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Artist profile: Author Phoebe Wahl comes home to roost

Bellingham author and illustrator shares her children’s book, “Sonya’s Chickens,” Aug. 11 at Village Books.
Bellingham author and illustrator shares her children’s book, “Sonya’s Chickens,” Aug. 11 at Village Books. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Artist and author Phoebe Wahl says she’s a “Fairhaven baby born and raised” who admits she “was a Lowell Elementary kindergarten dropout, because there wasn’t enough time to draw” and was unschooled from then on.

She went part-time to Sehome High School, where she was involved in theater and art. She attended Rhode Island School of Design and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts (illustration) in 2013. She moved to Portland, Ore., for a year, then returned to Bellingham last winter, just in time for her 24th birthday.

Her first book, “Sonya’s Chickens,” is for younger readers, and she will read from it Tuesday, Aug. 11, at Village Books.

The book is about a girl who raises three chickens from the time they are tiny chicks, and learns some important truths about the interconnectedness of nature and the joys and sorrows of caring for another creature. More on her: phoebewahl.com.

Question: What kinds of things interested you growing up that led to your interest in writing and illustrating as a profession?

Answer: I was always an avid reader, listening to audiobooks for hours while I drew. I wrote long narratives for my pictures, dictating them to my parents before I could write on my own. Pursuing writing, for me, has only ever coexisted with pursuing illustration, they’ve always gone hand in hand.

Children’s books attracted me because they occupy such an incredibly sacred spot in my heart. There has been no other art form that has resonated with me quite as much. I am constantly amazed by the mastery of my favorite old books, how potent they remain. To think children all over will see my book is incredibly humbling, intimidating, and surreal.

Q: You both wrote and illustrated “Sonya’s Chickens.” How did that happen?

A: I first drafted it in college, in a children’s book writing and illustrating class. My instructors brought a handful of trinkets, and each student chose one to inspire a story. I took a small wooden chicken. By the end of the course, I created a “dummy” version of “Sonya’s Chickens.”

I posted images of the project on my blog. Then, soon after I graduated, my publisher, Tundra Books, contacted me having run across it online. After months of tinkering with the writing and sending sketches back and fourth to my editor, last summer I got to dig in and create all the final illustrations.

Q: What was your process for illustrating the book?

A: My medium is pretty labor-intensive. I make a watercolor under-painting, then collage on top with layers of cut paper I’ve painted or drawn on, then make marks on top of all of it with gouache and colored pencil. I also love using found papers, like envelope interiors and patterns from books. I began collaging as a way to make use of all the little scraps of paper that seemed too beautiful and precious to throw away.

Q: What brought you back to Bellingham from Portland?

A: I loved Portland, but after being gone from Bellingham for five years, I was craving a smaller-town feeling. I love how easy it is to get outside here, 15 minutes in any direction and you’re in the woods or at the beach. I feel strongly rooted in here. Comfortable and inspired to make my best, most honest work.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I don’t see myself leaving Bellingham, but I’m open to anywhere my heart and gut might take me. Being an artist is my full-time job. I’m a frequent contributor to Taproot Magazine, recently did some T-shirt designs for Patagonia, and sell my work in my Etsy shop, which will reopen on Nov. 1.

I have many more books and projects up my sleeve, and I am itching to make them!

Reach Margaret Bikman at 360-715-2273 or margaret.bikman@bellinghamherald.com. Read her columns at bellinghamherald.com/behind-the-scenes.

Phoebe Wahl reading

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 11, Village Books, 1200 11th St.

Cost: Free

Details: 360-671-2626, villagebooks.com.

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