Artist Spotlight: Melissa Miller (American, b. 1951)

broken wing

Melissa Miller, Broken Wing, 1986. Oil on linen. 58 x 66 1/2 inches (147.3 x 169 cm). National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Laura Lee and Jack S. Blanton and The Lois Pollard Price Acquisition Fund

For this pre-Halloween week’s artist we’re taking a look at the painter of one of the staff’s favorite pieces from Telling Secrets – the visceral and rather scary Broken Wing by Melissa Miller.

An initial glance at Broken Wing elicits definitions of struggle, fear, and urgency. The ruffled feathers and twisted posture of the swan contain a subtext of disrupted elegance or beauty. Upon a further glance we see the demons and skeletons writhing in the background – egging on the ghoul breaking the wing? chasing the swan? fleeing? –  and the message of death becomes plain. Even more mysterious are the gigantic swooping owl in the far background, the lion-like face in the foreground, and the spectral hands emerging from the ground to reach for the swan – what are their roles? Symbolism aside, their contribution to the dark mood of the painting is spine-chillingly brilliant once you notice them.

Miller was born in Houston, Texas and has lived in Austin for most of her life. She began to teach herself how to paint after attending Yale’s Summer School of Music and Art after graduating from the University of New Mexico in 1974. She spends much time alone, drawing imagery from her surroundings and her own imagination and emotions.

Miller’s paintings are clearly very internalized in subject matter. They speak in metaphor with animals acting as symbols for greater narratives and emotions. She reaches into the realm of magical realism and mythology to express the progression of her own life and the increasing complexity of life as it moves forward. Her work, as a reflection of herself as an individual, reflects on the complexities and mysteries of the human existence: “My painting roots are in the abstract expressionist movement and many of the same concerns have remained important to me over the years…I believe in the power of paint, not only to create a convincing illusion, but to prompt a visceral emotional response in the viewer.”

Come see Broken Wing in all its bone-chilling glory at Telling Secrets and pick up a scavenger hunt – we’ll be picking our October winners today. Happy Halloween!

About the Author: Carolanne Bonanno is NMWA’s communications and publishing intern.

NMWA Fall Exhibitions Open TODAY!

Happy Friday! NMWA’s fabulous fall exhibitions open today, and we hope you’ll venture out in this glorious weather to enjoy!

Here’s a peek at what’s on view:

Eunice Napanangka, "Tjukurla - Other Side of Docker River", 2001 Acrylic on linen 48 x 66 in.,Collection of Ann Shumelda Okerson and James J. O'Donnell Ikuntji Artists Aboriginal Corporation Copyright remains with the artist

Eunice Napanangka, “Tjukurla – Other Side of Docker River”, 2001 Acrylic on linen 48 x 66 in.,Collection of Ann Shumelda Okerson and James J. O’Donnell Ikuntji Artists Aboriginal Corporation Copyright remains with the artist

Lands of Enchantment: Australian Aboriginal Painting
October 9, 2009 – January 10, 2010

Lands of Enchantment: Australian Aboriginal Painting presents 26 masterworks by some of Australia’s best-known painters, including Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Dorothy Napangardi Robinson, Abie Loy Kemarre, Mitjili Napurrla, and Eubena Nampitjin. These works of art, which have never been exhibited publicly, are drawn from the collection of Ann Shumelda Okerson and James J. O’Donnell of New Haven, Connecticut and Washington D.C. Lands of Enchantment also explores how contemporary Australian Aboriginal paintings are expressive representations of Dreamings—ancient Aboriginal stories about creation and ancestral spirits who inhabited an undatable past called Dreamtime. Contrary to the prevalent Western view that draws clear distinctions between nature and civilization, Aboriginal culture holds that all living beings and elements of geography have been inextricably related through time.


Robin Kahn, "Victoria's Secret", 1995 Mixed media on canvas 68 1/8 x 38 1/8 in. National Museum of Women in the Arts Gift of Maxine Kahn

Telling Secrets: Codes, Captions, and Conundrums in Contemporary Art
October 9, 2009 – January 10, 2010

Artists today often create literal layers (as in collage), apply varying levels of abstraction, or add text in order to enrich or deepen meaning in their works. Other artists layer metaphorically, incorporating evocative symbols such as tattoos, masks, and veils. This exhibition of 39 paintings, photographs, drawings, and prints from NMWA’s collection invites viewers to consider multiple interpretations and inscribe their own ideas and experiences onto each image.

Shown in a thought-provoking thematic installation, the works in Telling Secrets will juxtapose art from a variety of cultures. This approach will reflect contemporary art’s global scope as well as encourage visitors to see both the shared and distinctive traits among art works from many cultures. Leonora Carrington, Jane Hammond, Robin Kahn, Hung Liu, Shirin Neshat, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, and Adriana Varejão are among the 23 featured artists.


Clarice Smith, "Dark Floral", 2008, Oil on canvas 24 x 36 inches, Courtesy of Gerald Peters Gallery, NY

Elements of Nature: Equines and Still Lifes by Clarice Smith
October 9, 2009 – January 10, 2010

Elements of Nature: Equines and Still Lifes by Clarice Smith features 20 paintings that exquisitely articulate Clarice Smith’s graceful vision of the natural world. Embodying both the serenity and excitement of nature, her oeuvre includes floral still-lifes reminiscent of the 17th-century masters as well as exhilarating equestrian scenes. Inspired by Whistler, Manet, and Sargent, Smith’s paintings evoke a sense of wonder at the power, grace, and majestic elements of nature.

