Sarah Gee Miller is a self taught artist who shifted from collage work to painting her bright and colorful art. Her fascination with minimal clean lines and abstraction shines through in each one of her pieces.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
I’m self-taught as an artist and came to it late in life after decades of kicking around in short-term, low-paying jobs with no direction. I’ve always had an interest in interior design, and after a business partnership in a homegoods store collapsed, I thought to myself, what do I want to look at in my domestic sphere?
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What brings me joy? Home has always been very important to me, and the beauty of objects and feeling safe. I wanted to make my own art for my own space., never dreaming it would turn out like it did!
I was in my mid-forties and developing a fascination with modernism – minimal clean lines, rejection of overt narrative, pure abstraction.
I began experimenting with collage because I didn’t think I could paint. Painting was foreign, scary and complicated. My collages quickly turned into a focused art practice – I’m a naturally “all-in” type of person.
Suddenly I felt right for the first time in my life. Ideas and ambitions flying everywhere! My husband at that time said the best thing anyone has ever said to me. “If you want to do this, do it. I will support you no matter what.” That’s all the encouragement I needed.
Within a year I’d taught myself how to be a professional artist. Not just in the making, although that was really difficult, but how the gallery system worked, how to promote myself.
Frankly, I had to learn what art is. What modern art means. I worked fast because I felt half my life was already over, and within a few years had a thriving practice. Lots of bumps in the road, of course, but I was going in the right direction for the first time in my life.
Do you do series work? How does that affect your approach?
I tend to envision art in series, exploring ideas and experimenting with repetition of forms. I have a university degree in writing, and I guess it’s the writer in me wanting to build stories.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
Although I come from a long line of modern abstraction, I like to think my work has a particular “west coast” vibe, a kind of soft modernism with clear, saturated colour and biomorphic forms. It’s not formal or remote. It has a hint of the transcendental, it flows a little.
As well, my process differs from a lot of artists in that all my work is planned on the computer using shapes made from fonts. I have about 2300 fonts I distort on a design program to fit my ideas, then I cut out those shapes on a plotter to make a template I can use as a stencil or a guide.
When I paint my targets I use a revolving table so I can move the panel around as I paint. Everything is meticulously planned on the computer ahead of time, but when I start working it never goes as planned! I always change my mind and make spontaneous decisions as I go. I’ve learned that nothing on a screen can translate to real life.
How do you manage your creative time? Do you schedule start and stop times? Or work only when inspired?
I work seven days a week in my studio. If I’m tired or burnt out I write emails, organize paperwork, visit galleries, keep my website and instagram up to date.
Inspiration has little to do with making art. 90% of it is grit and determination, working when you don’t want to, working when you feel no one cares or when you think your ideas are dumb or your work is terrible. But you get up and do it again.
What does your studio look like? Where does the magic happen? How does your studio organization contribute to your work process? What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
My studio is a giant mess. In my home life I’m meticulous and neat, but somehow I turn into Francis Bacon when I’m in the studio, which is an unheated double garage by the house.
I’m always trying to get ahead of the mess and always losing, and I know it impedes my creative flow. I can never understand how others paint neatly! I’m the kind of person who steps on a tube of paint and sends it squishing across the room. There are receipts and old crusty paint cups and paintings piled dangerously high. I never have enough storage.
I’m constantly battling a lack of storage and I’m too soft-hearted to evict spiders, and my brushes are always unwashed. But I’m happy in my studio no matter how it looks.
Since music engages too much of my emotions I usually have a podcast on in the background; silence makes me anxious, and there’s nothing more anxiety-relieving than hearing about terrible murders!
How has your creativity evolved over the years? What triggered the evolution to new media/kinds of work/ways of working? What was the biggest challenge that you encountered on your creative journey? What did you learn from it?
All these questions lead to a bitter but ultimately wonderful lesson I learned a few years into my art journey. A friend told me about styrene, a thick smooth plastic sheet that might be good for my collage work.
I absolutely loved it and plunged into two full years of cutting, glueing and forming styrene into really strong collage work. Then suddenly it all began to fall apart. The finished work began to warp and leak. The glue came through the seams and the substrates came apart. And some of the work was already at my gallery and in client’s homes. I was so upset I cried for a week. I realized plastic was a fugitive material, unstable and prone to change.
Panic and humiliation lead to a decision that turned out to be the best decision I ever made. I decided to give up collage entirely and finally do what had been itching at the edge of my consciousness for a while: paint!
I didn’t feel as if I could paint. Painting was Rembrandt and Picasso! I didn’t go to school, I had no idea how to do it. It felt mysterious and impossible. I saw that collage was a way of seeming to paint without actually doing it.
So at the age of 48 I started from scratch. I learned the basics: preparing a surface, gessoing, what mediums do, mixing colours, varnishing, the whole thing. I read and I watched youtube videos and absorbed everything I could.
Once I learned the basics I began to experiment and push, and within a year I was finally a tiny bit confident. I never looked back. I repainted the work I had done in styrene. Clients were happy, and I was a new artist. And all of this came from failure.
What traits, if any, do you think that creative people have as compared to people who are not creative?
I think creative people are problem solvers. We like making decisions. Put this here, and change that there. How can I turn this emotion into an image? That’s what creative people do all day, they decide and they solve.
I never take anything at face value, I’m always thinking of how else to see something, or a new way to approach an issue.
What is the biggest challenge to being successful in a creative field?
I’m going to be blunt and say money. The cost of living is one thing to deal with but add to that art supplies have gone up in price to a staggering degree. A tube of paint costing $9 a few years ago is $28 today. I’ve had a very successful career so far but it’s not financially viable.
We’re all in this together: artists struggle, but so do the few collectors able to buy art.
Tell us about your blog and/or website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
I’m lucky enough to pursue art full time and as an introvert I’m happiest working alone in my studio. My website and Instagram are very important to me. I take a great deal of care with the quality of photos and keep it as professional as I can.
I took a huge risk recently and decided to put prices on all the work. A lot of people have no idea what art costs and are shy to ask, so I want to make it easier for them. My main gallery, Mayberry Fine Art, also lists prices. It’s time to demystify some aspects of the art world and putting prices out there is a good start. But mostly I just want people to enjoy looking at what I do!
You can find Sarah:
my website is: www.sarahgeemiller.com
my gallery website: https://mayberryfineart.com/artist/sarah-gee-miller/
Interview posted March 2023