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Featured Member: Judith Z. Miller

This week's Featured Member is visual artist Judith Z. Miller, who recently returned from a residency in Alaska, made possible by a Fractured Atlas microgrant. Through this interview, you'll discover that her art — like her life — is rich with stories, intuition and energy.

How did you come to visual art from a background in acting?

I ran a small theatre company in Washington, D.C., The Fine Line Actors Theatre (formerly Earth Onion Women’s Theatre), back in the '70s and '80s. There, my partner, Jane LeGrand, and I produced Marsha Norman’s “Getting Out,” and we raised enough money to perform the show at a federal women’s prison and work with the inmates over a six-week period. I was scared, but it turned out to be the most powerful, creative and meaningful experience of my life. We changed each other’s lives! I experienced the ritual and transformative power of theatre.

When I moved to Brooklyn, I experienced a crisis in my life — a series of threats to a loved one, including a frightening incident in front of my apartment. Feeling threatened, I picked up a stick on the sidewalk. I didn’t want to hurt anyone — the potential attacker was gone. Instead, I took the stick inside and spontaneously started carving it with a pocketknife. Before I’d come to NYC, I’d lived in the Virginia countryside where I’d collected bones and shells and rocks, so there I was wrapping my objects from the country around the stick I’d carved. When it was done, I took off my clothes and stood in front of the mirror holding the staff. I said to myself out loud, “I’m crazier than any of these mother-%$#&@*s; this stick is going to protect us!” I walked down the street with that staff every day, and nobody harmed either of us!

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I think it’s my actor training that allowed me to access a kind of warrior energy. In addition to “creating the character” of a warrior, I’d made my own magical object; this was a visual projection that was necessary for me to “get in character.” The acting process was really how I came to carve about everything that was important to me. I created a body of work, “Sacred Staffs,” made from the roots and trunks of trees. In 2007, I had my second solo show, a three-month exhibit at the Prospect Park Boathouse, sponsored by the Prospect Park Alliance and the Audubon Center. The opening was held on Arbor Day — a good day to honor the power and spirit of the tree — and over 8,000 people saw the show, which was great!

Recently I was on a bus in my neighborhood, and a man sat down beside me and said, “I love your hair.”  I turned and looked at him and realized that he was one of the men who threatened to attack us years ago.  At first I became angry.  Then I realized that this man’s actions inspired me to become a visual artist and I had a complete internal shift; I felt thankful for him, and started to cry. I really came full circle on this.  It’s a very deep learning that is still sinking in.

What is your primary guiding force when you are making your “Spiritual Self-Portraits”?

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When I allowed myself to branch into drawing, I did it in baby steps.  If I hadn’t done it that way, I’d have given in to some kind of negative self-judgment.  Literally, I started by coloring in a photograph of a sculptor’s work, as if it were a coloring book.  I used a photograph of an artwork that has been very important to me, a powerful piece by Native American artist Roxanne Swentzell, “Emergence of Clowns.” I’ve had this image with me for twenty years.  The work fascinates me!  Each of the four “jester/coyote” figures seems wise, comical, and awestruck, each in his/her own way. So I photocopied the photo, which gave me a very faint outline, and then I colored on top — allowing myself to give these four, essentially naked figures, colorful clothing and my own made-up tribal symbols.

As I worked, I realized I really wanted to be these figures.  I wanted to be able to look out of their eyes, and to come to know whatever it is that they know.  Again, I think mine is an actor’s approach to visual art; I use my training as an actor to approach visual art from the inside out — through my body.  When I create works, I’m also creating characters.  So I asked my girlfriend to take pictures of me in the exact same position as each of the “jesters.” And I printed out faint photocopies of them, and then drew on them.  The significant difference was that this time it was my own image I was drawing on, creating wise, wry and magical visions of myself, the self I want to be.

Please describe your recent time in Alaska, in residence at the Southeast Indian Cultural Center with master Tlingit woodcarver Tommy Joseph.  What were your expectations coming in and what did you leave with?

My proudest and most successful achievement was working with Tommy Joseph.  But I have to say that, coming in, I was afraid!  There were really beautiful moments, like when I felt the razor-blade sharpness of one of Tommy’s handmade knives in my hands.  With the tools he’d made, if I held them at just the right angle, I could easily cut through the fabric of the wood and I could see progress towards fulfilling my vision.

