Terrence Phearse in Dialogue: A conversation with 2021 Driskell Fellow Terrence Phearse and 2020 Driskell Fellow Marvin Milian

By Marvin Milian, Cohort ’20


October 18, 2021

Terrence Phearse is 33 years old and lives nearly 3,000 miles away from me in New York City. He’s a researcher, photographer, writer, and curator who comes to IDSVA through a life of World exploration. We are separated by millions of people, hundreds of cities, numerous states, yet we are at IDSVA studying together. Somewhat fortunate, I’d say. Terrence was born in Houston, Texas, and received graduate education in the U.K.. There, at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, he examined the work of Frederick Douglass, who, as a freed slave, became the most photographed American in the 19th century. Terrence refers to Douglass as “the most underappreciated American philosopher.” Through IDSVA and with Dr. Driskell’s mission in mind, Terrence plans to change that narrative. A narrative that is intimate for Terrence in that his great-great-grandfather was named after Frederick Douglass after his father, a former slave, saw an image of Douglass. At IDSVA, Terrence aims to “find the gaps in Western philosophy, and look beyond certain periods, hoping to speak from a more diverse perspective.” This personal philosophy rings vibrant in the black and white contrast of Terrence’s photography, a passion that he pursued with a second master’s degree from the University of Westminster, London in photography, and he looks to expand upon philosophically under the umbrella of IDSVA.

I asked Terrence what it meant to receive the Driskell Fellowship and how he envisioned Dr. Driskell’s mission as a mandate. Poignantly Terrence responded that as a person of color [he] hopes to think outside photography, outside Eurocentric philosophy and focus on uplifting the artist, absent Western prejudice. This idea excites Terrence, and he gleefully thinks about how working in the vein and under the legacy of Dr. Driskell will impact his “multi-hyphened career in art, authorship, and under the title of a curator.” That said, the titles of artist, writer, curator are a funny thing for Terrence. I asked Terrence to describe himself in one word, to give himself a title: he did, but it took a while. He paused in silence and reflected, perhaps on his travels to Europe or his move from Houston to New York City. I could hear in the silence his contemplation of his parents, his mother from Louisiana, and his father a native Texan. After a few moments, he laughed, and shortly after he spoke articulating what that word (or words) would be and why he doesn’t like titles, but he settled on “artist-researcher.” 

Terrence, you and I came together from very different walks of life. Yet, we both sought out IDSVA as an alternative path to what you call “traditional/conventional art history graduate education,” and serendipitously, we ended up here, under the legacy of George Smith and Dr. David C. Driskell. Terrence, you and I will be good friends through this program, but I must disagree with your conclusion that you are an artist-researcher… you, sir, are an artist-philosopher.