| Interview |
In a world that is constantly in flux, artist Phoebe-Agnès Mills creates captivating paintings that provoke deep introspection. With a vibrant color palette, blurred boundaries, and enigmatic figures, Phoebe-Agnès Mills invites viewers on a journey through the realms of ephemerality and loss, all while embracing the optimism that lies within.
Drawing inspiration from personal photographs that capture fleeting moments, the artist skillfully infuses each brushstroke with profound emotion. The figures within the paintings are rendered with thick, substantial strokes, symbolizing a desperate attempt to freeze time. However, their faces often remain obscured, blurring the line between presence and absence, mystery and familiarity.
How do you select the moments from your personal life that you want to capture in your paintings? What criteria do you use to determine which moments are worth immortalizing?
I have a camera that I’ve carried with me everywhere since I was sixteen. My friends are used to seeing me get excited at odd moments and take it out. Sometimes it’s just a sweet moment that I want to remember, and other times it’s a scene that strikes me in a particular way. Life seems to hand me images that resonate with the way I feel. Sometimes it’s a turbulent sky, a friend by a window, a basket of sweaters. I try to keep my eyes open for those moments. I’m a profoundly sentimental person, always trying to capture moments of beauty or joy, but also looking for ways of learning from the world around me. I keep all my favorite photos in an album to draw on according to which one strikes me on the day. Sometimes the photo of my friend, and other times it’s the basket of sweaters.
Family of Three
oil on panel 16 x 20" 2020
Your artist statement mentions exploring the themes of ephemerality and loss in an optimistic light. Have you also explored these themes in a more pessimistic light in your artistic practice? If so, how does this exploration differ from your approach to conveying optimism?
I suppose I did in my earlier days as a painter when I was particularly angsty. I’d paint skulls and crying faces. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong or immature with that, but I think I just found over the years that it didn’t quite do my experience justice. I think the things that resonate with me most are not images that are purely “sad” or “pessimistic” but images that have a mix of both. Painting with light and dark speaks to me because it reminds me that light can’t exist without dark. If an image was composed of nothing but highlights, it wouldn’t have weight and depth, and on the other end a painting that’s only dark is equally flat. Like in compositions, life is a complex, oscillating balance of light and dark. While there’s loss and sadness, there’s also beauty and joy. I find making space for both good and bad, light, and dark, to be an optimistic perspective and a fuller one.
oil on panel 11 x 14" 2023
The contrast between meticulously rendered portraits and hazy, painterly elements in the background is intriguing. Can you explain the thought process behind this juxtaposition and the effect it has on the viewer?
oil on panel 18 x 24" 2020
This is something I have struggled to understand about myself and my work. On one hand, I find my life and my personality situates me in an odd place between calm and chaos. Part of my process involves a constant back and forth between mess and refinement. I’ll relish in slapping paint on the canvas with colors going every which way, and then I’ll relish equally in spending hours gently rendering details. I’m like that in life too, a weird balance of spontaneity and control, equally capable of thriving in chaos and demanding perfection. Life moves quickly, out of our control. It’s a chaotic mess full of swirls of colors and light, which feels very inherently abstract. Concretely I would like for it to create interest, a dynamism between the focal point and the world around them. I’m still young in my journey of accepting this abstraction and find there’s always a push and pull between trying to bring order and accept what you can’t control, and I find that this lost and found search is meditative and healing.
Mama on FaceTime
oil on panel 12 x 16" 2021
Can you share any memorable experiences or stories related to a specific painting that you feel perfectly captures the essence of your artistic vision?
One of my favorite paintings I’ve done is of a dead frog. I found it when I was in the middle of a family crisis- I was out at a lake with friends, received bad news over the phone, and went to sit by the lake. From my position right by the edge of the lake, I saw this frog floating in the water, belly-up and clearly dead. The magical thing though was that my position had caused the sunset in the sky to collapse onto the surface of the water, surrounding the frog with golden clouds. I called it Froggy Heaven, not because I necessarily believe in life after death, but because I loved that there was a glimpse of something real that was beautiful enough to be worthy of that idea. I like to look for moments like that in my life, moments of real-life magic that remind me that life is extraordinary. Even for a little frog.
oil on panel 11 x 14" 2019
Your work explores the contradictory forces of change and stability, light and dark, and past and present. How do you navigate these opposing elements in your artistic process, and how do they manifest in your paintings?
My life has been defined opposites and contrast, going all the way back to my childhood. My mother is a professor’s daughter from Berkeley California, and my father is a farmer’s son from rural Louisiana. Those differences gave way to a beautifully rich upbringing that I think has taught me a lot about harmonizing two things that might seem contradictory. I find all these “opposites” to not only make life more interesting but are also often interdependent. As with light and dark, past necessarily affects present, showing itself in even the most subconscious of ways. The painting chosen for “Seeing Clearly” is exactly about that, using a pane of glass to collapse “What’s Behind” and what’s in front onto one plane. Often, I feel that the delineations we make for ourselves don’t do justice to the beautiful complexity there is.
oil on panel 16 x 20" 2020
Can you discuss the role of musical brushstrokes in your work? How does the rhythm and movement of your brushwork contribute to the overall emotional impact of the paintings?
Before I was a painter, I was a ballet dancer in a pre-professional company. Ballet was absolutely my first love and I wanted it to be my whole life, but because of a congenital hip abnormality that worsened throughout my time in ballet I had to stop. In a somewhat Frida Kahlo style, it’s what gave way to my love for art, but I’ve never lost the love of moving to music. I always play music while I paint, and I often dance while I paint. Dancing is such an outlet for me that, whether it’s joyful or more melancholic movement, I find releasing it physically helps paintings to be even more a documentation of my inner life.
Self Portrait, Dissolved
oil on panel 8 x 10" 2020
I lost my father at the age of eleven, and I have a vivid memory from the early stages of his illness, before we knew it was life threatening, lying awake at night trying to imagine his face. The harder I thought, the more the image I had in my mind dissolved until I could barely catch the details of his face at all. I love to paint because it satisfies that urge to hold on to the moments, details, faces, that are fleeting, but painting in perfect clarity wouldn’t quite feel true. Art is an outlet and a way of sharing my world view with others, but I don’t want it to be a coping mechanism where I paint the world as I wished it was. Some parts of life last longer than others and that ephemerality creates preciousness that I wouldn’t feel so deeply if it weren’t for the loss.
In The Shadows
oil on panel 11x14" 2023
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