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The setting was inspiring!  I worked in a beautiful studio, surrounded by Tommy’s masterful carvings, in a building that housed the finest Tlingit artwork, across from other master artists and inside Sitka National Historical Park, Alaska's oldest federally designated park.  It really was heaven!

We worked on creating a mask from a huge solid log.  I spent four weeks concentrating exclusively on my craft.  I ask you, is there a greater gift?  Tommy showed me everything: how to sculpt the eyes, how to figure the angle of the iris so that the face appears to be look straight at the viewer. He’d show me something in 3 minutes that would take me 45 minutes to carve. Sometimes I felt like crumbling, but he really reassured and supported me.  For me, being with Tommy in his studio was just like coming into myself and my vision.  I was surrounded by great beauty, by new friends.  I truly experienced the opportunity to express myself, and create something totally new.   Fear, Ritual, Transformation & Bliss — for me, that’s what art is all about.

What was it like to carve a mask?  And with an adze!

I have to say, it was a real challenge.  I felt inadequate to sit beside the master — I didn’t have a clue!  That said, he was so kind! I fought self-doubt and physical weakness every day. It’s hard! I’m NOT some young, strong guy; I’m a 58-year-old, out-of-shape woman!  When I first used the adze, I was exhausted and in agony.  My hand cramped, swelled up, and became bright red. I was ashamed to show my weakness — honestly, I wanted to quit. I came in doubting myself; I left knowing that I could complete the task, despite the doubt, despite the pain.

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The mask I made was inspired by a dream I had while I was in Alaska, a dream that I needed to materialize from the tree.  While I’ve finished the mask, the fullness of that materialization into my life still hasn’t taken place.  I’m still working on that — it may take years!  You can read more about this dream and the mask I created on my blog.  The dream and the mask struggle to deal with society’s homophobia, come to terms with some gender identification issues, and think about ethnicity and the creative process.

I find your jewelry particularly striking.  It’s very bold, with its own strong presence and energy.  I think I would feel like I could conquer the world wearing one of your necklaces.

That is exactly the feeling I hope people will have!  I started making the necklaces when I realized that I couldn’t always carry a staff around with me, and then I started making them for other people. My hope is that someone will don one of my necklaces and connect with their “warrior” self.  When I wear my necklaces all kinds of really cool people come up to talk to me.  Protection and attraction — that’s what I want out of my wearable art!

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What motivated you to become a member of Fractured Atlas?   What difference has Fractured Atlas made in your career as an artist?

I knew I needed to find an organization to function as a fiscal sponsor for an exhibition I was organizing.  When I researched the options, FA seemed to be the most stable, reliable and fair.  We were gratified with how quickly FA responded.  I could tell that the organization was dedicated to its member artists by providing them access to health insurance and administrative support for their creative projects.  They allowed me to begin the process of actualizing my dream.  I had to think about it all seriously — get it together and present the idea cogently — and then I had to come up with plans.

And Fractured Atlas awarded me a microgrant, enabling me to study in Alaska — that was amazing!

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What’s next on your professional horizon?

The series of self-portraits I’m working on now remain very important to me.  Instead of myself as I am, I imagine myself a powerful celestial floating female.  There are silver and gold glowing rays coming out of my fingertips!  I’m receiving power from G-d, enough to heal the world.

I want another solo show.  This time, I want creative control over the whole space, and I want to create an experience to go along with the art, that includes music, lights, movement and multimedia — a ritually based show/inter-active experience of my work.  I’ve got a lot of thinking to do.  Actions take place on the physical plane, and I need to reach out to the community for support and funding.  And, I gotta keep makin’ the art!

Learn more about Judith Z. Miller's work on her blog and website, which includes a link to her online store of wearable art.

Images (top to bottom):
1) Judith Z. Miller wearing a psychic protection necklace and holding My Wild Side Flies, 2007. Photo by Gary He, The New York Daily News, April 24, 2007.
2) BraveHeart, 2008.
3) Judith Z. Miller in Sitka, Alaska, 2009.
4) Judith Z. Miller in Sitka, Alaska with her mask. Photo by James Poulson, The Sitka Sentinel, September 17, 2009.
5) Golden Fingers, 2008.
All artwork © Judith Z. Miller.