The next Artist Interview Project installment features artist Isadora Bullock. The first part of this post includes a student’s reflective summary. It is followed by the full interview transcript.
Learn more about the Artist Interview Project course assignment in Dr. Jenkins’ introduction to the series. You can follow the Philosophy School of Phish on Facebook, Twitter (@phishedu), and the course’s public website.
Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing artist Isadora Bullock. She is a full-time artist who makes complex and beautiful prints for Phish concerts. I am not a phan myself, but as a student enrolled in the “Philosophy School of Phish” course at OSU, I have enjoyed engaging with their music and especially their culture from a philosophical perspective. When interviewing Bullock via email I was excited to see how some of the concepts we’ve studied (and that apply so easily to Phish’s music) would fare when applied to her work. When considering Bullock’s artistic approach, two concepts stood out in an especially strong manner: community and sublimity.
Community is a fundamental aspect of art. Jeanette Bicknell in, Why Music Moves Us, says of music:
The recognition of music as a human (rather than a natural or supernatural) product goes hand-in-hand with its fundamentally social character…Music is created (composed, improvised, performed) by human beings, usually for the benefit of other human beings (90).
It is not a stretch to apply this reasoning to other art forms, because art is an expression and expressions are made both for the expresser and the observer. What makes the idea of community so important to Bullock’s work is something that has been described by philosopher John Drabinski as the “occasional community,” a reoccurring, but ultimately temporary gathering that is rich in connection despite its impermanent state (29). Bullock’s art is what enabled her to extend her time in the occasional community of Phish concerts when she sold it to tour with the band during college. Her art is what enables her to be more rooted in this mobile, experience-based community by paying her bills. Of particular interest is, as seen in the interview below, is the importance of the art community in enabling Bullock to acquire the knowledge and skills that she relies on to fuel her phandom.
The other philosophical concept that came through in the interview is the role of the sublime. The sublime is a somewhat difficult idea to describe. Philosopher Immanuel Kant contrasts it with beauty. In The Critique of Judgment, he writes:
Accordingly, the beautiful seems to be regarded as a presentation of an indeterminate concept of understanding, the sublime as a presentation of an indeterminate concept of reason. Hence the delight is in the former case coupled with the representation of quality, but in this case with that of quantity (23).
So, while beauty–which certainly is present in Bullock’s work– has to do with quality and craftsmanship, sublimity has to do with quantity or scale. In our interview, Bullock mentions the stage lights of Phish’s live shows multiple times. This aspect of their performance (as I’ve witnessed in a livestream of a recent show at Madison Square Garden) is on a much larger scale than most lights that we encounter at other musical events. Bullock also draws a connection between the world that Phish is creating in their songs and her art as an attempt to bring that world to life. In both instances she is drawing on the impressive magnitude of Phish’s work for inspiration and as a source of beauty.
This interview was truly a pleasure and I encourage you to visit Isadora Bullock’s website. In our interview, the entirety of which is below, she explores the role Phish plays in her creativity while also opening up about her own training and creative process. A big thanks to Bullock for her willingness to share her time and thoughts!
How does Phish inspire your artwork?
When I start working on a new print I have several different inspirations that I weave together. My ultimate goal is to create a piece of art that illustrates the Phish experience. Each show and venue are unique. I take the location and search for lyrics that invoke the feeling of that place. For example, I chose the song “Lizards” to draw inspiration from for my recent print in Chicago held at Northerly Island. The show is surrounded by water and I decided to use the lyrics describing Rutherford the brave sinking into the raging river in his suit of arms. The final image had his helmet nestled at the bottom with light filtering down through the water. In this print I also used visual inspiration of the Phish concert lights to tie it all together. I can build an entire image from one line. I’ve always had a deep connection with their lyrics. A majority of my prints feature animals which is a consistent theme in most of their lyrics. I like to think I’m illustrating the world they created while giving life to the characters found in their songs.
What makes a print beautiful? Do you specifically strive for beauty in your work or do you aim for a different goal?
I definitely strive to make something beautiful. The goal is to make something people will frame and put on their walls. I learned a lot about balance and composition when I went to art school. I choose a central focal point and map out a way to enter the piece while trying to create movement throughout. I mix all of my colors myself which allows me to play around with color theory. I’ve been recently mixing and fading metallic inks which creates a unique and beautiful effect. Beauty is one piece of the puzzle. I want to capture the Phish experience through colors, patterns, and concepts. Since I can’t put the word Phish on the print, I strive to say it in other ways.
Your “Light” print took over 45 hours of carving. That reflects a lot of planning, structure, and detail! Do you think that Phish’s improvisational style is reflected in your prints? Or does your artistic method contrast w/ the spontaneous nature of a jam?
The “Light” print is very complicated. I used an image of the concert lights overlaid with an emanating pattern. I chose two concepts and overlapped them. I gave myself room to improvise as I carved each layer. Just as music has structure in notes, scales, and songs, I have my original drawing on the block. Phish is very structured and detailed until they enter a jam. I enjoy the same push and pull. You have to know the rules so you can break them. Music School and Art school have that in common.
Does the emotion of Phish’s music make its way into your work? If so, in which ways?
The emotion usually comes out through abstractions and colors. I might illustrate a beam of light filtering through clouds as a way to invoke bliss or joy. I like to weave in patterns in my work invoking a feeling of connection and flow. The line “surrender to the flow” has always been important to me visually as well as words to live by. I want to create a surge or a continuation of life in my prints. My goal is to have the viewer feel something when they look at my art. It’s always a great success when you hear that you have achieved that.
Your website mentions that you have turned a hobby into a lifestyle. What are the biggest pros and cons of that transition in your opinion? How has working as a professional artist impacted your enjoyment of the artistic process (for better or worse)
I’ve always been an artist and have stayed on the path to becoming a professional working in the art field my whole life. I enjoy the freedom of making my own schedule and choosing my own projects but it can be hard to create on a deadline. Since this form of printmaking is very controlled and labor intensive, I don’t get as much time to just sit down and paint whatever I want. In the future, I hope to make more art prints and set aside time to just create without boundaries. I had a full time job that wasn’t creative for a while and slowly moved to part time and then to transitioning to a full time artist. It took years to get to this point and I feel extremely lucky to have “made it” as an artist. Creating art inspired for my favorite band makes it that much better.
I saw on your website that you have earned both a BFA and an MFA, Did you appreciate Phish prior to earning those degrees? How has your art education affected your experience of Phish?
Both my parents are artists. I’ve been making art in a myriad of mediums my whole life. I started listening to Phish in 93′ and finally seeing my first show in 98′ when I was 16. My love for Phish and my art career were two consistent and important themes in my life way before I combined them. While I was in art school, I took an intro to printmaking class and carved my first block. I was hooked and made my first Phish print a few months later. The rest is history, I never looked back from that moment. I was in school so I spent the summers touring with the band and I sold art to fund it. It also gave me a way to share my art with the masses in a way I didn’t know was possible.