was sort of — that tension was one of the reasons I’ve since chosen to stop this series of portraits. Because it’s unavoidable, and I personally believe that portraiture can be an incredible tool for one human to experience a slice, a snippet, a tidbit, a tiny bit of what it might be like to be in another person’s shoes. And that for me was what this series was all about. It was about removing these folks who were in a space in San Francisco where they were completely ignored, if not physically moved there — I often would experience moments where I would see cops telling homeless people to move to my street corner because it was the street corner that was seen as the catchall space for where, you know, a homeless person could sleep or or any other sort of undesirable was pushed.

I watched that happen over year after year in San Francisco, and so this this series for me was about reversing that relationship and taking these people who existed at the center of their own narratives, but existed in a space where the rest of the city ignored those narratives, and brought them into a place where they were unignorable. However, at the same time, I came to realize very quickly that the more successful this work was from my standpoint as an artist, the more responses it got, or galleries it was shown in, the harder it was to justify doing it, because the relationship became, or felt like it became, more and more potentially exploitive the more successful that work was. So there was this very strange tension where I would feel as if any accolades the work received also sort of shot the work down by nature of it feeling as if it was exploiting these people.

It was something that I honestly never fully felt like I was able to rectify, because at the end of the day, even though I believe deeply that these portraits were both necessary for me and also helpful and healing to the individuals who I drew, I also know that me doing them didn’t change anything for the people who are in the portraits, by and large. I hope that perhaps the folks who see these portraits, it might change for them the way that they will interact with an individual out in the world, the level of kindness and honesty and openness that they might be able to bring to a conversation with somebody who had a first glance is in a different place than them. However, it it didn’t fix anything for Dyos. It didn’t change his life, and so at a certain point I felt like I had to say, “No, this series is done, because if I keep going, it will become exploitation, it will become something where I’m doing it for me rather than doing it for the sake of this narrative thread that I’m trying to follow,” and for that reason I stopped.

So I guess to completely answer the question, yes, I do believe that that those two things can exist side by side. I also believe that it has to be done in a way that is incredibly careful, and it has to be done in a way that is selfless, and it has to be done directly participating with the communities that are involved and puts them at the forefront. For me as an artist, as an individual, I felt at a certain point that there was no way for me to continue making this work while being honest about my own artistic goals and my own ego that was inherently involved in the creative process without its becoming exploitive, without it crossing that line. And so so I stopped doing them.

What projects are you working on now?

What projects am I working on now? After I finished up with this series in in 2017, sort of towards 2018, I was a bit at a loss as to where my creative flow would take me next. Since this body of work with the life size portraits of my neighbors, I have stepped into trying to dive more deeply into answering the societal questions that created the space in which a city could allow for these folks to exist in the ways that they did, and more particularly, I wanted to dive into what historical decisions were made and how. How did that community come to be? How did these people come to be overlooked? How did San Francisco, as a liberal city, come to be a space that’s also simultaneously known for abject poverty on the streets?

And so my work since this particular series has been wrestling with these questions through the lens, primarily, of historical archive material. I’ve shifted in my practice from working from references that I photographed myself to working from references that I find in archives, [materials] I personally believe are overlooked or unidentified — in a similar way to the way that I think the individuals I was drawing were overlooked and unidentified. So right now, I’m working on a series of drawings that that’s called Killing the Negative. It’s a series of drawings from censored photographs of the Great Depression. The Farm Security Administration was an entity that was part of the New Deal as part of the Roosevelt administration, and most people, I think by and large, are aware of images such as Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother photograph. It’s one of the most visible images, probably, in the American photographic vocabulary. It’s just an image that really captured a moment in an incredible way, and that photograph was a part of this much larger series of photographs that were commissioned by the Farm Security Administration as part of the New Deal. There were something like 170,000 photographs that were shot as part of this project, and photographers like Walker Evans were part of it, or Arthur Rothstein and Carl Mydans, in addition to more famous names like Dorothea Lange.

What a lot of folks don’t know about this very famous series of photographs is that for, arguably, four years — it’s a bit vague, but the first four or so years of this whole project, the director of the Farm Security Administration, a man named Roy Stryker, would censor the images that he did not believe were publishable by punching a hole in the original film negative. This left us with a series of approximately 5000 — the number is not exact ’cause no one really knows — censored photographs from the formational years of this whole project. I’ve spent the better part of the past two years working on a series of drawings from that archive, where I take these images that were never actually printed as photographs, that were only developed as negatives, and and I create large scale drawings of these images that have these large black circular voids in them from the hole punch.

So that’s what I’m working on right now. I’m actually in the midst of a project with a friend of mine named Quraysh Ali Lansana, who’s a poet in the Tulsa Artist Fellowship with me, and we’re in the process of creating a book that’s a series of poems and drawings in response to these photographs. Hopefully that will be coming out in the relatively near future, along with a series of exhibitions and educational content that will come along with that. It’s a really exciting series, I’m really excited to be able to dive deeply every day into that archive and respond to this series of images. I think they get at a lot of questions that are very contemporary about power and ownership of the narrative and who was able to decide what the American story was. I think we’re in the midst of a moment where we’re asking those questions collectively and wrestling with those questions on a national scale, and this series of drawings is a response to the way that one man, through his own hole punch, his own editing process, was able to shape the narrative for an entire country. I think it’s an important conversation.


A man with shoulder-length straight black hair and dark skin stands with a billowing blanket worn as a cape, wearing white jean shorts and a t-shirt and holding a small model of a building in one hand.

Image credit: Joel Daniel Phillips, born 1989, Dyos, 2017, graphite and charcoal on paper, 94 x 42 in. (238.8 x 106.7 cm). Gift of Cathy and Hunter Allen, 2019.50. © 2017 Joel Daniel Phillips.