Getting to Know illustrator Phoebe Morris

One of Wellington's hippest residents, Phoebe Morris is the talented illustrator behind newly released The Adventures of Mittens - the story of Wellington's world-famous cat-about-town. 

Phoebe's work has appeared in many industries - from the well known glorious picture books in the publishing world to local pest-trapping community groups and Google.

We chatted to Phoebe about her latest publication, giving back to her alma mater Brooklyn School and her favourite parts of the capital city.  


What’s your day job?

Right now I’m living a dual life as both an illustrator and a Service Designer. I’ve always dabbled in the latter and at the moment it is providing some much-needed financial stability through this pandemic, end-of-days, apocalypse-type situation. I’ve watched all of the good seasons of The Walking Dead and I own a sword, so I’m feeling ready for anything.


What's your connection to Vic Books?

When I graduated I worked there for a few months. My legacy was leaving pictures of David Brent from ‘The Office’ hidden all around the bookshop counter. I hid some extra ones well before I left, and suspect they may not be discovered for some time yet (ノ◕ヮ◕)ノ*:・゚✧.


How did you get into illustration work - was it something you always knew you wanted to do as a profession?

I remember asking how to spell ‘zoologist’ for a school assignment about dream jobs when I was very young - but I must have abandoned that pretty quickly because here we are. At different points I wanted to become a writer, director, animator, or concept artist in the film industry - I still wouldn’t mind dabbling in some of those things. 


How did you come about to illustrate Silvio Bruinsma’s book Mittens- was it a collaboration from the start and how closely did you have to work together?

I’m not sure if it is typical of every publisher, but often everything is mediated through an editor. In this case that editor was Catherine O’Loughlin from Penguin Random House. Catherine is lovely and we have worked on so many books together now!

After loading up on antihistamines, I did meet Silvio and Mittens briefly and asked a few questions about the text, intended audience, and some smaller details before starting on the illustrations. A big part of what I’ve enjoyed about illustrating picture books is having the freedom to take an author's text and figure out the best, most complementary visual story to pull from it - rather than being told prescriptively what to draw. I think the final artwork took about six weeks of intensive drawing for this book.


You’re a Wellingtonian and attended Brooklyn School. You’re one of the guest speakers at Appetities, the Brooklyn School fundraiser on 23 September. Is there a Wellington sensibility? How would you describe it and what influence does Wellington have on your work?

I’ve been told by people who have moved here that they find Te Whanganui-a-Tara very cliquey. They are probably right - or at least Pākehā can be like that. After more recently working in contracts in the public sector, I’ve found that I’m once again able to understand friends who disappeared into different government departments after university and stopped speaking english. Public sector jargon is a very real thing here. Now I know how to survive smalltalk about ‘SMEs’ and ‘high trust models’. 

I’m not sure how Wellington influences my work, although the Wellington-esque arrangement of houses on the hills has made it into a few different illustrations. I think I need to get out of here to be able to properly reflect on it - but Delta says nope.


Favourite three spots in Wellington?

I’m going to be a basic bitch and choose Princess Bay. My two other favourite spots are gone. One was Ekor Book Shop Cafe on College Street, run by the magnificent Niki Ward who had also worked at Vic Books. She had to sell Ekor to new owners for health reasons. The other was Six Barrel Soda on Dixon St. If anyone has hot intel on where you can sit in a sun patch, get bottomless filter coffee, and eat reasonably priced shoestring fries in one place - please slide into my DMs immediately. 


Tell us about a project of yours that stands out.

One of the most interesting and challenging books to work on was Cleo & Rob by Helen Brown. Helen’s writing was beautiful. I was able to mix up my illustration style and feel like the book we created was a meaningful one. A friend read it to her three-year-old. When she asked him ‘what do you think?’ he said simply - ‘that was lovely’.


Hardest thing to draw?

People and buildings, thanks.


What are you reading at the moment?

M Train by Patti Smith


Are you enjoying it? Why?

I read her writing and I’m like ‘damn this is so good’. I think her writing makes me feel nostalgic. I wish I’d read this book before I visited New York a few years ago, it seems like I could have tracked her down in a cafe pretty easily. But what could you say to a legend like Patti?  


Which literary character do you most identify with and why?

None really. But if I had to pick, I'd say Little My from Tove Jansson's Moomintroll series. We have a similarly devious facial expression from time to time.


Hardback or Paperback?



Black or white coffee?

Plunger coffee with cold milk and a little sugar.