Monday, February 21, 2011

Ten Minutes with Nancy Miller

I first saw Nancy Miller's mosaics in a show at Beaners Central in Spirit Valley. They were compelling. More recently we met at one of Jessica Turtle's art openings and since then have crossed paths at yet another art event. Her enthusiasm is infectious and she had plenty to share so this will be a two day post. Seeing that she is also a Dylan fan, I am sure that we'll cross paths again this spring, at Dylan Days.

The interview is a bit long, but worth the ride.

Ennyman: When did you first realize you were more creative than some people and decide to pursue art?

Nancy Miller: I don't think I really made a conscious decision that I was more creative than other people. I guess I just viewed it as that I "could draw" when I was 6 or so, and then really started to notice my ability to render when I was 10, which finally gelled when I was 14.

What I called the "abilty to draw" I now consider the "ability to render", which is a skill because mostly what I was doing was reporting what I saw rather than true creativity. To me true creativity is putting information through a process in my head that divides and combines the information that I want to work on and then I push it out into a concept. I noticed this develop a great deal when I was about 17 or 18. That's when I began to develop unconventional ideas and then decided that I needed to be an artist above all else.

E: Have you always lived on the Iron Range and how has that influenced your creative pursuits?

NM: I have not always lived on the Iron Range. I guess I would say that the desire to leave the Iron Range was the greatest influence the Iron Range had on me at that time because I always felt as though I didn't fit in. That said, there are a few influential people from the Iron Range whom l credit with opening my eyes to art not being just about the accuracy of rendering with a pencil. My best friend, her sister and her mother were all interested in art, music and fashion and so I was exposed to things that I would never have experienced had I not known them. At that time I got to watch MTV at my friend's house back in the days when musicians made videos and the creativity in those early videos had a major influence on how I viewed the world.

E: You have recently overcome a bout with cancer. What are some things you’ve learned through this experience?

NM: I have learned from my cancer that I mean a lot to my friends and family. I didn't realize the depth of that until this happened to me. I also learned how to put into practice what I knew in theory about living in the moment. What helped me not to be worried about the future was what I was told by someone important to my development as an adult. I was told "Nancy! Don't worry about that because you could be run over by a car before that happens." That really puts things into perspective if you really think about it. Why worry? There's no point. You could choke on a pretzel before whatever dreaded event happens happens. I learned to live moment to moment, one second following the next like the cars on a train.

I spent my first year of college at St. Cloud State University, and then moved to Minneapolis and lived there from 1988 - 1995. When I was at St. Cloud State, I took a number of classes from Joe Aiken, a sculptor, who had a great influence on me. Through him, I was introduced to performance art there (Laurie Anderson), and because of that I began to understand that what I was seeing when I saw the Talking Heads videos from that era was performance art in the form of a video. I did do some performance at during the early 90's, which was quite the departure from drawing with a pencil.

From St.Cloud I made the leap to Minneapolis, and there I felt as though someone had thrown a bucket of cold water over me, if you can imagine the shock I felt once I started attending the University of Minnesota. The campus was enormous, the stress was enormous, and I felt overwhelming pressure to perform because I came to understand that there was no fooling around if I wanted to succeed at that school. The transition shocked me into focus, and among other things I really learned how to network with artists and musicians.

I made many valuable friends at that time, mainly in the field of art, but also people studying other topics. To say that these people influenced me is an understatement. I met and worked with some very interesting artists, and some of them have gone on to achieve great things. One of these people who did things related to what I was doing was my friend from Iran named Ali Heshmati who is an architect. Ali now has an architecture firm and lives most of the time in Norway, and he and I have spoken about collaborating at some point. Here is a link to one of his sites:

Some other experiences that I gained while living in Minneapolis was becoming a scenic painter and a stage properties assistant. That further gave me the crazy notion that absolutely anything was possible, that with the right things in place that mere me could create anything. I would say that these friends of mine and the experiences I had helped me see that ANYTHING is possible, that the world is wide open, I just need to be persistent and find the right connections to accomplish what needs doing. This point in time was light years away from drawing a still life of a duck and some twigs with a pencil in my high school drawing class.

E: Who were your early inspirations?

NM: Funny enough, it was musicians over artists at that time. I knew only the smallest amount possible about artists then because I had very little access to the information, as well as few people that I knew were interested in what I would now call important artists. I learned a bit about Picasso and Warhol in high school, also about Giacometti, whose bronze sculptures interested me a lot, but to give you an idea about how starved I was educationally for art at the time I was told that Giacometti's elongated sculptures were the result of "something being wrong with his eyesight" rather than the expression of a concept.

So who influenced me artistically at the time? I was influenced by the animation in Peter Gabriel's video called "Big Time," any video that the Talking Heads made; they always had the most interesting visuals such as David Byrne's huge suit that he called a "construction" which made his head look really small, the Clash and the Beastie Boys with their defiant silliness, and Grace Jones and her collaborations with Keith Haring and other artists in her videos had a tremendous influence on me. At the time, I had nothing to turn to nor the vocabulary with which to find out who the artist was who was responsible for the artistic direction of these videos, so those who inspired me were nameless.

E: Who are your favorite artists today and why?

