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Inspiring Dialogue Through Art: A Q&A with Artist Robin Joyce Miller
Artist, educator, poet and author Robin Joyce Miller will present a slideshow and an exhibit of 14 mixed-media collage quilts at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 3, in the Borgia Gallery in the Dooley Campus Center at Elms College. (Space will be limited; register today here.)
The framed pieces in this exhibit are approximately 35 inches x 46 inches. Twelve of them illustrate African-American history events or periods accompanying poetry from the book. Recitations of poems that accompany these works of art will be included in the presentation.
The slideshow, "Restoring My African Soul," is a personal narrative of the journey to restoration and healing through faith, art, poetry and photography. Miller co-authored Rhythms of a Faithful Journey with her husband, James Walter Miller, who also will read some poems at the event.
Q: What do you want people today to take away from your artwork, and from the presentation on Feb. 3?
Miller: I want viewers to understand the faithful struggle of a beautiful race of people. This pictorial and poetic journey depict the insurmountable belief that life would someday change for the better. The poetry demonstrates the connection that Jim and I have with God that came from our ancestors.
I hope people will see the visual rhythms that I create in my art. The color composition is planned to move the eye around the work. The borders and geometric organization of patches create the sense of a quilt. Quilts are utilitarian works of art that were a part of the enslaved women’s chores. I chose to depict African-American history in this format to honor a special cultural contribution to America.
Q: What do you hope future generations learn from your artwork?
Miller: Much of African-American history has been hidden. Today’s young African Americans do not know enough about their history. I hope this art will whet the viewers' appetite to delve deeper into this historical journey. Creating this work invoked a sense of pride and dignity in me. I hope that it will do that for them.
I hope that all people will attain a greater understanding of race in America. I hope it will spark fruitful and peaceful discussions.
Q: How are art and education interconnected? Specifically, how can art help people understand or communicate about race issues?
Miller: The arts are a very important component of a complete comprehensive education. We all learn through different modalities. Art helps people to express their feelings and better understand the feelings of others. For example, a dramatization is a wonderful art form for learning, understanding emotions and retaining factual information.
The arts bring stories to life through performance and visual imagery. Both are powerful tools that can communicate the controversial issues of race. Media, textbooks, lectures [and] discussions are definitely a part of the process. Finally, art is expression, and that’s what people need to fully comprehend life and its issues.
Q: How would you say art and history (both personal and general) are interconnected? How do they influence artists in their work?
Miller: There are many elements in life that motivate the perspective of an artist. I have chosen African-American history. I needed to understand the complexities that created the racial disharmony in America.
Growing up during the civil rights movement had me wondering about the worth of black people. Why did white people hold up signs saying that they didn’t want to be near us? Why were black children being hosed down in the street and bombed in church? I felt ashamed to be part of a group that was so hated. Everybody wants to be on the winning team. Well, my team wasn’t winning.
I didn’t like history as a young person. I found it boring. It can still be boring in its presentation. Illustrating history was a way for me to learn the stories, events – our journey. When my learning-disabled students illustrated historical facts, they were better able to absorb the information. I found that it also worked for me.
I wanted to create art that connected me to my people, our past and ultimately to God. The images of enslaved Africans tell me that we as a people are descendants of the strongest of the strong. I know that my worst day is often better than their best day. Why should I allow myself to be weary and despondent?
Q: What about faith? How has faith affected your work?
Miller: My work is clearly about faith. When I was a child, I prayed to God asking why He created different races. I believed that if everyone were the same race, the issues of the civil rights movement wouldn’t exist. Of course, this was very naive. Today there are many forms of injustice. There was so much I didn’t understand and still don’t. However, when I created this work, I heard God say, “See, you are somebody special. You come from a faithful group of people who have looked to me for strength, love, mercy and deliverance. I have brought them from slavery to presidency. Through me anything is possible.” The poetry that my husband and I have written to accompany the quilts speaks to the faith of African-American people.
Q: How did you choose mixed-media collage as your artistic medium?
Miller: I was printmaking and experimenting with various types of papers. I realized that I love cutting and working with paper. The fabric paint that I use was also part of my discovery. Artists enjoy exploring materials to see how they speak in the work. It’s magical.
Q: Who are your personal artistic inspirations?
Miller: There are so many artists that have inspired my work. I did not go to school for art before teaching. I became an elementary school art teacher after 15 years of teaching students with learning disabilities. I am somewhat of a folk artist. I have little serious art training.
During my years of teaching art, I learned along with my students about the master artists. I would have to say Van Gogh was the first artist who excited my spirit. I love the rich colors and thickness of his impasto. Then I became most encouraged by African-American artists like Faith Ringgold with her narrative quilts, the collage work of Romare Bearden and the historical narratives told in the work of Jacob Lawrence. Fabulous! I’m stealing that word from Faith Ringgold, who has been a special and personal mentor to me.
Q: Why is art such a personal thing for an artist?
Miller: Art comes from the person's soul, their innermost being. It can be like a prayer – a personal connection to one’s creator. This work that I did restored the soul within me that was badly bruised from the ugliness of racism.
I believe that art, like music, is connected to the spirit. They both give the spirit a voice.
Q: Why do you think people generally have emotional or personal reactions to art created by others?
Miller: People make personal connections to visual art. Images evoke memories, experiences and imagination. The artist might have a specific thought or feeling when creating the work. But the beauty of displaying work for others is that they come with different perspectives and will oftentimes bring their own narratives. Once it’s out there, it’s for the audience to interpret, reflect, react to, appreciate, abhor or whatever.
Q: Elms College has a strong social-justice focus. How do you think arts events like your lecture and exhibit add to the social-justice education students receive?
Miller: Art and “art talk” inspire conversation.This body of work is all about how social injustice can move towards victory. Many conversations can be inspired by this work and other works about people.
About the artist
Miller retired from teaching art in the NYC school system in July 2012; her education career spanned three decades. During her years of teaching, Miller earned several awards and scholarships, including the 2012 Exemplary Leadership Award from Senator Jeffrey Klein, the 2007 NYCATA Art Educator of the Year award, and the Thurgood Marshall African-American Educators Award in both 2001 and 2010. She has studied art at the New York School of Interior Design, Parson’s School of Design and Manhattanville College, and earned a certificate from LaGuardia Community College’s Teacher Sabbatical Visual Arts program.
Her work has been shown in numerous solo exhibits at venues including the Brooklyn Children’s Museum; the African-American Museum of Nassau County in Hempstead, N.Y.; the Museum of Arts and Culture in New Rochelle, N.Y.; and the BCC Hall of Fame Gallery at CUNY in Bronx, N.Y. Group-exhibit venues have included the Mount Vernon (N.Y.) Library; the Westchester Arts Council in White Plains, N.Y.; and the Black National Theater of Harlem, the Backstreet Gallery and the Broome Street Gallery, all in New York. In 1992, she was commissioned to create an ad for Pepsi honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In addition to Rhythms of a Faithful Journey, she also has written and illustrated the books Back To School, The Jazz History Quilt and A Humble Village. She also produces art and writing designed to appeal to children under the pseudonym “r.j. scribbles.”