My 1,200sqft: Finger painting pioneer Iris Scott shows off her bright Bed-Stuy studio
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Nearly ten years ago, while living in Taiwan, artist Iris Scott didn’t feel like washing her blue-stained paint brushes. Instead, she used her finger to finish the piece and, to her surprise, discovered that this childhood arts and crafts project works really well on her own oil paintings. She searched online to see if any artists out there were already dedicated to finger painting and found no one. “I was like, it’s my purpose!” she told 6sqft during a recent tour of her Bed-Stuy studio.
Iris, who grew up on a farm outside of Seattle, started posting photos and videos of her vibrant animal and nature-centric artwork on Facebook and instantly received feedback from what she calls a “virtual crit group.” She began selling her paintings online and because her Taiwan apartment was just $100 per month, was able to immediately work full time as a finger painter. Iris, credited with starting the Instinctualist movement, calls her career trajectory a “magical path.” “I’ve always wanted what I have and I’ve always felt what I have is more than I expected I could have.” Now, a decade later, Iris has her first big solo exhibition in New York City, a Ritual in Pairing, at Filo Sofi Art’s pop up space at the High Line Nine, which closes June 6. Ahead, see inside Iris’s sun-drenched corner loft in Brooklyn and learn about her 20-piece solo show, her fierce love of animals, and why she finds it flattering when children like her paintings.
Iris told us she likes to keep the decor of her apartment more minimalist because her studio is so busy. “There’s so much content, there’s Netflix, and Instagram, and outside, and my own thoughts, and it’s like shut up! So a lot of white is really nice in my own apartment.”
Her cat Foxy poses for a photo
Can you tell us about your background and your upbringing?
I grew outside of Seattle on a micro farm, which is two of every animal like Noah’s Ark. It wasn’t a working farm whatsoever, although we did collect milk and we did drink goat milk. My parents both worked at home and it was a really artsy little upbringing. They both work with their hands. My dad is a cabinet maker and my mom is a piano teacher. So craftsmanship and practice is our motto, and also like going to entertain yourself. There wasn’t a lot of toys, there wasn’t a lot of stuff, there was just a lot of time to explore the outdoors, play with animals, and practice something. When you want to get good at something, just practice it.
And then you went to art school?
I studied art in college, but I didn’t think it was a job option because I had never heard of it being an option. Then I got a degree in teaching 4th grade as my fall back, and luckily–I mean, I would have loved to be a fourth-grade teacher–but luckily after college, I decided, once I was debt free from nannying, to go to Taiwan for a year and just practice. I hadn’t gotten a whole year to really practice because there were always a million different distractions. Plus, it was inexpensive to live in Taiwan, so my small savings could go a really long way there.
I get there and I start practicing, practicing, practicing, and at that time I was using brushes. I started posting my paintings on Facebook. Then, people started inquiring if they were for sale. My rent was $100 a month at that time, so I only had to sell a few paintings online to cover all my costs. I went full time immediately because I already felt so wealthy. It’s kind of my magical path, which has been that I’ve always wanted what I have and I’ve always felt what I have is more than I expected I could ever have.
For her solo show this month, Iris used both finger painting and brushes
How did you land in this building?
Well, I had envisioned myself in a corner unit loft that was really big, like a factory loft, but couldn’t find one. I then found a loft that wasn’t a corner, and right when I told the broker, “yeah I’ll take it,” he got a phone call right when I said that. It was a corner unit loft in the building. And the rest is history.
What’s it like living and working in the same spot?
I don’t mind it, it’s just one big open room. It’s 1,200 square feet so you can get a pretty good jog going from one end to the other. For me, it’s enough. My parents worked at home. My dad’s shop was attached to the house, so it feels kind of normal. My mom taught piano in the house. So I’m sure it would be great to have separate space, but I just haven’t had one.
Iris holds up “Exodus of Pisces,” her 96 X 72-inch painting of an androgynous sorceress, an orca whale, narwhals, and a sailfin rainbow fish.
Iris found this drawing she did at age 10 at her mom’s house; it served as the inspiration for “Exodus of Pisces.”
Can you tell us about how you were inspired to start finger painting and how it began?
I was living in Taiwan at the time and was posting everything online [on Facebook] at the time. I was getting feedback right away basically from a virtual crit group. I listened. I was interested in what was exciting people. Because I believe we are all kind of one, so if I get two in my own single oneness I feel very distant from myself. So what was exciting them, was really exciting to me. I mean, I didn’t paint anything I hated to paint. But I painted more of what people liked that I also liked.
The finger painting happened because my brushes were stained blue and I didn’t want to go wash them, so I just finished it off. I tried finger painting and I was like wow, this is very textural. And kind of clay-like. I love Van Gough and Monet so I was like, someone else has got to be doing this. I looked it up, and no one was really doing it, no one was dedicating themselves to it.
So I was like, it’s my purpose! I proclaimed that in my little $100 a month studio, about 10 years ago. Only recently, for this show, have I started experimenting doing hybrid finger painting and brushes. But for the last 10 years, it’s just been a wild fingerpainting ride.
