Arielle Bobb-Willis Furiously Happy

    Arielle Bobb-Willis, New Jersey, 2022 (model: Tianna St. Louis; make-up: Mical Klip; hair: Errol Karadag; stylist: Herin Choi). Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire
Arielle Bobb-Willis, New Jersey, 2022 (model: Tianna St. Louis; make-up: Mical Klip; hair: Errol Karadag; stylist: Herin Choi). Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire

Inspired by painters such as Milton Avery, William H. Johnson, Jacob Lawrence, Joan Miró, and Mary T. Smith, photographer Arielle Bobb-Willis is known for her colourful, unconventional images that focus on the human figure presented in an atypical fashion. She states: “Within paintings, there’s no end of things you can do with the body, and this has pushed me to see restrictions within reality differently.” The photographs Bobb-Willis creates present unusual shapes and volumes, and use colour to deconstruct the typical means by which an image is organized, such as a figure before a building or inserted in the landscape. Creating work for her own artistic practice, but also shooting editorially, she uses garments to manipulate visual boundaries and create volumetric shapes that occupy much of the picture plane, akin to the way a painter would create unfettered forms on a canvas.

Arielle Bobb-Willis, New Jersey, 2017 (model: Daquan Jeremy; stylist: Arielle Bobb-Willis). Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire

While drawing inspiration from the neighbourhoods and spaces that are familiar to her, Bobb-Willis’s images push beyond the everyday to embrace tension and difference. Her unique visual language celebrates “uncomfortable positions” based on personal experiences of discomfort; leaning into tension, she gently nudges her models to move beyond typical poses so that they bend, stretch, and contort to present new visual possibilities. Her subjects act as sculptures and offer striking, surreal takes on the human form—asking us to all think differently, expansively.

In the following interview, curator and Executive Director of Vancouver’s Capture Photography Festival Emmy Lee Wall speaks to artist Arielle Bobb-Willis about her practice and the project presented at Davisville Station in Toronto, and on East Hastings billboards as part of Capture.

Furiously Happy: An Interview with Arielle Bobb-Willis

Emmy Lee Wall In our first studio visit, you mentioned that your practice is influenced more by painting than photography. What paintings are you looking at and how have they shaped your work?

Arielle Bobb-Willis I really love Zeinab Diomande, Kezia Harrell, Simphiwe Ndzube, Skye Volmar, and Marlon Wobst right now. Some staple artworks I always return to include The Fireside Angel (1937) by Max Ernst—it’s such an original thought. I feel like I can hear the creature stomping around. Jitterbugs (IV) (1941) by William H. Johnson—it’s inspiring to see how this painting changed from the first attempt through to the fourth. I like the whole series, but the fourth is so abstract while still allowing me to feel how enmeshed the two subjects are and how much fun they are having together. Play (1999) by Jacob Lawrence is a world I wish I could live in! All of his paintings are how I wish the world looked all the time. The film Free, White and 21 (1980) by Howardena Pindell opened my eyes to what kind of artist I could be. Maria Martins’s The Impossible (1945) reminds me of two lovers who can’t seem to communicate properly. It’s such an honest way to portray the harsh reality of failed love. Gustav Vigeland’s sculpture park The Vigeland (1869–1943) has so much movement to study, and it’s beautiful to see his life’s work in one place. So many more! I love the Fauvist movement of the early 1900s as well. These are a handful of works that completely changed my thought process on creating.

ELW Can you describe your process? Your images are so specific in relation to colour and form—when you set out to shoot do you already have a pre-ordained image in mind? Or is the creative process more organic for you?

ABW It starts from different inspirations every time. I’ll find a piece of clothing I want to shoot, I’ll see a colour combination I love, or I’ll drive by a really perfect location. I love to improvise, it’s my favourite thing to do. It helps me get out of my own way and not think too hard. It’s pure in-the-moment creating; it keeps me present and is therapeutic. I usually have a huge bag with clothes and props, my camera, and the sun. Very simple. Very very organic.

ELW I read in another interview that you like to push the boundaries of what is comfortable in your work and that you may ask your models to hold difficult positions. This, for me, is what really distinguishes your work from pure fashion photography. Can you talk about this a bit?

