Interview by T.K. Mills - Images Provided by Isabelle Ewing
If you’ve ever visited Bushwick, you’ve undoubtedly come across Isabelle Ewing’s artwork. Utilizing a delicate palette of pastels, Isabelle has left her mark on her adopted home. What you may not know is how she got here.
I met up with the artist in her Bushwick studio to discuss her upbringing and journey into street art, some of her spiritual and artistic philosophies, and the origins of ‘Eye Know.’
T.K. Mills: Starting off, when did you first realize you wanted to be an artist?
Isabelle Ewing: Since day one. I was born with the left hemisphere of my brain not being fully formed. I wasn't able to really talk, and art was pretty much the only thing I was good at. I was fortunate enough to get help with my speech impediment in that sense, but all other academia was incredibly tough for me. Hardly passing. I was really fortunate to have tutors and people helping me, but art was the only place that I didn't need any help with. It just came naturally.
T.K. Mills: You had mentioned before that you grew up on a farm. Could you tell me a little bit about farm life?
Isabelle Ewing: The farm was in Monkton, Maryland, which is 30 minutes from Baltimore. I was there until I was 13. My mom passed away when I was 6. And she was the one who really loved riding horses and was into all of that and tried to get my sisters and I into that. I have two older sisters. And so, once she passed away, the farm kind of dwindled, and my dad got remarried, and we moved closer to the city.
T.K. Mills: When did you first start taking your art a little bit more seriously?
Isabelle Ewing: During the summertime as a kid, I didn’t really know what to do. I was given the opportunity to attend a summer program for kids at MICA (Maryland Institute of Art) in Baltimore. I wasn’t old enough to be in the program, but somehow, some way, I put a portfolio together and got myself in.
I was one of the youngest people there. At that time, I was steering towards fashion and took some fashion classes at MICA. It was like, “Woah! I can do this.” All my art teachers were talking me up, encouraging me. And then every single summer since, I went to a summer program at a different school. So, I gained college credits at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) here in New York, Parsons, and SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) before I went to Savannah to finish my degree.
T.K. Mills: How did you find your way back from Georgia to New York?
Isabelle Ewing: Well, I always knew I would end up in New York. I had this feeling. So, I got my southern charm in Savannah, plus some manners and I had a lot of fun at SCAD. I went into the fashion program there. And I had so many professors tell me, “Isabelle, this is not the right major for you. You shouldn't do this.” I was devastated. I ended up minoring in Fibers for more creative freedom and had a special interest in repeat pattern.
Fast forward to me moving to New York. I moved here and I was couch hopping and trying to figure things out, doing multiple fashion internships for no money. I ended up getting a job in the fashion industry for a label that designed for Nordstrom's and Macy's, but they already have all the buttons picked out. They already have all the designs. They already have it all done. I spent maybe 6 months there and realized it wasn’t for me. But, I ended up making friends with somebody who had a studio right across from the studio I have now. And he shows me his studio. And I was like, “Wait a minute. You do this every day? You make money this way?”
At that time, I was making artwork in my apartment, in my teeny tiny room, and then I ultimately made the decision “All right. Fuck it. I ain’t gonna do this fashion thing anymore. I'm gonna figure out how to make my art and simultaneously make money at the same time.”
T.K. Mills: How did the transition go?
Isabelle Ewing: I knew that I didn't know anybody in the art world at that time and I needed a lot of help as far as community and learning. After doing a stint in real estate, I ended up working at Soho Art Materials. One of the only mom-and-pop shops left in New York. (They’re still around, they’ve got one here in Bushwick and another left in Soho.)
I learned a lot from them. I learned a lot about art material. I met artists that way as well. I was there for probably over a year, and was able to get my first studio during that time. It was a shared studio with katieballoons.com at Brooklyn Fire Proof Studios in Bushwick.
Props to katieballoons.com. She gave me my first studio and it was awesome - I was next door to a bunch of musicians and that was really fun. Ultimately, as I grew I needed my own space. I Found this space, and I was like, “Wait, it's bizarre that it's literally right across the street from the very first studio that I ever saw.” I saw that as a sign. And then I had a dream about it. That was another sign, and another sign and then it was like “All right, done.”
T.K. Mills: Did having your own studio space help you develop as an artist?
Isabelle Ewing: Totally. I was next door to Espartaco. There was a dividing wall between us… and I’m trying to hammer into the wall, playing rap music. We started talking, and he ended up helping to guide me as far as my work.
