Conversations with Artists in Art Getting Art: Kathryn Ann Miller '20
BY Audrey Deng, March 11, 2020
Conversations with Artists in Art Getting Art is a bi-weekly series and a play on Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. We interview artists about their art and 'getting art'.
This week we sat down with Katheryn Ann Miller '20 to talk about Prentis Hall, the benefits and detriments of collection, and the comfort of material things.
There is a tunnel in Kathryn Ann Miller’s studio, self-made. One has to proceed on all fours to crawl through, and once the surprisingly long journey is complete (for the tunnel is a series of cardboard boxes born out of a hole in the wall), one emerges in a dark space which is also Miller’s studio, but looks entirely different. The bright lights of the working space are gone; the clutter of Miller’s studio is absent; where tables and chairs might be are, instead, a tree and a fountain named, respectively, Blair and Jory.
You entered the MFA program through a painting portfolio. What kind of paintings were in your portfolio?
Kathryn Ann Miller: I started out pretty traditionally, so I had some oil paintings in there, and also paintings with objects and non-traditional materials. A lot of building materials and foam, beads, glitter, pom-poms.
Where would you find these materials?
KM: From my childhood, to be honest. I’m kind of a hoarder. I grew up in Tennessee, and my mom was also kind of a hoarder. She was very adamant about not letting go of anything, trying to turn everything into a family heirloom. I’m not married, I don’t have kids, I don’t really own a home. Hoarding ties into the heirlooms, and to consumer culture too. I was also open to experimenting with these objects in my childhood. So it was really fun to pick back up where I started as a very young child and create with the same objects I wanted to work with and apply skill and chemicals and other things.
Could you talk a bit more about consumer culture and how this ties into growing up in Tennessee?
KM: I remember, growing up, being very influenced by commercials and by the comfort of products and interior spaces. My parents were homeowners. I grew up in the same house my entire life and my parents still live there. On my dad’s side of the family, my grandfather was a reupholsterer, so he has this factory and collects dolls, loves Gospel music, is into textiles...he made these really huge red velvet curtains for their church. On my mom’s side, there are basketweavers and quiltmaking, of course. There’s that kind of background and influence. In Tennessee there are a lot of flea markets, a lot of antique shops, a lot of junk, stuff that’s just collected. I’ve always been fascinated by objects and trinkets and decorations.
What kind of artists do you admire or look up to? Or, contrarily, find controversial or distasteful toward?
KM: When I first started studying art again as an adult, I really learned to love Red Grooms and Ken Price. Also, Aubrey Beardsley, Chris Ware, Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and Sandy Skoglund. In high school, I was in love with Skoglund’s installations. Recently, I’ve been really curious about Mike Kelley.
Do you see a shared sensibility between all these folks?
KM: I feel like they try to find dark humor in their art. There’s a creepiness, a lot of experimentation, a lot of multimedia, just using whatever materials they want that they feel is going to convey their message. I remember a Sandy Skoland piece, a bunch of Cheetos everywhere. I’m really into monochromatic stuff.
In what sense? Because everything here is quite colorful.
KM: Which is crazy, because I also like rainbows.
The duality of man or something like that.
KM: I feel there is such a duality in me, in everyone. We are walking contradictions. I have a background in anthropology and I remember being really fascinated with the human skeletal system, and I studied bones a lot. That could be considered creepy. I like clowns. A lot of people do not like clowns. I feel like clowns are misunderstood and sad.
They’re supposed to be funny. They are humorous.
KM: And I try to find humor in everything.
So you studied anthropology. Could you tell me something funny about anthropology?
KM: I guess trying to be ok with being on this planet as a human. That’s kind of funny. I studied at the University of Tennessee. I grew up in Knoxville, a college town. It’s a really nice school. I studied art and anthropology there. What drew me to anthropology was the field of cultural studies, and my desire to learn more about Bible stories. Growing up in the south, I was raised to be Christian and that did not work out. I couldn’t wrap my head around the stories, and I couldn’t wrap my head around what it meant to actually be Christian. So I had a long attempt during my childhood to go to church, and then I guess I thought eventually I would look at it from a scientific lens. There is Biblical anthropology—I was trying to find evidence of Jesus’s tomb and Noah’s ark, and that was another dead end for me. While I was interested in those things (the bible, human culture, how we adapt through culture), I became really fascinated with the human skeletal system. There’s actually a facility that’s part of the anthropology department at the University of Tennessee that was started by Dr. Bass, and they actually study human decomposition. There would be bodies on the property, decomposing, at different stages. Just laying on the ground. It’s nicknamed the Body Farm. I volunteered there, to clean bones after the body decomposed. There would be bags. We would clean them with little brushes, and we would clean them and inventory them so people could study them. It was a funny feeling.
What was that like, to hold and clean human skulls?
KM: It was crazy. I feel I have a very interesting relationship with death. It ties into humor, the inevitable. I just remember people close to me dying when I was young, and then cleaning a human skull, and while cleaning the skull, studying it.
So during all this, you were also getting your BFA?
KM: No, I took a couple years off after college and tried to become a performer, an actress. I also perform with fire. I can eat fire. I can extinguish it with my mouth, I can also put fire wicks on a hula hoop and dance with that. I was going to do that, I was going to be an actress, I was going to make some kind of craft and sell it—but none of those things were working out. And so I thought, I’ve never taken my art seriously, so let’s do it. And I really, really enjoyed it. And now I’m obsessed.
I used to be scared of fire, but I am very stubborn when it comes to confronting my fears, so I figured, one day, that I was going to overcome my fear. And it’s cool—it impresses people. (Laughs.)
