PhoebeNY: You'd Like Her

Written by J. Scott Orr
Photography by Daryl-Ann Saunders

“You’d like her. I mean if you tell old Phoebe something, she knows exactly what the hell you’re talking about. I mean you can even take her anywhere with you.”

This is what 16-year-old Holden Caufield has to say about his 10-year-old sister, Phoebe, in chapter ten of J.D. Salinger’s classic The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger’s Phoebe is a character so steeped in duality that scholars still wonder about her today, seventy years after the novel’s publication. She is at once an innocent little child who wears elephant pajamas and sleeps with her mouth open, and a thoughtful, wise counselor to her older brother, Holden, Salinger’s persistently confused and angst-ridden adolescent protagonist.

Which brings us to PhoebeNewYork, a modern-day study in similar contrasts. Her balloon-like head is that of a cartoon sprite, innocent yet oddly alluring, a little bit like Betty Boop. Her body is fashion-week perfect, a grown-up woman in hose and heels. And the street-corner counsel she dispenses is sagacious in its simplicity. She’s a lot like Salinger’s Phoebe.

Photo by Daryl-Ann Saunders

“I do think there are many similarities between Phoebe Caufield and my character.”

This is as it should be, according to Libby Schoettle, the New York based artist and creator of PhoebeNewYork. In fact, she said, the cute and clever street art muse whose likeness can be found wheat-pasted across lower Manhattan and in galleries worldwide is Phoebe Caufield’s namesake. So, obviously, the shared duality is no accident. “I do think there are many similarities between Phoebe Caufield and my character,” Schoettle told UP

“We never find out what happens to Phoebe Caufield, and telling the story of an interesting character who’s overlooked, and whose story doesn’t end, resonates with me. I also like the idea of using the name Phoebe as a way to reveal parts of myself, but not myself exactly. My Phoebe is a reflection of me, of my thoughts and feelings; she is, and has been, a vehicle for me to express myself,” she said.

Phoebe has taken up residence at West Chelsea Contemporary (WCC), 231 10th Ave., as part of that gallery’s latest street art showcase Concrete to Canvas. She’s in good company: Other notables sharing wall space with Libby and Phoebe include Yoshimoto Nara, Keith Haring, Shepard Fairey, Richard Hambleton, Blek Le Rat, Kenny Sharf, Swoon, Al Diaz, Cey Adams and Risk. The show runs through Dec. 23.

New Yorkers, of course, were acquainted with Phoebe, and by association Libby, long before her work made its way to galleries and museums. In fact, Phoebe has been offering up inspirational words streetside for nearly two decades.

Photo by Daryl-Ann Saunders

According to Phoebe, you should…“own it,” “risk it,” and if they don’t like it, “fuck ‘em.” 

According to Phoebe, you should not just “be yourself,” you should also “believe in yourself.” You should “never quit,” “be confident,” manifest “girl power,” but “be safe.” You should “own it,” “risk it,” and if they don’t like it, “fuck ‘em.” Hardly profound sentiments, but popping up as they do on big city streets where optimism and good cheer may not occur in ample measure, they do have the power to excite people’s brighter angels. Especially those of women and, perhaps even moreso, those of ambitious young women striving against life’s headwinds.

That her art should become a source of comfort and inspiration for New Yorkers seems a bit odd considering her bucolic upbringing. Libby was born in Bryn Mawr, one of many well-to-do towns along the Main Line that stretches westward from Philadelphia into its vast suburbs. She was brought up at Church Farm School, a boy’s boarding school in Exton, PA, where her father was an English teacher

Photo by Daryl-Ann Saunders

“Taking my art to New York’s streets and revealing Phoebe so publicly was a leap of faith for me.”

“Taking my art to New York’s streets and revealing Phoebe so publicly was a leap of faith for me,” she admits, though she also notes that her small-town upbringing provided a level of grounding as she embarked on her grown-up, big-city life. And it has certainly influenced her art. She maintains fond memories of her childhood and her family, particularly her grandfather, an artist educated at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in Philadelphia. “I remember my grandparents’ old world style, and charm, and that has followed me throughout my life,” she said.

Schoettle gave birth to Phoebe after an extended gestation period that dates to a single event that took place in Paris in 2001. It was there that she snapped a photograph of a pale rose sweater and bright red slacks, acquired at a flea market, arranged on the floor as a humanoid with a fluff jar for a head.

Photo by Daryl-Ann Saunders


“It has taken me almost 20 years to develop her, and she keeps evolving.”

“It has taken me almost 20 years to develop her and she keeps evolving. I didn’t know anything about street art back then. I was an inside studio artist, and how incredibly freeing it is to see it move from inside to outside,” she said. In recent years, though, the two have been gradually reversing course, making the move from the streets into the galleries like so many of today’s top street artists. “I think my original work is geared toward galleries. I wasn’t a street artist at first, so I believe that helped me. But I also feel very lucky to have been asked to do gallery shows. It’s not easy for any artist,” she said.

One big break came in 2020, when Gary Seals, the owner of WCC, became enamored of her work on the streets of New York and sought her out for a show at the gallery’s flagship location in Austin. Seals recalled climbing the seven flights of stairs to Libby’s apartment in a downtown walk-up. “I wasn’t leaving there without getting Phoebe in the gallery,” he said during the opening of the current show. Since then, she has been featured regularly at both WCC locations.

While she doesn’t work in the street as much anymore, Libby derives some satisfaction at seeing Phoebe’s prior incarnations holding strong against natural and manmade challenges. “The street is an extremely unpredictable place and it’s tough to weather the storm. I certainly pass a few though, and always think, ‘Great, there she is, still holding on.’”

But are Libby and Phoebe one and the same? That’s a surprisingly tough question.

Photo by Daryl-Ann Saunders

“I’m similar to Phoebe in the things we both feel, but Phoebe is free in ways I am not free. And that is the difference.” 

At times, Phoebe is my emotional counterbalance. She is brightest when I feel darkest. She’s expressive and pithy when I’m feeling tongue-tied and forlorn. I’m similar to Phoebe in the things we both feel, but Phoebe is free in ways I am not free. And that is the difference,” Libby said.

Still, the two are inseparable, as they have always been. And after two decades, their evolution as individuals and as a couple is hardly complete.

“I think we, as artists, worry at times about whether our art can evolve or get better, or even if we will ever think of a new, and or better idea. I’m not competitive with other people but I am with myself, so that can be a fault, but it also pushes me. I’m in that place of uncertainty right now. I recently made a piece that says ‘midlife crisis’ which feels right,” Libby said.

Though Phoebe lives more and more in galleries these days, Libby remains respectful of the street environment and says the importance of street art as a movement cannot be overstated.

Photo by Daryl-Ann Saunders

“It’s exciting. It is what gives a city its edge, it’s necessary, and it is art.”

As with weather, the street changes every day, here today gone tomorrow and so to stay up you have to get back up. There are always new artists to be found out there. Suddenly, like magic, there is a new voice,” she said.

“It’s exciting. It is what gives a city its edge, it’s necessary, and it is art.”

J. Scott Orr is a career writer, editor and a recovering political journalist. He is publisher of the East Village art magazine B Scene Zine.

Instagram: @bscenezine