He ended up becoming kind of a mentor. He would hate for me to say that. He does not like the word “mentor,” but he pushed me like, “All right. You’re doing this? Make 30.” And I would say “Okay. Sounds good.” Because my mind was all over the place.
So I moved in, probably about 5 years ago. I moved in here literally the day of Open Studios. I saw the whole Bushwick Open Studios deal and was psyched about it. You can have that direct interaction with the art and the audience. People are gonna see your work. You don’t need to keep painting illegally on walls.
T.K. Mills: That’s a good segue to be my next question; when did you start experimenting with street art and murals?
Isabelle Ewing: When I first moved here, graffiti was everywhere, especially in Bushwick. I was immediately inspired. One of the first things that I noticed besides all the female artists was ‘To the Moon.’ I saw ‘To the Moon’ everywhere, by the artist Gazoo.
While I was in real estate, I got in touch with Gazoo and we ended up becoming friends. He took me out with his friends, his graffiti friends, I had my mind blown. My eyes pop open and I thought, “Oh, my gosh, this is what I need to be doing.” And I ended up finding Low Brow Artique. (An art shop specializing in spray paint) It was like walking into a candy store.
So, I found Low Brow. I met Bishop and he told me — “just get some cans and have fun. I got some spray paint. I had a ‘private roof’ at that time and I went to town and tried it out. I realized, this is what I need to do besides my studio painting. So, I kept painting outside. Soon enough, I got my first legal wall to paint.
I remember Byte Girl came up to me and took a picture. And I was like “What?! You wanna take a picture of me muraling? This is so bizarre.” Then I started my Instagram and people started DMing me being like “Hey, I have a wall. Do you wanna paint it?” That’s where it all started.
T.K. Mills: Can you explain the origins of ‘Eye Know’?
Isabelle Ewing: The Eye Know started from my initials actually, which is IKE. I was doing a college project and they told me I needed to come up with a brand name, and my friend comes up with Eye (I) Know Everything. So I started writing that.
When I was going out painting with friends, they were like “Isabelle, this is taking too long.” I dropped the Everything and kept the Eye and the Know. That’s where it all started with the Eye Know.
I like to have the moniker separate from my art because there’s a stigma that comes with graffiti. It’s considered low brow. I keep the two separate because I didn’t want my work to go into galleries and they’ll be like “Oh, she’s the graffiti artist.”
T.K. Mills: How did style, as Isabelle Ewing, develop? And what attracts you to your distinctive color palette?
Isabelle Ewing: I guess when I first started painting in my apartment. I mean it started when I started painting in general, but it really catapulted when I got my own studio. I got supplies from the art store that I worked at and was able to experiment.
And I just have been continuing to experiment with materials and techniques. I never have felt the need to stick to one specific style because that’s when it gets boring, at least for me.
In terms of colors, there’s a lot of pink, purple, and pastels. I guess it's a bit more feminine. That's probably where it comes from. It’s femme. I have a little bit of a dark past, and with the experiences that I've gone through, I wanted to showcase that, but keep it light and keep it fun.
When somebody looks into my art, I want them to feel good. I don't want them to feel bad. I want them to feel love. I want them to feel unity. I don't want them to feel sad. Even if it does come from a sad part of me, it will make somebody else feel less alone.
T.K. Mills: In some of your Instagram posts you discuss spirituality and divine auras. How do those elements influence your art?
Isabelle Ewing: I like to channel my spirituality by putting hidden messages in my work, as well as the Eye Know. That is a spiritual message in itself, it references the third eye chakra. The Eye Know also references the only knowing is you ‘cause I don’t know everything. I definitely don’t. I don’t know shit, but WE might.
What’s most important about my work is what it can represent. We are so much better together than we are apart. And if we continue to work together, if we continue to bring in unity, which I try to bring in through my art. That’s why I never paint a skin color. I’m using a spectrum of color. I'm using all types of facial features that might be white, they might be black, they might be gray, they might be blue. Not diminishing anybody's race. It's more a message of community. It's a more universal wavelength, you know.
T.K. Mills: What are some projects you've worked on that you're super proud of?
Isabelle Ewing: I’m really proud of my Massachusetts MoCA Museum. I painted a mural in the kid’s room there, thanks to Tim Okamura who I used to assist. That was a huge, huge thing for me because I’ve been telling people I’m gonna be in the museum one day and then I was.
My other proudest piece is at the Brooklyn Beer Garden. I love that mural. They let me have creative freedom. They’re some of the best people to work with.
And what I’m excited for in the future, my gosh... Probably too much.
T.K. Mills: Any parting advice or final thoughts?
Isabelle Ewing: The only knowing is you.