Phoebe Collings-James On Life As An Artist

Photographed by Brad Ogbonna.
Art as a profession runs in tandem for me with several other things I call jobs – a balancing act to carve out the time and space to be an artist. The career of art exists with such precarity that I choose to separate it mentally from the act of being an artist. That is something I know I will always have with me, a life’s work.
It is funny to think about art as a job as it could be a bleak career choice! In the job of an artist, you should expect long hours for little or no pay; when you do get a gig, doing a panel, workshop or teaching, you are too often expected to labour for free – something we have to stand up against, and resistance to which falls disproportionately on the most marginalised people. Working in art is competitive, with few sustainable positions – unless you make it to a position of art establishment, which then opens up a new web of problems in itself. I’m still trying to work out how a person can possibly be anti-establishment while living in the belly of the beast. So perhaps it is better to talk less about what it is as a job and instead focus on what being an artist means to me, which is a position I feel I can be more certain about as the decades roll on.
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oKoKoK, Paris Internationale, 2017
Expensive Shit, 2017
I make work firstly and foremost for myself; its sustenance feeds my soul and eases an often rabid mind. The most rewarding aspect of being an artist is that my work continues to teach me new things, allowing me to follow my intuition by interrogating the things I create on impulse but have yet to reckon with intellectually. In this sense it feels as though the work is always a few steps ahead of me – the act of making is a constant process of learning and listening.
Primordial Soup, 2017
Only after that do I begin to think about how it might affect others when it enters into public space. These new relationships that are built between me and the people experiencing the work are important and I always hope that they allow the work to grow beyond my hands, allowing us to feel mutually seen. "Primordial Soup", an immersive sound installation I created in New York last year, revealed the richness of connecting in this way – with some people coming to experience the work several times, it felt like a huge achievement; the work was being heard and understood in the wave-like form I had wanted it to unfold.
Day to day I aspire to a disciplined routine. A close friend of mine once told me that I would never make a good housewife because I lack discipline and consistency, an opinion that I have both cherished and resented ever since. The truth in their statement reveals itself in my weekly routines, which are started with best intentions and slowly unravel to a sleep-deprived chaos. A recent typical day would usually start at around 9.30 with emails, then a Spanish lesson over Skype, sometimes I do yoga at home or at a class before travelling to my studio. Once there, if I don’t have anything immediate to get on with, I try to read or make drawings as a way of getting into a mood.
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Bodied, 2016
I like Mondays because it always feels to me like a new start and a chance to try things again! My best working hours are at night, which I try to give space for as much as possible. Case in point: I am writing this line at a civilised 6.45am but I have been up since midnight.
Sculpture defines the approach I have to making things; I like to build even when I am working on a flatter surface like paper or canvas. I enjoy discovering new ways to engage with old materials and getting dirty, especially paint, plaster and clay, which are all malleable and somewhat magic. In other processes I also attempt to transform the codes of everyday found or used stuff, working with the fabrics that have been relegated to waste, teasing out new potentials in their objecthood. Most recently this has included fruit nets and plastic postal sacking that were destined for a new ecosystem in landfill or an ocean. I do this work in order to tell the stories of black and brown people like me who share ancestral connections to these trade routes.
A highlight this year has been working with the Studio Museum in Harlem, a self-described nexus for artists of African descent. I was honoured to be part of their Harlem Postcards project. It was a unique opportunity for me, being from the UK where black arts have historically been marginalised – to show work not only in a black arts space but to a majority black crowd was especially poignant.
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I had always dreamed of doing something artistic 'when I grew up', whether that be dance, music or designing clothes. There was a determined moment in my teens when I wanted to be a lawyer – some particularly tough family stuff was happening and I thought that I would be able to save people who had been failed by the state like we had – but I quickly realised that I may not be suited to uniquely demanding, and bureaucratic work. That said, I can definitely see myself having other jobs in the future, possibly pursuing the ways in which art can have a more tangible effect socially through therapy or teaching.
I am a little suspicious of the idea of responsibility as an artist, knowing it can often get confused with a respectability politic that I stand against. On the flip side, I have a great appreciation for the potential to create dialogue and make people feel good. I value the freedom I have to express myself in my work and I would like to think I could go some way in helping others make space for themselves, too. I have the words Angela Davis [an American political activist] shared from her mother ringing in my ears: "Just because this is the way things are now does not mean that it's the way things should be, or will always be."
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