Nic Annette Miller Brings Her Art to Life

Nic Annette Miller makes handmade art like you haven't seen before.

The Brooklyn-based artist recently had her European Starling installation featured in a Salt Lake City gallery, which gave us a chance to catch up with her and learn more about her art.

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What got you into making art?

Honestly, I'm not sure. It's almost like asking, "How did you come up with that idea?" The time and place in some sense can be pinpointed, but there is a rolodex of events leading up to that moment. I remember applying for colleges and feeling antsy towards picking a major. My dad simply asked, "What could you do that would make you the happiest?" The first thing that came to my mind was taking pictures. I spent most of high school in a dark room, exposing images like they were journal entries. Once I stepped in the classroom and the world of both printmaking and graphic design, I felt compelled to change my studies and double major.

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It’s a shift in focus to make sure the purpose and goal is for a specific project and not necessarily where it will take me.

Did you ever have an "aha" moment when it felt like your work finally clicked? Was there a moment when you felt comfortable saying, "I'm an artist"?

Yeah, a couple months ago! I kid you not. I was working on an installation of European Starlings inside a small gallery and when I stepped back, I felt it. So be it that it took many hours and many miles to get it to completion - it also took many years to get it to its purpose. All of my experiences learning about tools, materials, and the art world, as well as just living life, led me to that room with those birds and that moment. It was surreal.

You touched on something really important - whether it's someone viewing an art installation, or buying a piece from your shop, they only see the end piece. To a young artist, you're constantly inspired by the work of others, but it can also be discouraging to feel like you're not "there" yet. How important is it to remind yourself that it's a process - that the mistakes, setbacks, and indecision are just as important as the final pieces, art shows, and sales?

Let’s not assume I am “there” either but how I cope with that feeling is accepting that I may never feel “there” ever.  It’s a shift in focus to make sure the purpose and goal is for a specific project and not necessarily where it will take me. I LOVE MISTAKES. Instead of getting frustrated, I try to focus on how exciting it is that I just became more knowledgeable. I mean, how else am I going to learn that things work better this way or that needs to be that way? Setbacks are an opportunity to re-evaluate too. It would be foolish to ignore problems.

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A lot of your art is about creating physical pieces, especially with setting up large installations for art shows - what kind of challenges does that present that you hadn't anticipated before starting?

I've gone from doing things completely alone, to just one friend helping, and now many because my projects are becoming more elaborate. Though I need help, I hate asking for it. Luckily, I'm friends with many creative individuals with high spirits. One of my recent projects was a stop-motion video to mimic a murmuration. It was my first stop-motion and independently produced video. Boy oh boy, did I need help. It still amazes me that I am pals with a director of photography, a composer, eight people who helped me on set over a course of a 20-hour weekend, and a patient editor teaching me Premiere.

Nic Annette Miller 4 Nic Annette Miller 5 Fish market photos provided by Nic Annette Miller

Where did the idea for the fish market come from?

It was time to do something different from my first collection of Animal Heads and having conversations around vegetarianism. I thought fish would be a new challenge for me artistically and it gave me an excuse to study the industry. The graphic designer in me saw the opportunity to present the new work as a market. I quickly became obsessed with details. The fake ice, since everyone always asks, it's water-based encapsulated rubber. You make it just like jell-o and you'll want to play with it all day.

How do you begin working on a new product for your shop?

Though it totally ends up as a “product,” I don’t think about making something to sell that way. The pieces serve some sort of idea I want to express, then there’s a show or installation of some sort, then I put them online to help fund said idea. I spend a lot of time researching not only images of different angles of a subject I am working on but the symbology or specimen qualities. In Illustrator, I do a quick sketch as "notes" so when I transfer it on wood, I can tell if an area needs shading or specific mark-making. There's no knowing how I am going to carve the details until there's a gouge in my hand.

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How do you make your pieces?

The short answer is: by hand. The long answer is: after I am done carving a block, I hand-print an edition on an etching press. Depending on the subject, I'll add watercolor or pigment dust. Then adhere the print to plywood, cut out with a scroll saw, sand, route a keyhole slot, dust, repeat.

Nic Annette Miller 6 Provided by Nic Annette Miller

If creating projects and objects bring me joy, why deprive myself of that?

Could you walk us through the process of creating a product like Mike's 6-Point Elk?

For Mike’s 6-Point Elk, I first met up with a man named Mike to take photos of his trophies. If I can, I try to see the subject in real life and photograph the details I need. Then I make a mock up sketch on Illustrator, print out pieces and tape it together to get the form to life-size. Carbon paper helps transfer the sketch to birch plywood with MDF core (carves like butter and prints the best grains) then I start carving. Because the horns are so big, I actually made a separate block for those knowing I could piece it back to the head after they’re printed and ready to mount onto ¾” ply. Then cut.  

I just looked at my spreadsheet and I’ve cut out over 2,000 pieces with a scroll saw. That’s a lot of time to be on a scroll saw. I should probably re-evaluate my process!

What's been the most satisfying part about being able to make a living from your art?

Well, I have to clarify that I don't necessarily make a living from my art. Some months I do and some months I wish I did. I've been making these woodcut prints since I graduated from college in 2009 off and on, in between jobs or late into the night/morning. Some of my ideas are not sellable but I do them anyway. Sometimes you get an opportunity to take a full-time job in New York you can't pass up and sometimes you just burn out. Every single person who has purchased something I made has encouraged me to keep making. A lot of my customers share stories of why an animal or my artist statement resonated with them and that gives me a lot of satisfaction.

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Is there something you've learned recently that you wish you'd known years ago?

I’ve been really hard on myself and recently I’ve decided to stop. That’s not helping anybody, especially myself. If creating projects and objects bring me joy, why deprive myself of that?

See more from Nic on Instagram and get your very own handmade starling, grizzly bear, or largemouth bass in her shop.