Phoenix Tupper: Trash Queen

By John Yeley

April 24, 2018

“I have wanted to be an artist since as long as I can remember, and I've never wanted to be anything else.” 

  Differences in the way they speak , mixed media, 2018.

Differences in the way they speak, mixed media, 2018.

Phoenix Tupper is a 23 year-old art student at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. Despite pressure from her parents, who preferred her to be an engineer, an architect, or a lawyer, Phoenix has overcome every obstacle thrown in her path to make her dream a reality.

Tupper has bipolar disorder and claims painting saved her life. It is through the complex and symbolic aesthetics of her pieces, that she hopes to help other people cope with mental illness and actively assist in eliminating the stigma behind it. Phoenix’s unique work is the result of finding a constructive outlet for herself and others that are having similar experiences. After starting out as an art therapy major at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois, she found herself disenchanted when the art program was cut due to budget issues. After careful consideration, she packed her bags and started her life over in Charleston to attend Eastern Illinois University. Once settled in, something clicked:

“I was researching how art can help with coping mechanisms to help work through your problems, but I didn’t want to be in a hospital, or a prison, or a psych ward. I just starting applying it to myself – I started to use my work as a means of coping with my mental illness, and to talk about it openly.”

As a result, a lot of Phoenix’s work is self reflective and symbolic of the individuals who have made a positive impact in her life.  The result is a specific style of brutal honesty – no sugarcoating, no false impressions – the absolute truth.

“I want things to resonate. I want emotion. I want power. I want this feeling in somebody's chest to swell up and I want them to tear up a little bit because they had this moment where they stared at it and related enough that they stopped. I want to stop people at the sight of my work…If you’re not passionate about what you are doing, then what’s the point?”

  If I wasn't an artist, I'd still paint a wall once , oil on canvas, 2018.

If I wasn't an artist, I'd still paint a wall once, oil on canvas, 2018.

“Everybody still knows that you're sad or knows something's wrong. It doesn't matter how hard you're trying to fake a monochromatic smile…I was absolutely sobbing and I forced a smile as hard as I could.”

Phoenix’s senior art show, Trash Queen, speaks a lot about mental illness, and bipolar disorder in particular. Through harnessing her creative talents as a method to cope with her struggles Phoenix tells a success story: that even something beautiful can come out of the darkest of moments. Phoenix wants to make a lasting impact show people that it is okay to be who they really are – for better or for worse.

  Monochromatic , oil on canvas, 2018

Monochromatic, oil on canvas, 2018

“The reason why the show is called Trash Queen is because I feel like there's a certain sense of we're all kind of trash people at least in this age group in particular. And I want my work to help normalize that, and to help people to understand it's OK to be equal parts trash and class… there is a very big stigma around people not accepting who they really are… this is why the show is like that - I want it to be raw…I want to leave a lasting impact”

After concluding my interview with Phoenix, I was left with little doubt that she will accomplish this and even more. In addition to art, Phoenix has aspirations of becoming a tattoo artist, a stand-up comedian, and a burlesque dancer. By discovering an outlet that helped to alleviate her psychological anguish, Phoenix has the opportunity to improve the lives of the countless unspoken dealing with similar issues. Trash Queen, a retrospective of her work in college, will be open on April 26th from 2 to 8pm, with an artist's talk at 6:30, and April 27th  from 2 to 6pm in Doudna Fine Arts Center at Eastern Illinois University. 

“The most important thing for me is just to make work that I feel like people can connect with and hopefully on a larger scale.”

Images courtesy of the artist.

This article is funded by the Illinois State University Friends of the Arts. 


John Yeley is a Bloomington-Normal based writer, artist, and Criminology student at Indiana State University. He has previously studied Journalism at Butler University, and will be entering law school this fall to pursue his Juris Doctor degree.