A native of Washington, D.C., Smith has painted professionally for over 35 years. She has hosted numerous solo exhibitions in prestigious galleries in the United States, London, Paris, Zurich, Maastricht and Jerusalem.

Artist Spotlight: Interview with Maggie Foskett

Maggie Foskett (American, b.1919) would not have you call her a “nature artist;” nor is she a romantic about humanity’s relationship with the natural world. Rather, she is an artist who creates images that suggest, as she says, “How delicate our balance with mortality is.” As a lover of the darkroom myself (how I miss making my own prints!), I am fascinated by her work and leapt at the suggestion of an interview.

Ms. Foskett was born and grew up in Brazil. Vacations were horseback rides through the country and great care had to be taken that “you didn’t step on the wrong things.” This was the root of her keen observations of the cast-off bits of nature, its debris and refuse. She walks through the woods and picks up small, organic objects that simply aren’t meant to last and brings them back to her darkroom.

Once she has the materials for a particular composition together, she layers them between glass plates to create her own negative – no need for cameras or film. The technique is a variation of cliché verre, which traditionally uses drawings made on glass projected onto photographic paper, usually a gum bichromate print. “Cliché verre is not a photograph,” she says. “I can usually get three prints from each composition before the materials fall apart.” She places the “negative” in a photographic enlarger to project it onto light-sensitive paper to create the prints. It is vital that light be allowed to pass through the materials.

Maggie Foskett, Rain Forest, 1996. Cliché-verre. Gift of the artist.

Maggie Foskett, Rain Forest, 1996. Cliché verre. Gift of the artist.

One might think that this would put some serious limitations on the materials suitable for creating the images, but Ms. Foskett has no lack of ideas. Leaves, snake skin, even onion slices are fair game. “I made an entire series with onions, but I have no sense of smell… the darkroom with all the onions and chemistry was very interesting at that time!” One of her favorite materials is the x-ray image; she collects x-rays and even uses her own. “Animals have always fascinated humans. When the x-ray came along, it gave people the opportunity to see inside animals like they never had before. I love bones because they tell a story – in a way they’re almost eternal.”

Science is a great inspiration for Ms. Foskett. Advancements in technology such as DNA sequencing and space exploration all lend to her view of modern science as being turned inward in a reflection of human existence. She sees the natural world not in the context of being conventionally “beautiful,” but as an “arena of survival” in which mortality and the relationship of pattern echo one another.

Ms. Foskett has been working in the darkroom for many years; she has worked alongside many artists, not just photographers, in Maine where she spends her summers. When I was looking through her resume I noted that she had worked with Ansel Adams, so I couldn’t resist asking about that experience. “They always start with him!” she said. “He was a wonderful teacher, and a very kind man. Students would come up and ask him, “What camera should I use?” He would look at them very directly, and then point to his eye and forehead, saying: “The camera is up here.”

I asked Maggie what her advice to young aspiring artists would be. She thought for a minute and said: “Use your hands – anything tactile. Touch, volume, and texture are very important. Mix anything, use any materials. And make sure you pick darkroom materials they won’t discontinue!”

Six of Maggie’s cliché verre images will be on view in Telling Secrets: Codes, Captions and Conundrums in Contemporary Art – a perfect fit, as she has always been “attracted to the ambiguity of nature.” I would like to thank her again for the wonderful conversation and generous advice.

About the Author: Carolanne Bonanno is NMWA’s communications and publishing intern with a soft spot for the darkroom.

Artist Spotlight: Ida Kohlmeyer

Photo by Judy Cooper, courtesy of Arthur Roger Gallery, New Orleans, LA, USA.

Photo by Judy Cooper, courtesy of Arthur Roger Gallery, New Orleans, LA, USA.

Born in New Orleans in 1912, Ida Kohlmeyer has been called one of the best Abstract Impressionist painters of the South. Her career as an artist did not begin until her 30s, after she graduated from Newcomb College with a degree in English literature. In 1934, she traveled to Mexico City and was inspired by Central and South American folk art, which would remain an influence throughout her life. Several years later she began taking painting and drawing classes at Tulane University with Pat Trivigno, who encouraged her to pursue her study of artwork. Upon receiving her master’s she showed her first paintings at the Fifty-Fourth Annual Spring Exhibition at the Isaac Delgado Museum of Art in New Orleans.

In 1956, Kohlmeyer moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts to experiment with Abstract Expressionism alongside Hans Hoffmann. That same year she traveled to Paris and met Joan Miró, who also inspired her abstract work. However, by the mid 60s she tired of abstraction and moved on to create sculptures with wood and Plexiglas. After experimenting briefly with figurative painting, she returned to abstraction in the 70s. Kohlmeyer died in her hometown of New Orleans in 1997.

Ida Kohlmeyer, Symbols, 1981. Oil, graphite and pastel on canvas, 69 1/2 x 69 in. Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay.

Ida Kohlmeyer, Symbols, 1981. Oil, graphite and pastel on canvas, 69 1/2 x 69 in. Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay.

Kohlmeyer received a number of awards for her artistic achievements, including the Lifetime Achievement Award, Women’s Caucus for Art, New York, NY, USA (1980); the Museum Purchase Award, Twenty-first Southeastern Annual Exhibition, The High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA, USA (1966); and the Ford Foundation Purchase Award, Twenty-eighth Corcoran Biennial of Contemporary American Painting, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA (1963). She is featured in NMWA’s upcoming exhibition Telling Secrets: Codes, Captions, and Conundrums in Contemporary Art, starting October 9.

Jackie Witkowski has returned to DePaul University in Chicago for her senior year of Art History. Good Luck!