NM: Gosh, I would say that I really love the mystery, emotion, intensity and poetry in Francis Bacon, Raphael Colonel and Frida Kahlo's work; the colorful graphic work by Peter Max really relates to what I am trying to accomplish in my current mosaic work. I like the trends I see happening in Brazilian mural art as well as what is going on in Spain in this regard. Street art is fascinating to me, I like that people are using mosaic tile instead of spray paint to express and create graffiti. I appreciate the wit: one such statement in a subway was tile shaped like a video game character from the 80's- tile squares are the perfect material to express pixelation.

Because I am trying to incorporate a graphic look in my work, I have been looking at Warhol as well as other pop artists. I love Chihuly; the audacity of his pieces and the color is fantastic. Gaudi, master stone worker and mosaic sculptures and Niki de St. Phalle because of her mosaic sculptures.

E: What are you currently working on that excites you and why?

NM: I am currently working on losing my mind. Just kidding. But I have put so many irons in the fire right now that I will very likely lose it by the end of May.

a) I am working on 2 pieces relating to love, "Love at the Snoodle" was the inspiration, but due to the size of them, I didn't complete tiling them in time for this year's show at the Snoodle.

b) Either I am working on a new piece for the Bob Dylan competition at Zimmy's of Hibbing for Dylan's 70th birthday, or I am going to try to get 1 of the 2 Dylans that I have made for Zimmy's competition that never made it over there. Iron World wanted one of them one year for a Dylan memorabilia show and the other is still in Bemidji because I had cancer last year and couldn't pick it up. It was put there in the first place because they were offering such a great stipend that I couldn't pass up the opportunity and so passed up the Dylan competition that year.

c) I am working on getting a grant with 2 other people to create a sculpture in Virginia in the Bess Metza Rose Garden, part of the process will be community based, so I am excited about this and apprehensive at the same time if that makes sense. I hope to God that I get that done this summer.

d) I am getting work ready for the Clyde Iron Works "Clyde A Scope" art, music and tattoos expo at Clyde Iron Works in Duluth, MN. Be prepared for 3 days of nonsense form me.

e) A piece for the Duluth Homegrown Festival - display location T.B.A.

f) The Cook Art Expo- a community mosaic is in the works, and I believe that I will also have work in one of the businesses for the expo.

g) I will be speaking to a group of students in Hibbing about mixed media in March.

h) Ongoing projects: I am working on creating my own glass to be used for indoor projects. This is merely spray painting window glass, anything that can be done with spray paint can be done on glass. I think this is a very exciting process and relatively unique in the mosaic world.

I will be teaching mosaic and sculpture classes this summer: I can be contacted via email regarding these. I am also trying to get a concept together to apply for a fellowship at Franconia Sculpture Park for next summer, and I would also like to apply for a travel grant to go to Mexico and learn the smalti technique of mosaic tiling from the first smalti glass factory in the Americas. This particular factory consulted with Diego Rivera and I believe Orozco. This would be a dream come true for me to go there and to learn this process.

E: Any advice for young people interested in pursuing an art career?

NM: Absolutely: rule # 1: there's no such word as "can't" There's such a thing as "I don't know how" and that can be remedied by learning, but there is nothing as false as the word can't when it comes to art.

The rest of my advice is this: If you want to succeed at being an artist, it is important to diversify as soon as you can, that or be so good at what you do that automatically "hit it." Be as creative about how you go about making a living as you are about your art work. This can mean teaching part time, doing window displays or something similar such as Warhol did in his early days. I painted ceramic fish for a while, now I do a mixture of solo and group shows, commissions, artistic opportunities such as designing an album cover for a band, teach workshops, speak to students, create and sell my own work, and participate in local competitions and events that have prizes to keep that creative streak flowing and to earn a little cash. This also gets my name in the public eye.

Take EVERY opportunity to show your work in venues that seem appropriate for your work. You never know who might want to commission you or who might want to buy a piece. Document your work, everything you do is resume material- every time you show your work write it down, this information comes in handy later on. Create a portfolio, this can be done cheaply online in book form and that never fails to impress someone looking at your work. Keep your eye on trends. This is definitely applicable for what I am doing, I like to be on the cutting edge of what is going on and if I can, I like to try to be ahead of the curve.

Use every opportunity to learn a new skill. This is important if you are a mixed media artist because anything can be an art material, the material just needs to work. Always try to be courteous to everyone you meet if it is possible. You never know who may help you in the future, who may buy work from you or connect you with someone who will give you a commission. Plus it's just nice to be nice.

Most importantly: never give up. I've seen people go really far in the art world solely from their persistence, not because of the quality of their work. There are a lot of bad but successful artists out there who succeed because they find and take every opportunity they can to further their career.

If you apply for a grant or some such thing, a good way to keep yourself from being crushed by rejection letters is to look at it as though it is a giant lottery. Just do your best to provide all of the information requested, mail it and forget about it. Don't look at rejection letters as a negative, look at as an opportunity to improve and to focus. Ask someone who is involved in grant writing to help if necessary. Many highly qualified and deserving artists get rejected over and over again, it's just part of the process.

E: Where else can people see your work?

NM: I have a piece at Snoodle Ceramic Studio of Duluth, MN through the end of February, a large Bob Dylan sculpture on the Bemidji Sculpture Walk in Bemidji, MN through mid-May; a mosaic piece on the business 'Bonsai Tea" between Jones and Jackson on Grant Ave. in Eveleth MN, and some small mosaic pieces at Art in the Alley in Superior, WI. I also have work at a few sites: @ search for Nancy Miller and at Miller, sorry I didn't put the links here, for some reason my email isn't cooperating today.

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