Animal Dreams: A Conversation with Melissa Miller

Texas-based artist Melissa Miller is widely known for her expressionistic paintings that use animals as metaphors for human dramas and dilemmas. Her recent works focus on the many ways humans are altering animal habitats and behavior. Miller’s work will be featured in a solo exhibition at the Talley Dunn Gallery, in Dallas, in January 2014, and in a group show at the Martin Museum of Art, at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, in May 2014.

Melissa Miller. Flood, 1983; oil on linen; 59 x 95 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Melissa Miller. Flood, 1983; oil on linen; 59 x 95 in. Courtesy of the Artist

Robin Tung: The animals in your paintings take part in cultural myths (Flood [1983] and The Ark [1986]), fables, fictional and humorous narratives (Clowns [1983]), and masquerades (Lioness in Zebra Skin [1985]). What inspired these different themes and configurations?

Melissa Miller: With Flood and The Ark, I was doing a series of paintings set within a context of pending disasters. For me these narratives were metaphors for the human illusion of control over our lives and futures. Humans react as as if we are immune to twists of fate, sudden disaster, associations, illness, disability, or decisions made by others. Having lived my life experiencing Texas hurricanes, droughts, floods, fires, and tornadoes, I thought weather seemed a likely metaphor for unpredictable intrusion.

Occasionally I pull subject matter directly from newspapers, books, the internet, or art history. Clowns resulted in part from seeing Uccello’s Rout of San Romano (1438–40) face to face and simultaneously discovering the Japanese Choju Giga Scrolls. The paintings of animals dressed in each others’ skins (Lioness in Zebra Skin) came from an interest in depicting acts of deception. Both paintings are an example of depicting animals in positions beyond their anatomical possibilities. That’s about as cartoonish as I’ve ever ventured.

Melissa Miller. Red Pony, 2002; oil on canvas; 48 x 56 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Melissa Miller. Red Pony, 2002; oil on canvas; 48 x 56 in. Courtesy of the Artist

RT: I particularly love Red Pony (2002) and Cluster (2003). These paintings in the context of your works communicate all facets of a full existence–harmony, demons, destruction, feeding, masking, humor, flight, rest. Can you tell us about Red Pony and Cluster?

MM: For the last fifteen or so years, I have been interested in how humans are reshaping animal habitats and forcing them into new juxtapositions and locations. There is a globalization of animals happening that is similar to that of humans. Having closely observed landscape and pastures and development in south and central Texas my whole life, there are startling changes. Not only do livestock and indigenous animals cohabitate, but multiple foreign species have been introduced. Either for reasons of conservation, commerce, hunting, or novelty, these new conglomerations have become rather common. Simply from the highway, one can see imported antelope, deer, giraffe, zebra, goats, etc. Llamas have become almost ubiquitous companions of livestock. Humans are also encroaching on habitats, changing animal and bird migratory patterns, driving some species into extinction, etc.

The animals in both Red Pony and Cluster may seem a strange combo, but actually, these mixes are based on reality. I photographed what I could tell (with some confidence) were a foreign breed of black goats off a back road to San Antonio. The horse in the environment with them would not be unusual, though the color of the little pony obviously is. I felt the painting needed that shot of highly saturated color and the narrative stretch.

The species in Cluster all appeared in a photograph together in a street scene from Southeast Asia. There was a small Asian Bear, on a chain, performing tricks for a crowd. In the background was a Brahma cow and Rhesus monkey. I based my menagerie on this actual juxtaposition. Their fiction is not far from the truth.

Both paintings are organized on a loose grid with a kind of stacked perspective, which is more commonly used in Eastern art (as opposed to Western perspective, in which objects diminish in size as they move back in space). I like this type of illusion of space and time because it seems to equalize the importance of each figure and vignette. Both this type of perspective and the gridlike structure support a sense of calm in both works.

Melissa Miller. Clowns, 1983; oil on linen; 56 x 76 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Melissa Miller. Clowns, 1983; oil on linen; 56 x 76 in. Courtesy of the Artist

RT: What was your journey like when you began as an artist, and what motivated you?

MM: That art would be the focus of my life was never in question after I graduated college. (I did not attend graduate school.) I recognized, at a very young age, that it was the one activity that could remain a constant in my life. Despite relocations, separations, deaths, interruptions, etc., my creative impulse could be the one thing I could always turn back to and stand on. I never expected that it might, at times, actually be profitable. I was addicted to the pleasure, challenge, and discovery and was naive about the struggle and occasional heartbreak of it.

Wherever I moved or worked, I made sure studio space and production were the top priority. I first exhibited work in juried exhibitions and with small collectives. Linda Cathcart, who was the director at the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston in the early 1980s, gave me a big break: a small show in the basement of the museum. Simultaneously, I was fortunate to secure galleries in New York and Houston, and my career began.

Melissa Miller. Dive, 2003; gouache on paper; 8 x 7.5 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Melissa Miller. Dive, 2003; gouache on paper; 8 x 7 /2 in. Courtesy of the Artist

RT: What is your approach when you begin work on a new painting or series?

MM: Most often, something sparks an idea and I make a note, do a sketch, or file an image. If the idea haunts me long enough, I will do more sketches and put them in my to-do file. I work extremely slowly, and so nine out of ten of my intentions are never realized. My slow speed has always been frustrating.

Once I commit to a painting, I do research on the animals and environment. I like to have as much visual information around me as possible, because I cannot always conjure believable anatomy in my mind’s eye. I may have a dozen different images available of each animal in the painting as I compose a piece.

My sketches for my paintings are not precious and are usually very crude. The real drawing and organizing happens on the actual surface of the canvas. I draw on the canvas with light ochre paint. I hold my brush in one hand and in the other hold a rag with solvent. I erase with the rag as I adjust figuration around the canvas. This part of the process can take a month or more on complex paintings.

Once I have the “drawing,” I paint over it with a very diluted layer of oil paint so as to become confident in my color arrangements and the tone of the painting. The painting stays very open through these early stages. and I am always making adjustments. Once I can more easily see my path, I start to paint with thicker layers of oil. My watercolor process is obviously somewhat different.

Melissa Miller. Cluster, 2003; oil on canvas; 40 x 40 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Melissa Miller. Cluster, 2003; oil on canvas; 40 x 40 in. Courtesy of the Artist

RT: What advice can you give to new and emerging artists today in light of your teaching experience?

MM: The art world is always shifting, and I don’t believe I am much of a player anymore. Therefore, my advice as far as the commercial side of the business is fairly outdated. I do tell students that it is a difficult field to make a living in. Therefore, I ask young artists to examine the role their creative process plays in their lives. If the activity is something that brings them pleasure and reward, then either they can segue that into some other creative field or find a way to keep it alive as they pursue other financially viable employment. If creating art is something they can’t possibly shut off or live without, then we discuss jobs that may pay reasonably yet will leave them time and energy to keep their focus on artistic endeavors. I tell young artists that no matter what road they choose, if they continue doing their art, it can become a personal measuring stick for growth and will always provide honest reflection. I also tell them that because the journey is difficult, they need to be supportive of one another. Finally, I strongly suggest they stay informed on issues and vote (often) to exercise the rights a democracy affords them.