The World’s First-Ever Full-Time Professional Finger-Painter Has a Show in Chelsea and It’s Pretty Great
Iris Scott became a social media sensation, and now she's on the verge of selling out her Chelsea gallery show.
In 2010, painter Iris Scott was living in Taiwan and feeling a little bit lazy. Her latest oil painting was almost complete, but all her brushes were stained and she didn’t want to clean them. Instead, Scott decided to use her fingertips to put the finishing touches on the canvas. It was a decision that changed the course of her career.
“I hated finger painting as a child, because I was like, ‘dammit, that’s not realistic enough,'” Scott admitted, speaking to artnet News at a preview of her upcoming New York solo show, “Ritual in Pairing,” with Filo Sofi Arts at the High Line Nine. “I did not like messes.”
But that fateful day in Taiwan, something clicked. “I remember thinking, ‘woah, that’s very juicy. I can really kind of sculpt this like clay,'” Scott recalled. (Today, her painterly canvases are so thick with oil paint they take about five weeks to dry.) She began researching finger painting, and was surprised to find that despite its ubiquity as a children’s craft, not one professional artist had ever done it as an adult.
“I was like, ‘I’m going to dedicate myself to finger painting’—now it’s ten years later!” said Scott. “I am lucky that I didn’t start finger painting until I had already really honed my skills fundamentally. I believe that if you can nail realism, you can pick up any tool and you’ll be really great at painting with it. Your ability to render is there, so you get to break the rules as you go. Realism is like a cushion upon which you branch off.”
Scott earned a BFA at Washington State University, studying abroad at the Accademia Italiana in Florence, Italy, her junior year. Since 2014, she’s lived in New York, keeping a studio in a former mattress factory in Brooklyn.
Finger painting is fast: Scott can use four fingers at once—she likens it to a dance—rather than a single brush, and she can just wipe her hands off on a paper towel to change colors, rather than constantly switching or painstakingly cleaning brushes.
Her unusual technique has been a hit on Facebook, where she had already been selling paintings directly to collectors for as little as $50—which was possible because her rent in Taiwan was just $100 a month. Over the years, demand has grown exponentially: last year, Scott told Forbes that her annual income from sales of her work was on the brink of $1 million.
Building a following on social media proved an effective means of marketing herself. “The audience has been with her every step of the way through her creative process,” explained Filo Sofi owner Gabrielle Aruta in an email to artnet News. “The result is that when finally seeing her completed works, people feel enveloped by them, like they are receiving a hug from a dear friend. People want to bring that feeling into their homes and live with these works on their walls.”
The large-scale canvases in Scott’s new show, which top out at 11 feet, are $45,000 each, with smaller canvases available for $4,500. When artnet News visited earlier this week, half of the works weren’t even hung, resting on the floor propped up against the walls. “We just actually got the keys three hours ago, so we haven’t finished the install,” Scott explained. And yet half the show had already sold out—a full four days before the opening.
Scott isn’t surprised her work is striking a chord with collectors. “I think that what the art world is missing is a connection to who we really are before we learn taste and fashion and all that,” she said. “As children, we have these instincts for beauty and joy and play and color. There’s a bit of a dystopian tone in the art world. There’s so much art that’s so very sad, in the name of seriousness. That’s all fine and dandy, but already we know what’s wrong. We need some optimism!”
Scott considers herself the head of a movement called Instinctualism. An excerpt from her manifesto: “To be an Instinctualist means to revel in beauty and color. It means to feel again. It is to allow the work of art to speak to you, with you.” She’ll showcase those impulses in an artist performance on May 17, in which she’ll don stilts and a finger painted gown, based on a large-scale self portrait in the show, and do a fertility rite.
The artist’s subjects are brightly colorful, wild animals in dense tropical jungles, or bold human figures in celebratory garb. “Her paintings are lush and resonate emotionally,” said Aruta. “People see and feel her presence in each mark she makes in the canvas with her fingers.”
Scott’s newest works also incorporate brushwork for the first time in nearly a decade, as she’s begun exploring a new hybrid approach. She’s done the faces and bare arms of her figures with the brush, a dramatic contrast with the loose, gestural finger painting strokes that make up the rest of the canvas.
“I’m a little apprehensive about this, because I think creativity blossoms where there is a limitation,” Scott admitted. But for now, she’s enjoying the experiment. “I feel like I have been trying to unlearn adulthood the past ten years, and just be who I am.”
To that end, she recently dug up some of her childhood artworks, creating a new canvas based on a piece she did when she was just ten years old. The youthful work is now framed and on view at the gallery.
“I found it at my mom’s house recently. I was like ‘damn, that’s kind of good,'” said Scott, who plans to continue making new work based on other early drawings. “I try to keep in touch with what I would have wanted to paint when I was still a child. Basically, it’s whatever makes me gasp.”
See more photos of Scott and her work below.
“Iris Scott: Ritual in Pairing” is on view at Filo Sofi Arts, the High Line Nine, 507 West 27th Street, New York, May 4–May 30, 2019.
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