Do you know how to juggle? It is my new year’s resolution.
KM: Super simple. Anyone can do it. It’s a lot of core and a lot of upper body control.
How did you learn all these tricks and trades?
KM: There are these flow workshops, flow camps. Basically, there are different props, and props are the objects you are “flowing” with. So juggling is a big part of flowing; you can juggle discs, you can juggle balls, with clubs. I’ve been able to do those. I mean, I blew my own mind. There’s hula hoops, staffs, puppy hammers. Crazy fun toys. Crazy fun serious props. And they all have the ability to be put on fire. I’m trying to get back into that.
For personal reasons? Or artistic reasons?
KM: I took a performance class, and for my final, we performed in front of Low Lounge, and it was so cold and windy, but it ended up being so lovely and fun. I had three hula hoops, so I just danced and did tricks with two and one, and juggled the three of them. So how can I tie that into this? The class was taught by Kembra Pfahler. She is a performance artist.
I feel like the fun, circus-y world influenced, or was influenced by my time with these Burners. Burners are people who go to Burning Man. I’ve never been, but I ran into these Burners, and they were starting their own Burn in Tennessee. That really changed my life. It was art, sculpture, installations, fire performance, camping, music, expression without thinking about it in a formal context. I really thrived. That’s where I started building huge installations for people to go through. I could be myself. Trying to bring that into a formal setting has been challenging, but very rewarding. I’m at the crossroads of: can I continue to be my authentic myself, do whatever I want, and translate that in the formal world, at this school, in gallery spaces?
I mean, you did cut a hole in your wall, here in your studio. That translates wonderfully.
KM: Yeah, someone inspired me to do it, because someone else had done it in the past. There are some very ambitious, very bold people who come through this program, who push the limits, push the boundaries, go above and beyond. Is that the role of the artist? I don’t know. It was natural to me. The moment I got both these studio spaces, I knew I had to cut a hole in the wall to connect these two rooms. But I was also inspired by past students. They were obviously stronger than me, because it took a lot of labor to have this hole. There’s live wire right around the hole, so I was scared I was going to electrocute myself. And I wasn’t sure if it was a weight-holding wall. So I learned a lot about buildings in this process.
How long did it take to carve the hole?
KM: Definitely a week.
Just one week? That’s impressive.
KM: To cut the hole, yes. I’m just unrealistically ambitious, and I think things will just take a couple hours, and then I realized that this would take a long time. It took forever to drape the ceiling in this installation, forever to paint the walls. Sometimes I’m just not practical. Like I thought one gallon of paint would cover this entire room. What is that logic? It took six gallons.
It was worth it. I want to add that this room is just so wonderful and cozy, and so much effort went into building it. But you have to move out in three or four months, right?
KM: That is the thing about my installations. They are never forever. I have built an installation that took me months to prepare and pre-build. I quit my job, dedicated my entire body to it, all the last of my money, energy, social life, all of it goes to my art project. I’ll make these installations, then spend two days with random volunteers I feel sorry for because I’m irritable, but we build these sculptures, power them for one or two nights with gasoline generators, and then within the 48 hours they exist, I have to tear it down. All this artwork, all this energy, all this time I put into making these installations, they can only last for two days. I’ve had an installation last a week before, in a big space inside a mall in Tennessee. It used to be a sportswear store. We had an art show there. It was such a big space, it was so bizarre—I love site-specific spaces. The floor was black-and-white checkers, and my installation was called The Fleamarket. You would go through a maze, and come out into this laser room, and leave through this big blue vagina. It was fifty feet long, and it was in the center of the art show.
I also had music playing. I have a friend who makes music for my video pieces and installations, so I had this enchanted forest music in The Fleamarket. My friend, he’s also a performance artist, and he draws and paints. He makes music for all my art. It just goes so well together, our aesthetics.
Could you take me through the sculptures we see here? Step by step, I mean.
KM: I was painting objects, like tubes of toothpaste, and then I was painting with them, and then I was sacrificing them to my sculptures. I would find objects on the ground that little kids dropped. I found this Minnie Mouse bow on Coney Island. I would find things, and try to put the magic of the object into the power of the sculpture. The tiles on this pretend bathroom floor—there’s a drain—the tiles, there are molds of little toys I would find on the ground. There, small berets, a horse, a Lilo keychain. The tree trunk has this 1979 Garfield bedsheet. It’s all just encased in liquid plastic. I was making these crazy things out of melted crayons in my Easy Bake Oven, and I wondered how I could display them, and it turned into this thing. And this is a Pop-Tart. I made a mold of a Pop-Tart and melted crayons into it.
Can I ask—are you supposed to be able to tell this is a Pop-Tart?
KM: I don’t know...but I named this piece Blair, because I was thinking about the Blair Witch Project, and how scary the presence of something that isn’t supposed to be there is. The uncanniness—people are scared of the unknown. I was thinking about witchcraft and identity, like a girl trying to find her identity through pop culture objects.
And this fountain is Jory, which is another girl’s name. As a child, my dad’s friend’s daughter’s name is Jory, and she was all tiny and a cheerleader, and I guess I was admiring how girly she was, but I loved that her name was Jory because it sounded like “jewelry,” and it was just so country! Just a pageant, Tennessee, very Southern name.
The English language doesn’t really gender objects, but in French and Spanish, objects have male/female pronouns. Would Blair and Jory be female?
KM: I don’t feel comfortable using she/her for these pieces, but it is about this idea. I was thinking about biological females finding their identities. The thing I’m interested in, is how brainwashed am I by my upbringing? What do I really like? Why am I so attracted to certain objects and certain aesthetics? We’re buying our identities.
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