Tiffany is a writer interested in sharing stories concerning the human experience, artistic dedication and social / environmental justice. As a young girl growing up on the coast of North Carolina...
As I walk through the Whole Foods checkout line with a to-go container from the hot bar, a slice of cornbread and two bottles of Buchi kombucha, a mass-produced coloring book dubbed "A Soul Bird’s Journey" sits on the stand in front of me. I look over at artist Phil Cheney, who has been yo-yoing the idea of making one of his own and laugh, handing it to him to take a look. As a friend and supporter of his work, I was apparently one of the many straws to break the stenciled black and white camel’s back (you know, the one waiting to be colored by you).
Since the coloring book craze took over the covers of women’s magazines as the latest doctor-approved way to lower anxiety and ease depression early last year, Cheney has received hundreds of requests for one inked specially from his pen. Apparently he was getting requests even before this adult-approved and doctor-recommended hype began. As a 25-year artist who moved to Western North Carolina from Delray Beach, Florida as a small child, he’s been drawing and painting ever since he can remember. It runs in the family: his mother, artist Judith Cheney did it, and continues to, as her mother did before her.
“What inspired me to be an artist?” he repeats my question back to me. “Originally it was just the least expensive way to keep me occupied and from being a pain in my mom’s butt while she was trying to do her artwork,” he laughs. “Instead of putting me into a daycare of having a nanny, I was just given art supplies and made messes with those in the studio on the floor trying to keep busy.”
He carried that with him into Hendersonville High School, where he realized subjects like science and math didn’t appeal to him as much as artistic endeavors. So he worked on the school paper as an art editor, made t-shirts, decorated the hallway bulletin boards and helped create sets for many of the school plays. “I just took every art thing you could take because I realized it was genetic for me and not something easy to escape.”
He attempted college and realized it wasn’t for him and instead started working at Blue Moon Bakery. He continued drawing, mostly cartoons. In fact, one of his greatest inspirations is the artist behind the cartoon Bloom County, Berkely Breathed. It was at the bakery that he met a dishwasher and artist named Woosel that introduced him to a band and group of people known as Snake Oil Medicine Show that would change his life forever, as an artist and as a person. Cheney recalls going to their next live show in Waynesville at the Full Circle Café on April 1, 1997 with his then-wife, local musician and activist Ami Worthen.
"It was like, 'Welcome home son, where have you been?' They were the strangest rag-tag bunch of people on stage that I’ve ever seen--all these funny different people playing these crazy combinations and styles of music all at once," he laughs recalling his first interaction with the group.
Cheney joined the caravan of Snake Oil Medicine Show as their on-stage artist and, through his years of traveling and trying his hand at live painting, defined and refined his colorful psychedelic folk art style. It’s certainly one that lends itself to coloring book imagery as he uses the old pen and ink (quill dipped into an inkwell) method to draw, which naturally gives thicker lines similar to the bold outlines used in images for coloring-in. After the requests for coloring book picked up steam with the growing trend, Cheney finally began re-drawing his paintings from his years traveling and live painting with the slam-grass group of SOMS.
“I went back through my portfolio and looked at pieces that I really love a lot and chose the pieces that spoke to me as wanting to be in a coloring book. I took on the challenge of turning those paintings into drawings that someone would want to color as they kept saying would be a good idea to do.”
The process was a lengthy one, he recounts, as he tested his pen-and-ink method over and over and went through a variety of pens and style to hand-draw paintings into their new coloring book format. He had friends and fellow artists working in the Riverside Business Park around him that stopped in and offered different services to help bring the coloring book and Kickstarter campaign to life.
“I saw the ones [coloring books] at the Whole Foods Grocery store counter and thought those were interesting but didn’t want to do that kind of thing. Then I saw a book that was made locally that really stood out to me and knew I wanted to do it locally rather than send this to some big self-publishing printing house somewhere and sit on boxes of thousands of coloring books.”
Artist and Printer Rocky Kenworthy of Dot Additions, who shares a studio with local photographer Steve Mann just down the road from Cheney, came in and envisioned the printing process and connected him to a local binder. Sean Halas of MarkUS Free Productions, a musician and part of the downstairs business Watershed Drybags and an admirer of Cheney's work, made the Kickstarter video.
“The people who have taken part in it already are all these people who I’ve known and met and have inspired me, so it’s really exciting,” said Cheney. “It’s this cool new way of being able to sell your stuff without having to go out on a limb and buy it and sit on it. It’s a new kind of economy. I’ve seen a lot of cool things come to life through this process.”
You can order one of Phil Cheney’s limited edition hand-drawn and locally printed and bound coloring books on Kickstarter until mid-May or support his project by buying another form of his art. He also has a CD of his music, archival quality prints and more available.