Meet the Artist: Heidi Phelps on Wayward Women

Self-proclaimed "femme-forward" artist Heidi Phelps is getting ready for her first solo show. Her female-focused fine art screen prints will be on display at Tryst, a popular D.C. coffeehouse, throughout the month of April, with an opening night party and special performance by musician Wytold on Thursday, April 4. She said she hopes the exhibit inspires audiences "to consider how women are so often vilified or canonized for behavior that goes against cultural norms." The founder of Wayward Broad Studio, which opened last October, has steadily gained traction with her body of work. She recently showed pieces at the Target Gallery at the Torpedo Art Gallery in Alexandria, Va. and was spotlighted  by BUST Magazine, which emphasizes women in arts and entertainment.

Last year, Heidi started a public participatory art project to raise awareness about Malala Yousafzai, the young activist from Pakistan who advocates for education, freedom of expression and women's rights. Yousafzai made headlines for suffering an assassination attempt by Taliban gunmen, inspiring people like Phelps to respond through their artwork.

Currently, Phelps sells her digital artwork on Etsy, an online storefront that will soon include screen-printed T-shirts, tote bags and other accessories. She also vends at arts and crafts markets, like the annual Cheap Art Sale in Mount Pleasant and Benevolent Media's The Loving Market, both of which support causes that Phelps cares about, like ending domestic violence, supporting healthy lives for sex workers and creating a safe, supportive space for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community. We met up with Phelps to discuss her latest projects.

A portrait of the artist. Photo courtesy of Heidi Phelps.

What was your inspiration for your latest exhibit at Tryst?

Art is communication. Jean-Luc Godard is famous for saying "Il faut confronter les idées vagues avec les images claires" ("One must confront vague ideas with clear images.")  My goal with this series of female-focused images is to get people thinking about how we define--personally and culturally--“good” versus “bad” behavior for women.  How do we expect women to behave, and what are our perceptions of women who go against our expectations?  What aspects of women’s behavior do we choose to focus on in pop culture, literary works, fairy tales, folklore and the media?

When tackling difficult themes, such as female vilification, you still create vibrant, beautiful imagery. What is your process for developing your work?

I just started thinking about intriguing women, and why I find them intriguing. When thinking about subjects that I wanted to draw, they were all over the moral and ethical spectrum but had one thing in common: they were all considered “wayward," or going against their culture’s definition of acceptable behavior.  As for the process, every piece starts off as a sketch on paper which is further developed and then manipulated digitally to make a graphic print.

You’re passionate about empowerment for women. What made you take up this cause, and how have your efforts been received in the community?

I feel like I found my voice through art. There’s a sense of empowerment that comes with the feeling that you’ve created something substantial out of nothing, and with putting your thoughts and ideas out there, making yourself both seen and heard.  I think, as women, we’re raised to put other people’s needs before our own, and often we’re meant to feel guilty for carving time out to focus on our own thoughts, needs, desires and interests. Art is a way of claiming my space, claiming my thoughts, and encouraging discussion about our perceptions of women, what qualities we admire and discourage.

Photo courtesy Heidi Phelps.

I'm always curious to see how artists effectively merge business into art. Tell me more about how you've met the challenges and opportunities of these two realms.

It’s hard to be a good promoter, event organizer, business woman and still have the time and headspace to be creative.  It’s even harder when you’re squeezing in all of these things around a full-time job that is unrelated to your creative endeavors. But it’s absolutely possible, and that’s the main point that I want to drive home to people: It’s a lot of work, but it can be done.

What are your long-term career goals as an artist? 

To eventually make art the main thing that I do, not something that I squeeze into my schedule as time permits, and to start a nonprofit that promotes creative expression for women and girls, somewhere down the road. I want my art to be directly linked to a good cause.