Above the desk hangs “Madam Saluki,” inspired by a dog with “supermodel limbs” Iris met in New Mexico.
Foxy sits in front of a painting of one of two bowerbirds, the courtship of which is the theme of her “Ritual in Pairing” show. Iris got the idea from watching a documentary on this species of birds.
Tell us about your love for animals and how they inspire you and your work.
For some reason, I feel like I’m going to cry at the question of animals. I burst into tears a couple of days ago about a black panther, just being himself.
He was okay?
Oh yeah, he was okay. I was just in tears. Animals are just so important. It’s hard for me to put it into words. I think that there will come a time soon where we will be able to hear their thoughts. We’ll know what they’re thinking and saying, and we’ll realize that they’re really little “usses.”
I think the divide between humans and animals, especially the lack of animal art in the New York art scene is very disturbing to me, and I’m really glad that Gabrielle [Gabrielle Aruta runs the gallery Filo Sofi Arts] recognizes that environmentalism and animals and plants are actually the future of where art is going. That’s where our collective consciousness is going. They’re about to get a lot cooler. I think we’re moving away from such a human-centric paradigm.
The male bowerbird painting, with a blue marble in his beak, sits on the window sill.
Using a latex glove, Iris often uses nearly 100 colors in a single painting.
And why do you think that is? Why doesn’t New York art feature more animals and nature?
I think it’s just run its course and it’s boring. It’s almost caused total disaster and it’s visually uninteresting. I think it has a lot to do with, historically speaking, from man speaking, specifically mankind, just being really self-absorbed and into himself and discovering how much power he has over the planet. But that didn’t work out so well, so we’re moving into more of a feminine, more balanced, more well-rounded, more loving, more cuddly, more animal-oriented time.
The 8-foot high “MangHoe Lassi Rising” painting depicts the drag queen alter ego of Humza A. Mian, a vet tech living in Canada. Iris had fabric made with the design of the dress.
An up-close look at the textural patterned dress of “MangHoe Lassi Rising.”
Do you ever draw from current events to inspire your art?
This recent portrait of MangHoe Lassi, a Canadian who has a fantastic alter ego in the drag world as MangHoe Lassi, this is their portrait. I’m really excited to showcase their amazing look, called “MangHoe Lassi Rising.” But again, they are a vet tech by day, so they’re this being of the animal world, and so I just really wanted to highlight this leader character in our society.
How do you come up with the ideas for the paintings? Do you just wake up one day with one?
Kind of, yeah! I do a lot of sketching in my sketchbook. I chop up old paintings, I chop up old pictures and combine them. I actually just started with a photo they took on their Instagram of their face and just kind of went, where can this go? And I sort of just built the rest of it.
Most of my art is, well it’s becoming a little more narrative, but mostly it’s focusing on beauty for beauty sake and trying to legitimize that approach in art. I really believe in color, I’m not that into minimalism. I’m just not. I’m really into minimalism in my own home decor, but I just don’t want to be building it and making it.
To the left of the dress, “Tiger Fire” features an adult female tiger among trees. Measuring eight feet wide and six feet tall, it’s the largest finger painting she’s completed.
Iris built and designed the dress seen above. It’s also seen in her self-portrait “I of the Needle.”
Why do you think you keep your decor like this?
I think it’s because my studio is so busy and I just need a break. There’s so much content. There’s Netflix, and Instagram, and outside, and my own thoughts, and it’s like shut up! So a lot of white is really nice in my own apartment.
How long did it take to decorate and furnish your place?
I feel like I tinker with it a little bit each day. I can’t stop touching everything. It didn’t take that long. I threw out the microwave yesterday because I couldn’t stand looking at it anymore. I hated it, off with its head. It took me about a year until I got the apartment into a place that I could stand.
Iris will sometimes start by sketching ideas in her notebook. Lately, she’s also chopped up old paintings and combined them for new ideas.
On a wall in her apartment, Iris writes notes to herself.
You’ve said you want your art to resonate with the kid in all of us. Why?
Something I’ve noticed that really disturbs me about art fairs at the highest level in New York City is that there are no children. It’s my opinion that if these artists were truly great, then it would be very interesting to children. And it’s not, it’s boring. That’s why adults aren’t bringing their kids there. Because the kids can’t’ stay focused at all. I think that if we get in touch with who we really are and shed filters, we will instinctually know what we’re drawn towards. We won’t be as susceptible to other people tricking us into buying things that we actually don’t want or need.
So I think it’s a huge compliment when children will like my art. It’s not something bad. It’s very important because they’re so there. I try to choose colors that I would pick out of my crayon box. Which is basically, more. And hot, bright color.
How do you usually spend a day?
I am obsessed with working, so I’m thinking about painting and all aspects of it all the time. And I’m trying to work on that and actually be present when I’m around people. But I wake up around 9 a.m. I tinker around and waste time until like 11 a.m. And then I work as hard as I can from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. or 8 p.m. and then I collapse and eat dinner and watch Netflix, or really Youtube documentaries, until like 11. I wake up the next day and just repeat and repeat and repeat.
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