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Thinking Big

Handmade Tales: Phebe Mott


Published May 20, 2008 at 8:29 p.m.


Phebe Mott refuses to paint anything smaller than 2-by-3 feet. “I like to move around when I paint. I like making big brush strokes,” the 32-year-old artist explains. We are gazing at her acrylic painting “Docking,” which takes up more than half of her living room wall. In the blue lake scene, a white dock and an adjacent rowboat containing four figures tip toward the viewer like a silent invitation to step in — and the scale is nearly life-sized.

As a student majoring in Studio Arts at the University of Vermont, Mott didn’t have to think about the logistics of moving big works of art around: The doorways were huge. Now that she has to deliver her paintings to shows and customers in her Honda CRV, the artist says that, frankly, she has “learned to paint smaller."

Surprisingly, Mott works from small photographs, mostly pictures of her family from her childhood, or even before she was born. Among the paintings that fill the available wall space in her modest two-bedroom condo in Hinesburg is a strangely moving, almost empty scene of two men seated behind a piano. Blank yellow walls fill the right half of the canvas; a pink armchair, to the left of the purple piano, faces away from the suited but otherwise indistinct figures. “At the Piano II” is based on a photograph of the artist’s grandfather when he was in his forties, Mott says. The painting bears all the marks of her distinctive style: blocky, sunny colors; few details; a somewhat flattened perspective; traces of another painting underneath (Mott never uses blank canvases or boards for her final works); and people with featureless faces.

“That’s the number-one question I get,” she says about the empty faces. Her explanation: “I’m trying to tell a story about everyday situations so people can relate to them” by filling in the blanks themselves. Mott describes a typical viewer reaction to “The Wedding IV (Bear, Lea & Gretchen),” in which bridesmaids are adjusting each other’s green, strapless dresses while walking away from the viewer. “So many people have said, ‘Oh, that looks like my friend’s wedding!’ I want that interaction to happen,” she declares. “It allows the viewer to make up their own story about [the paintings]. I would much rather you draw your own conclusions.”

Born in Erie, Pennsylvania, Mott grew up with an older brother whose drawing talents were recognized as exceptional from an early age (he’s now in filmmaking). During high school at Champlain Valley Union, however, teachers started to see promise in Mott’s work as well. As she tells it, “One of Buck’s art teachers made a comment to my mom about my talent. That really surprised me. Then, the next year, another art teacher who hadn’t had my brother said the same thing . . . I don’t know what happened to her, but I’d love to thank her.” Mott’s course was set in her senior year, when she placed third in the Chittenden County high school art competition.

These days, Mott is a regular at the Art’s Alive Festival, the Art Hop and the “Reflections on Basin Harbor” program — she’s a featured artist this year. The juried, late-summer show at the Vergennes resort is a favorite with Mott and her husband, because invitees and their families get a weekend stay at the idyllic spot “for inspiration.” (Each entrant shows at least three works, two of which must feature the resort.) So far she’s refused to paint the iconic pastel lawn chairs. Basin Harbor did inspire Mott to an unusual — for her — subject: a purple-tinged mountain range sans human figures, and painted from life rather than a photograph.

Viewers can take in this pretty landscape as well as Mott’s intriguing blank faces during Open Studio Weekend, when she’ll only need to haul her canvasses as far as the studio of Hinesburg artist Marian Willmott.

Click a photo above to see the location.