Duplex: Tell us about your background.
Sarah Gee Miller: I came to art making fairly late in life, after a few decades of working menial jobs and going through university studying literature and writing. I was badly injured and left disabled by a car accident, so life was mostly about getting through one day and then another. It’s amazing how years can go by when you’re living moment to moment. I was always interested in art and had a minor thing going sewing photo-realist appliques, but it never felt real to me – sewing textiles felt too domestic, too modest, like I was holding myself back. Then I saw the paintings of the west coast modernists, and it changed my life. People like LA’s John McLaughlin and Billy Bengston, and Vancouver’s Roy Kiyooka and Brian Fisher. It was like, WHAM. They were around me all my life but it took forever to actually see them. I’m a late bloomer, I guess! But I wasn’t content to look, I decided right then and there to see if I could teach myself how to speak this language – the language of beauty, perfection, stillness, and that peculiar type of utopian realism, the sense I got from these painters that pleasure didn’t negate significance. At first I was intimidated, thinking that there was no way I could call myself an artist. But then I realized it was all about hard work and honesty. Chuck Close has my favorite art quote: “Amateurs look for inspiration. The rest of us just get up and go to work.” I wanted to say something, I wanted to make good things, and I wanted my life to have direction and meaning. So I just set about doing it.
D: How has your work changed over time?
SGM: Because I’m self-taught, it’s taken years to become confident with new materials and new modes of expression, and I’m continually learning. I think my work has become more organic over time – I’m less interested in static shapes now. Changing my primary medium from paper to styrene makes a big impact too. Styrene is sheet plastic that is both extremely stable as a painting substrate and coldly industrial, which gives it a terrific Pop sensibility, I think!
D: In reference to your work, what do the words “primal” and “tribal” conjure for you?
SGM: They’re very intense words for me. I’m always trying to be primal; to dig down into the sediment of what it is to be human. As an introvert and an outsider, someone who can’t bring herself to join any collective, whether cultural, societal or religious, I’m also fascinated and stymied by the idea of belonging. But these words are also politically troublesome. I’m sensitive to the ideas of appropriation and exploitation, especially when it comes to the First Nations cultures. I never want anyone to think I’m “using” these ancient and enlightened people the way they have been used and abused for centuries. But at the same time I vividly remember as a child going to the museum and being awestruck by the totem poles and masks. These pacific cultures were both supernatural and earthy. They had it all figured out. Again, they were making signs to offset the loneliness of being human, attempting to inhabit the animal mind to express the inexpressible. How could I be immune to that? And how could I not seek to express those concepts in my own way?
D: Is your work inspired or influenced by Vancouver culture in other ways?
SGM: Very definitely. Beyond the First Nations influence, I love my city’s art history, especially those artists in the ‘60s and ‘70s. There was so much wild experimentation and the kind of fearless modernism that is prevalent all along the west coast, from Vancouver to Baja. There’s such a special look to this art – very hard edge, earnest in many ways but jokey too. Kind of masculine, but with a kind of hippie sensibility. You know it when you see it. There’s a predominance of bright, clear color, nothing muddy or earthy. Abstracts that look both obsessively ordered and politically sly at the same time. There are certain Vancouver painters that just knock me over: Bodo Pfeifer, Gary Lee-Nova, Gordon Smith, Michael Morris. A real boy’s club – I can only think of one woman who was working in hard-edged abstraction at the time, but she’s a doozy – Joan Balzar. The culture has changed since then, becoming far more serious and self-conscious, more concerned with photo-based conceptualism as the city grows into an international hub. I’m trying to keep that colorful, playful tradition alive.
D: Tell us about the series you are working on for your show at Duplex.
SGM: The work for Duplex furthers my interest in the abstract, particularly in terms of signage, portent, and the hierarchies we make to fit in and belong. Everything here is a map, I think. Even something as primary as a circle is a kind of artificial cosmology. Humans are so desperately lonely, adrift in our big brains – we are continually making markers for ourselves, trying to figure out where we came from and where we’re going now. Even though I’m interested in making work with a lot of visual pleasure – strong color and shape – they are also signs to be interpreted. I’m titling the exhibit The Spectacle and the Spectre, a phrase that came to me when I was thinking about the look of my work, which has a lot of razzle-dazzle – you know, bright color, bold graphics, lots of symmetry, which is visually arresting and allows for a certain kind of meditative enjoyment. But there’s a ghost in the machine: in looking at this work (spec is to see) the viewer can begin to understand that there’s another life here, something half-hidden, sometimes just a sense of an otherworldly presence to raise the hairs at your neck.
D: What inspired this body?
SGM: Lately I’ve become quite interested in the Canadian sculptor Elza Mayhew, who I think deserves a bigger audience. In the 60s and 70s she made these totemic sculptures from concrete and bronze. Looking at them now, they seem absurdly optimistic, naive almost, but in the best possible way. She was riffing off so-called “primitive” cultures and suggesting some kind of inaccessible ancient wisdom. They’re pretty groovy things. I started thinking how wistful this kind of looking is, how we’re all hoping for a key to the cypher, when there is none. Plus, her process of sculpture-making, which involved hot-carving into Styrofoam, brought on dementia and hastened her death. We both work with industrial plastics, so this is a cautionary tale as well as a poignant irony.
D: What determines your palette choices?
SGM: I think the landscape of the west coast plays a big part in my color choices. Vancouver can be gray and rainy, so bright color can be not only welcome, but also necessary. I can’t help but imagine the interiors where my art might live. To me, the post-studio life of a piece is as important as when it’s being made. I think of big white rooms and cedar-paneled A-frames, lots of rain and ferns – and I make choices based on that. I’m sure it’s very unfashionable to think that way, but I’m always making art in collaboration with an imaginary space.
D: What type of research do you do when starting a body of work?
SGM: I’m by nature an academic, so I do a lot of reading and researching before beginning any body of work. Nothing is original; it’s all been done before, especially with my style and approach. I think most self-taught artists have the tiniest chip on their shoulder, not having the educational armor as protection in this highly competitive, super bitchy art world. I know I do! I’m always trying to read and learn as compensation for no formal training.
D: Describe your studio space. How often do you work there?
SGM: I work in a rebuilt detached garage, which is large and light-filled. I love working at home. I’m a real homebody and I love having my cats come and go through a special tunnel attached to the house. The increased space has really changed the scope of my work – it has enlarged my vision and let me stretch out and really go for it.
D: Do you have a set routine when art-making, or are you more spontaneous?
SGM: I’m lucky enough to have a supportive husband, whose job allows me to make art full time. It’s a rare and precious gift and I don’t take it lightly – I’m in the studio every day at 9 am, and I work the entire day. I have sudden ideas but they only come to life through methodical, slow processes. My work is labor-intensive so I need to put in serious hours, but I have to say when you start something later in life you can see that the end is closer than the beginning. You’re not a 20-year old with all the time in the world. Plus, I was nearly killed once and so I know how it feels to see the end. I mean that in a humorous way, but it changes you. I work like hell, eight to ten hours a day, and love every second of it, even the rough times.
D: How do you address scale in your work?
SGM: Scale is crucial to me. I never can relate to small things, small gestures. But make anything too big for the sake of bigness and it becomes indulgent. I want people to be able to own my work, and who has unlimited space? I try to find a balance between exuberance and practicality.
D: What’s the most unexpected response you’ve had to your work?
SGM: That they cause migraines. That’s a funny one. To me, vibrant color is like a retinal bath, very relaxing, but I guess some people get dizzy awfully easily.
All photos courtesy of the artist.
We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, which last year invested $153 million to bring the arts to Canadians throughout the country.