“Hoping to help” examines profit and cost

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Emily Moser
  Staff Writer

The Weatherspoon Museum on UNCG’s campus has exhibited work by many renowned artists including Hank Willis Thomas, Judy Pfaff and now Danica Phelps.

The Falk Visiting Artist Program allows for the visiting artist to further explain their practice and creative process via public lecture, visiting MFA graduate students and being a resident at UNCG for several days. This program offers an incredible opportunity for students to learn from, connect with and be inspired by a distinguished, practicing artist.

Phelps’ exhibition, “Hoping to Help,” began Jan. 14, and will continue until April 9. Her lecture will be on February 23.

Receiving her BFA from Hampshire College and her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Art and Design, Danica Phelps is a celebrated visual and conceptual contemporary artist. Considered a natural draugh­tswoman, Phelps combines drawings and financial documentation to create an interesting diary of her everyday life. She now lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.

When I first entered the gallery, I immediately noticed the unique arrangement of the pieces. Normally, works are hung side-by-side on a wall, all at the same level, with equal distance in between them. Unlike the traditional set up, many boards were arranged closely around one another- the arrangements themselves almost making an entirely new artwork.

Upon closer examination, I saw elegant pencil drawings depicting everyday activities. Each seemingly ordinary activity was incredibly personal to Phelps, yet universal to all of us; things like grocery shopping, waking up, pouring coffee, opening a window and watching her son.

She also depicted some of her stances on social and political views in the drawings- showing her support of women’s rights and the legalization of gay marriage. Her drawing style is a unique combination of abstraction, figuration and conceptualism, through which she creates delicate, lyrical linear drawings. A shorthand description of the depicted scene was handwritten in the bottom right corner of each drawing.

Placed under each drawing on the same board were long bands of recycled US currency.

The strips matched the width of the corresponding drawing, but were only about a half-inch tall. Each was marked by vertical stripes of various shades of green or red. Some boards were filled entirely with these bands. Like the drawings, there were note-like explanations added in the margins; works even had stacks of handwritten notes pinned with them.

I was incredibly confused by these striped bands. Initially I figured they were just there solely for a graphic aesthetic quality but I continued to ponder their presence; I was incredibly confused by these bands. Then I recognized that documentation was an important quality to Phelps’ work, so they must be counting something.  Also, each drawing was so personal and emotional, there had to be a meaningful explanation.

Phelps’ work exhibited in the Weatherspoon is part of an ongoing series called “Income’s Outcome.” Eventually my curiosity about the bands was satisfied. As the drawings are sold, she traces the work, and tracks its income with one green line for each dollar earned. As that income is spent, Phelps paints a red line for each dollar used. Together, the drawings and notations form a complex diary of the artist’s life and cost of living.

By sharing such personal aspects of her life so publicly, Phelps hopes to, “Allows others to perceive their own lives in further detail” and “celebrate the mundane aspects of like that we all share.”

Along with pieces from “Income’s Outcome,” the installation also has new work where Phelps’ thinking and intention has slightly shifted.

The artist is quoted in the museum’s handout: “Increasingly, my thoughts turn to those people who do not experience anything mundane. Listening to the news reminds me that for many people each day is a nightmare of hardships and uncertainty. I am haunted by their stories and confused by the fact that I get to live my comfortable like in this particular spot on the planet by relative chance while others, by the same random assignment of location or circumstance, suffer so terribly.”

With a strong desire to help, Phelps turned her Facebook page into an auction site for her drawings, the money going directly to a non-profit organization.

As a drawing is sold, she pairs a tracing of it with another drawing of the non-profit organization benefiting from the donation. This is another complex documentation of a series of events; this time, for the betterment of others. Titled “The Gratitude Project,” the project raised more than $10,000 in its first two months, and will continue to help and inspire others.

Phelps, to me, is an artist for everyone. Often times, people might feel confused by art, alien to it, or do not understand its significance. However, Phelps uses her skill to relate to everyone, about everyday things- family, financials, everyday life. She brings spirit, life, and importance to things that are often overlooked. Her humanitarian spirit also reminds us that there is suffering, struggle, things that we could never imagine and with our privilege, it is our obligation to help.

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