Our sixty ninth interview in this new series of intimate interviews is with talented mobile photographer and artist Phyllis Shenny from New Jersey, United States. You may know her work from her popular Instagram account @phyllisshenny. Shenny’s interview is the terrain that awakens both the reader and viewer to the effects of sickness, health and above all, hope. It overflows its boundaries both with heartening art and with faith, in words and communication. Enjoy!
To read the other published interviews in this series including artists, Adria Ellis, Rino Rossi, Mehmet Duyulmus, Alexis Rotella, Lou Ann Sanford Donahue, Irene Oleksiuk, Kerry Mitchell, Filiz Ak, Dale Botha, Lisa Mitchell, M. Cecilia Sao Thiago, Deborah McMillion, Rita Colantonio, Amy Ecenbarger, Jane Schultz, Anca Balaj, Joyce Harkin, Armineh Hovanesian, Kate Zari Roberts, Vicki Cooper, Peter Wilkin, Barbara Braman, Becky Menzies, Sukru Mehmet Omur, Sarah Bichachi, Michel Pretterklieber, Alon Goldsmith, Judy Lurie Whalberg, Andrea Bigiarni, Sean Hayes, Oola Cristina, Kathleen Magner-Rios, Linda Toki, Deb Field, Emilo Nadales, Lydia Cassatt, David Hayes, Jean Hutter, Frederic Deschênes, Mark Schnidman, Fatma Korkut, Fleur Schim, Rob Pearson-Wright, Dieter Gaebel, James Ellis, Marco P Prado, Jeronimo Sanz, Manuela Matos Monteiro, Bleu Chemiko, Manuela Basaldella, Stefania Piccioni, Luis Rodríguez, Marilisa Andriani (@mitrydate) Mayte Balcells (@artofmayte), Nicole Christophe, Jennifer Graham, Cathrine Halsør, Paul Toussaint, Carol Wiebe, Julie Denning, Kim Clayton (@berleyart), Karen Messick, Serap Utaş, MaryJane Rosenfeld, Paul Suciu, Susan Latty (@pause.and.breathe), John Nieto and myself, go here.
All images ©Phyllis Shenny
What was your childhood or earliest ambition?
I have a very vague recollection of being a tiny child and getting on a bus with my mother and thinking I’d like to be a bus driver. Maybe I was three.
When I was a young girl I liked to draw, and I remember entering some art contest. I have no idea what or where it was. But shortly after I received a set of coloured pencils as a prize. I think I won second place.
When I was 18, I wanted to travel to Europe. I registered with some temp agencies to earn the money. The jobs were either handing out leaflets on the street on Wall Street wearing some button and Styrofoam hat, and filing signature cards at a bank. I was in college at the time. My first real job was in the bullpen of a big advertising agency, doing paste ups and drawing comps for ads.
Private or State/(Public in US) school?
I grew up in Brooklyn NY and went to public school. At that time (60’s) the NYC Public School system was one of the best in the country. We had about 30 kids per class and no one talked about overcrowding. The teachers had control and taught. We lined up outside in good weather before school and marched into class in a designated order.
University or Work?
University. I attended Parsons School of Design in Manhattan. Got a BFA in communications design and took all the offbeat liberal arts classes at what was then, The New School for Social Research, now is Eugene Lang. It was my first chance to step out of the box and learn something they didn’t teach in Brooklyn.
Who was or still is your mentor?
I never really had a mentor per se. I had a few terrific teachers. The iColorama Facebook page has helped me develop my skills and inspire me if that counts.
How physically fit are you?
I’m 66 and relatively in good shape. I’m a breast cancer survivor and mostly eat right, exercise but not quite enough, mostly walking and some weights. I love ballroom and latin dance but it hasn’t been enough a part of my life lately. I’ve used holistic and natural preventative things for years. I think this has helped me stay pretty healthy (except for the cancer blip 7 years ago)
Ambition or talent: what matters more to success?
I’d say ambition. You can be brilliant but if it isn’t getting out there constantly to the right audience you will be brilliant at home. On the other hand we’ve all seen mediocre success out there. To quote Salieri in the play Amadeus “Here I am being distinguished by those who cannot distinguish” Talent alone is only great when you put in the time to develop it and even then it must be promoted to be successful. Don’t get me wrong, it’s the crucial element to greatness, but the question is about success.
How politically committed are you?
I have some pretty strong opinions, but they are practically based, not party based. I’ve much more closely followed what’s going on since 9/11. I vote and once went door to door for a specific candidate, but I’m not out there as an activist. As I said before, I’m from Brooklyn. We loudly make our opinions known, but we don’t make enemies doing it. Rather we intellectually argue. It keeps all of our minds open to new ideas. I strongly believe in practicing our constitutional rights of free speech.
What would you like to own that you don’t currently possess?
The ability to not worry about the future and a Ninja coffee/espresso machine.
What is your biggest extravagance?
Online clothing shopping – its just so easy and so much fun when it comes to the door.
In what place are you happiest?
Place isn’t necessarily the thing, although I love a mountain view. I’m happiest with my family and friends, relaxing and laughing. Creating art while looking at a beautiful view is also high on the list.
What ambitions do you still have?
I want to be able to have myself and my husband retire comfortably. Then I want to choose my activities strictly by choice and not necessity. I teach mobile phone photography in the Cancer Support Community and I’m working with them to expand my curriculum nationally. I’d love to be able to help other cancer survivors use this art form for healing and de-stressing. It’s helped me and I feel it’s my way of helping others to cope and heal. I’d like to find more outlets for my artwork. I would like to be a grandmother at some point and live long enough to leave a lasting impression on my grandchildren as my grandmother did for me and as my mother did for my children.
What drives you on?
Love of my family. Interest in life and many new adventures. The first coffee of the day.
What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?
Not to be boring or redundant – my family, my children. I have a son and a daughter in their 20’s of who I’m immensely proud and who are actively achieving great things. They are fun, loving and keep life exciting. They and their peers are our hope for the future.
What do you find most irritating in other people?
Acceptance of corruption, and other garbage. The amnesia of forgetting what didn’t work before.
If your twenty-year old self could see you now, what would she think?
She’d say, ok not too bad, I stuck somewhere near the plan, but made some stupid mistakes and could’ve been more aware and insightful along the way. Back then I thought I was.
Which object that you’ve lost do you wish you still had?
My grandmother’s earring. I was wearing it in the car almost two years ago, and I felt something slither down under the seat and it was gone. Shortly after that someone cut me off and my car was totaled so there was no chance of finding it.
What is the greatest challenge of our time?
Technology growing while character, judgement and ethics are shrinking.
Do you believe in the afterlife?
Yes, I do. I believe we are spiritual being and that doesn’t die. I believe we probably live many times. The one life theory makes no sense to me. What would be the point? How else do you explain child prodigies?
If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far out of 10 what would you score?
7.5, but I’m not done yet.
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