ABW I was first introduced to the art world through painters, so painting is the first place I go to for inspiration. My dad has a big respect for painters, too. He grew up in Brooklyn during the Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring era. He always had books and posters around our apartment. There is no limit to what you can paint; it imposes no limit on how you can stretch the body. I try to gently push my subjects in a direction that questions what a “portrait” traditionally is.

Arielle Bobb-Willis, New Jersey, 2018 (model: Alton Mason; make-up: Beau Derrick; stylist: Avena Gallagher). Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire

I also don’t always use models. I street cast or find people via Instagram. It’s nice to get people out of their comfort zone and have them step into my world for a little bit. When they see the photos they’re like “That’s me???” Besides shooting outside (in the real world), working with people who don’t model grounds the image in reality even more. I love street photography, so I think that’s the photography I envision when I shoot. Alex Webb is one of my favourites. I like to think I stumbled upon my subjects in the street while roaming around whatever city I happen to be in. They can be awkward and bring something new to the photo. Nothing too perfect, just what it is.

ELW Most of your images are shot outdoors. What locations are interesting for you? And are sites anonymous for you or does place hold meaning in your work?

ABW There is so much that I find beautiful. I would say I love locations that have texture. I love it when people paint over graffiti and there are these weird patches of paint that are different colours. I love poorly painted wooden fences, wide grass hills, and the levees in New Orleans. I love the shadows of trees on the sides of buildings, and I love that all of these things bring layers to an image. It’s so fun to find mini-sets around the cities I travel to. When I was visiting Portland, I freaked out when I saw the long streets FILLED with bright yellow leaves. At this point in my life, the world is more beautiful to me than it’s ever been. Photography has brought so much to my attention that I maybe wouldn’t have looked for without it. I’m constantly looking for moments every day, constantly curious. I’m very grateful.

ELW I’m curious if living in Los Angeles has influenced your work and your palette?

ABW I moved to Los Angeles in July 2020, when I was 26. I had a job with Lady Gaga and decided to stay. Los Angeles was never a place I thought to move to before. It was such a last minute choice, but I had a very instinctual gut feeling that it would be for the better. Growing up on the East Coast, I never truly explored the West. Being in Los Angeles, and having new territory to roam has given me a breath of fresh air and a sense of independence I never had before. I’m here in Los Angeles on my own, it’s definitely “Arielle Land.” It’s sunny and colourful and has so much texture, beautiful biodiversity, and odd architecture. All the things I love.

I’ve always talked about my depression, how it’s influenced my work, and how photography has been a therapeutic practice for me. While living in Los Angeles, I’ve been creating from a place of abundance and happiness instead of scarcity and fear. I don’t feel the same way I did at 19. I’m creating from a place that’s much more whole. It’s influenced me as a person. I feel a bit lighter and I’ve come to trust myself a lot more. Moving across the country alone will do that to you! I feel I’ve become an adult in Los Angeles, and it’s the healthiest I’ve been in a long time.

Curated by Emmy Lee Wall

Presented by CONTACT in partnership with Capture Photography Festival, Vancouver. Supported by PATTISON Outdoor Advertising

Arielle Bobb-Willis has been using the camera for nearly a decade as a tool for empowerment, developing a visual language that speaks to the complexities of life. She applies a “painterly” touch to her photography using vivid colours while documenting her subjects in disjointed positions to highlight the complexities of the human experience. Bobb-Willis is currently based in Los Angeles, and is represented by Les Filles du Calvaire, Paris. Clients and collaborators include Vogue, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Variety, Nike, Apple, Thom Browne, Valentino, Ugg, Converse, and Hérmes.

Emmy Lee Wall is currently Executive Director and Chief Curator of Capture Photography Festival and prior to that worked at the Vancouver Art Gallery for more than a decade, where she worked on numerous historical and contemporary exhibitions. Her curatorial practice has a particular focus on art in public spaces and she has worked on public art projects with a diverse range of local and international artists including Vikky Alexander, Elisabeth Belliveau, Douglas Coupland, Sara Cwynar, Moyra Davey, Christopher Lacroix, Michael Lin, Anique Jordan, Meryl McMaster, Krystle Coughlin Silverfox, Steven Shearer, Shellie Zhang, and Elizabeth Zvonar.