Phoebe Wahl wanted to be an artist for as long as she can remember. Her unique childhood, growing up in Bellingham’s South Hill neighborhood, fostered that creativity.
“My childhood had a huge impact on my artistic pursuits,” she says. “I was unschooled for most of my childhood, which is a radical form of unstructured, child-guided homeschooling, and so I got to really throw myself into developing my skills and interests from a young age in a way I think many kids aren’t able to.” Phoebe spent innumerable hours in her back yard, growing her mind’s eye.
She says she feels lucky to have had basically unlimited time to be in her imagination, writing and playing and making art. “I think it prepared me perfectly for my career and lifestyle as it exists today,” Phoebe says, “since in addition to allowing me to hone my artistic skills, it gave me a lot of time management practice, as well.”
In high school, she realized being an illustrator was a “thing” and decided to pursue it specifically.
Phoebe’s first children’s book, “Sonya’s Chickens,” was the recipient of the Ezra Jack Keats Book Award for New Illustrator in 2016; a recent book, “The Blue House,” was named one of the Best Books of 2020 by Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and NPR.
Phoebe knew that if she wanted to go to college, it would be art school, since art felt like her most consistent focus and passion growing up. And because of her educational background of being unschooled, art schools rather than traditional colleges and universities seemed a stronger fit.
By the time she went to the college of her choice, the Rhode Island School of Design, Phoebe knew she wanted to major in illustration; children’s books had become her main focus.
Phoebe started selling prints of her art—which has home, family, community, and nature at its heart—while still in college. After graduating in 2013, Phoebe moved to Portland, Oregon, and also started creating and selling stationery, apparel, and accessories. She returned to Bellingham in the fall of 2014.
Along the way, Phoebe gained an interest in surface design, which is any type of artwork—pattern, illustration, hand lettering, and so on—intended to be applied to a surface to enhance its visual appearance and/or functionality, and started freelancing for Taproot magazine. The magazine made a few products that featured her work to sell in its store, introduced Phoebe’s work to an audience happy to buy it. “It’s really just grown from there,” she says.
Now, as a surface designer, author, and illustrator, Phoebe also creates ceramics and textiles. “I like that being an illustrator can really manifest as anything,” she says.
Phoebe opened a brick-and-mortar store in 2019. “Once my online shop got big enough that I needed to move it out of my house, I started thinking about how fun it would be to have a little showroom of sorts for my products.”
The first shop opened on State Street in June 2019, and her current store, at 112 Grand Avenue, opened in July 2021. Alongside her own creations, Phoebe features works of other artists and brands who feel complementary to “her world.”
“I work with Carly James, who owns Bison Bookbinding & Letterpress, which printed my work for years,” says Phoebe. “She joined me in my business a little over a year ago and we physically merged storefronts. It has been amazing to not be doing everything by myself anymore, I really love having a partner to ping ideas off of and collaborate with.”
Writers and artists who impacted Phoebe when she was young include Tove Jansson, Louisa May Alcott, J. R. R. Tolkien, Astrid Lindgren, Barbara Cooney, Alice & Martin Provensen, Françoise Seignobosc, Edward Gorey, and Edmund and Ingri d’Aulaire.
The literary world of writing and illustrating can be competitive, but Phoebe says she has a more internal relationship with ambition and competition.
“Generally, I don’t feel strongly pulled to be ‘known’ or ‘successful’ just for the sake of it, and I think that’s increasingly true as I get older,” Phoebe says. “That being said, I’m sure I have my moments of feeling jealous or petty or sad if I don’t get an award or something. But usually, when I feel competitive, it is much more about me wanting more from my own work, and my relationship with it, and comparing myself to others who might inspire me to push me beyond my artistic comfort zones, which ultimately I think is a good thing, even if it isn’t always comfortable.”
Phoebe admits that she’s “astounded” by her success.
“I definitely didn’t expect it. I have a raging case of imposter syndrome, and often feel very superstitious about getting my expectations too high about things, and those things combined often make it so that I’m very surprised most of the time when success occurs.”
Phoebe has done a fair amount of book talks, and says she loves hearing from kids who either relate to or are affected in some way by her books. “I especially love it when they share their own creative ideas and hear how my work might have inspired them.
“I also really love hearing from adults who feel seen by the people or imagery in my work,” she says. “It is amazing how powerful it can be to see your body or identity reflected in art and it never ceases to amaze and touch me to hear from folks the impact my work has had.”
At the time of this interview, Wahl is eight months pregnant. “I’m nervous and curious to see what taking maternity leave as a self-employed artist will look like,” she says. “I hope I have boundaries strong enough to truly take as much time off as I need.”
She has several surface design projects to finish up and hand off to her retail business partner, Carly, who will make them into products in the new year—calendars, stationery, home goods, and such.
Also on the horizon is “Tulip,” the short film adaptation of Thumbelina Wahl co-created with stop-motion animator Andrea Love. It recently finished its festival run and will be available for view-on-demand in 2022.
Phoebe is also—no surprise—working on future book projects.
“I just finished editing the manuscript for my first long-form book project,” she says of an illustrated young-adult novel based on her diaries from high school. “I basically transcribed my journals from when I was 15 and 16, and then edited, added to, and fictionalized them into a story.” It’s set to come out in 2023 with Little, Brown & Company.
“I also am going to be illustrating and co-writing a part fiction, part nonfiction children’s book with Chronicle Books set to come out in 2024—but that hasn’t been announced yet, so I won’t say more,” Phoebe says. “It’s going to be a busy next few years!”
Learn more and keep up with Phoebe at www.phoebewahl.com.
Featured photo by Hannah Wong