The street artist behind PhoebeNewYork talks her iconic creation

Artist Libby Schoettle shares the story behind one of downtown's most ubiquitous It Girls.

Written by
Katie Zepf
Photograph: Courtesy Libby Schoettle

If you find yourself walking around downtown Manhattan, there's a good chance you may come across street art of an adorable and stylish cartoon character, possibly donning large sunglasses and accompanied by a sassy or motivating caption. These prints are the works of artist Libby Schoettle, better known as her alter ego character PhoebeNewYork. While based in New York, Schoettle’s work has been taken outside of the city and can be found on the streets of LA and Philadelphia, as well as internationally in London, Berlin and in her solo show in Denmark next month. In addition to her street artwork, Schoettle also creates limited edition prints, posters and original artwork that can be found for sale on her website. We sat down to talk with Schoettle about her inspirations for her artwork, and why PhoebeNewYork calls downtown New York her home. 

Could you tell me a little bit about the beginnings of PhoebeNewYork? Where did the name come from? Where did you source inspiration for the classic “Phoebe” girl we see all around downtown New York?
Before I started making Phoebe, I started writing about Phoebe—about myself as Phoebe. I [had been] using my real name, and that wasn't working for me, and I was trying to find a name. I wanted a name that had a story behind it. And I loved the book, Catcher in the Rye. It's like one of my favorite books in the world. I loved the Phoebe character in that book, Holden’s sister. Where did she go? Like, what happened? She is such a strong character. I want to be Phoebe, so I'm gonna take that name. And then I started making art. And the art just evolved. I mean, it evolved into this person. And it took me years and years and years, to get her to where she is. She did not start out like this, she started out as, almost, the way a child goes. It's born, and then it evolves, and it just grows. And that's how she's been for me. 

Photograph: Courtesy Libby Schoettle

You say you choose to make collages from different materials that “have lived an imperfect life,” allowing for more raw edges and tears in the pieces. What is the process like to make artwork look “perfectly imperfect?”
As a perfectionist, I initially really struggled with it. Visually, and just also as a person, it was so exciting to work with my hands and messages and art, and start to learn and look at things that you don't have to be perfect. People have seen me cut stuff for the street, or cut the edges. I’ve been told “I've never seen anybody cut like that!” or “You don't seem to be worried that it's not perfect.” And I'm not worried. I'm not worried that it's not perfect. It's not supposed to be. When I did my first solo show in 2007, I was working on Polaroids and I was always trying to stay within the Polaroid. The gallery curator wanted me to frame them in a perfect white frame, which didn’t look right to me. It wasn’t coming alive for me. I panicked, I went back to my apartment and I destroyed everything in my apartment, all of my antique frames that I saw. I cut everything into pieces, my pocketbooks, and I started making frames for the Polaroid and it was all imperfect. Back then it was a real moment of insanity. I needed it not to be so perfect inside that little square. And from then on, even my desk is imperfect. It's covered. If it is clean, nothing happens, and there's no work. 

One of the standout parts of your collages are the loud captions, that range from the light-hearted like “It Girl” to the more emotional “There is Still Art, There is Still Hope.” How do you decide what text is to accompany your artwork? 
Text is really important to me, and is something I’d always be on the lookout for. My eyes are always open to text. When I'm walking through the city, the shapes of letters, the shape supports words that speak to me. It's very subliminal, because I'm always thinking. I have so many pieces about thinking and overthinking. I need to find words that speak to me, that speak to how I feel in that moment or speak what I am going through. If you go back through the years, you can see different time periods of my art, and the thinking processes for this time. I'll find words on boxes, I just look everywhere for them in books and text. The shapes of the letters are really important to me. It takes me a very long time to play with all of these words on my desk and move them over Phoebe and see compositionally, how do they fit on her? Because we see the shape, and you see the way they're cut, and you see the way they're planned on top. It's like an immersive feeling. Is this just the words and looking for words. It's difficult sometimes to actually find what I really want to say and to make it how other people react when they see it. If I can do it right, then I'm communicating well with people.

Photograph: Courtesy Libby Schoettle

So would you say that you design most of your pieces around the text? 
I look for outfits. I look for fashion. I look for words. I do it in this kind of a big melting pot. I get everything, and then I throw everything on the desk. I cut all the words out, I cut the eyes out, and I start putting it together like a puzzle. I find about 40 outfits that I love, cut them all up, put them on the desk, find 100 different phrases and words and cut them all out. And I play around with them, to see how they look on her. I think, What message am I trying to say? Because I usually don't know the message until I start messing with it because a lot of times the words will change. Some words will go into other words and phrases will get changed around and it'll be backward. It's never what I was really thinking sometimes, which is so exciting. You know when you see that happen, and you trust that process of it. Because if I were just rigidly thinking about it, it wouldn't be the art that it is.

I have mostly seen your work around the Soho, Greenwich Village and East Village areas of Manhattan. Is there a particular reason that you choose those spots to display your art? 
First of all, I think Phoebe loves Soho. When I came to the city, and  I moved down here, it was like magic, you know, this whole area. It just felt very alive to me, very magical. Very much the fashion feelings down here. So I tend to really focus on her being in this area, because it's also where I am, and I feel kind of a strong attachment to that home place in me. If it weren't for Phoebe, I wouldn't meet all the people that I meet, she gets me out. She’s a social person, whereas I’m more of an introvert. She’s also international too, pushing me to take her to other places like Denmark. I feel she's really excited about that. I’m scared about it, but she has her suitcases packed at the door. I’m naturally afraid of things, I have a lot of fear. But Phoebe has just been this vehicle for me and others, to believe in ourselves and do better. 

Photograph: Courtesy Libby Schoettle

As you prepare the first solo museum show at the Horsens Museum in Denmark right now, you mentioned that one of the key elements of the show is bringing “the feeling of New York to the museum”. How do you plan on translating that into the show?
The curators of the museum came to my apartment, and they looked at my entire body of work. It really was an unbelievable moment for me, because it's all of the work that I had started back in 2002. In collaboration with the museum, we're doing an immersive room of a New York City Lower East Side street. I've invited other street artists, friends that Phoebe has met along the way, to display their art in this room. We are bringing a part of New York to Horsens, Denmark. The curators are excited because they love New York, that is where they first came upon a sighting of PhoebeNewYork. We are all very thrilled to be on this exciting journey.

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