Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

Kay Miller

By  Mique’l Askren

Kay Miller has made a distinct effort to create works that coalesce disparate epistemologies reflective of her experience as a Métis and Comanche woman raised in the poverty-stricken urban ghettos of Houston, Texas. Her study of Zen Buddhism, Karma Yoga, I Ching and her own cultural heritage informs her artistic practice in diverse and compelling ways. Although Miller received her M.F.A. from the University of Texas in 1978 and works primarily in oils, she views her paintings as “mediation devices for entering another and truer reality. They were never art.”[1]

The composition of Miller’s canvases typically consists of two symbols from seemingly incongruent cultural or religious traditions placed together in a delicate balance.[2] The symbols used in her paintings—the Tibetan sign for OM, a coral branch, helicopter, dragonfly, a cross and a feather, or an oilrig and a tree—are unified through their size and monochromatic background.[3] Miller urges viewers to contemplate the oppositional forces and duality of her binary images. Her aim is for the observer to think critically about these symbols, reconcile their differences and see them as being related in unpredictable ways. Overall, her goal is to initiate a new understanding of the connection between all living things, spiritualities, and ways of being. She does not direct her audience to a single answer or explanation of her work, but instead allows for multiple meanings and interpretations.

For Miller, paint is a “raw living material.”[4] Working with it is an experience rather than a process.[5] She builds and sculpts her paintings layering heavy applications of oils over a period of years. Miller often embeds rhinestones, porcupine quills, semi-precious stones, mirrors, and other objects into the surface of her work, further contributing to its three-dimensionality. During the height of her career in the 1980s, she rarely completed more than three to six paintings a year and some she worked on for as long as five.[6] For this reason, Miller feels that she could never really date her paintings. She states, “sometimes I date them by the struggle they incurred for me to bring them to completion.”[7]

Miller views her iconography as an extension of her work as an activist who has fought for Native rights and environmental causes throughout her life.[8] She continued her political activism throughout her many years as a professor of art at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

While Miller is considered one of the groundbreaking painters of her time and has shown her work in both mainstream and Native American exhibitions and galleries, today, she no longer paints. She contends, however, that she continues to make art on a regular basis without the preparatory work, money, and material that was needed for her paintings.  She considers her thoughts and dialogue with “plants, animals and other conscious beings” as an art form of its own.[9] She states, “Art is prayer, all the time remembering to Be [her emphasis]. Art is the action created by the vision, not the object, not the vision. It is all meaningless without the action.”[10]

[1] Kay Miller, letter to Sarah Sense, April 3, 2009.

[2] Lucy Lippard, Laughing Matters: Kay Miller (Chicago: Artmesia Gallery, 1991), 1.

[3] Lucy Lippard, Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America (New York: Pantheon Books, 1990), 246.

[4] Kay Miller, artist statement, “It’s All About the Apple, Or is it?” February 10, 2010.

[5] Miller, 2009.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.