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Local artist paints ‘emotional and physical manifestations of motherhood’ in new show

Shawna Headshot Horizontal.jpeg
Courtesy of Olive and West
Artist Shawna Miller stands in front of one of her paintings, “Angela and Hattie.” The piece is among 17 of her works on display in “Love Letters to My Mother,” a solo exhibition at The Art Base in Basalt.

Seven years ago, spurred by feelings of isolation and invisibility, artist Shawna Miller set out to document the weight and work of motherhood by painting it.

Now, 17 of her pieces will be featured in a solo exhibition called “Love Letters to My Mother” at The Art Base in Basalt. An 18th piece isn’t part of the formal exhibition but will be available in the shop.

There’s an opening reception on Friday from 5 to 7 p.m. An artist talk moderated by Teresa Booth Brown is scheduled for Nov. 15 at 5:30 p.m. The exhibit will run through Dec. 3.

Kaya Williams: Well, I'd love for you to start by just telling me a little bit about the inspiration behind this show that will be starting at The Art Base in a few days.

Shawna Miller: This body of work started after I became a new mom, and I was living in New York City at the time, and I found it to be pretty isolating as a new mom stuck in an apartment with a baby.

I felt like this is the kind of work that should be visible. People should know what we're doing and what we're going through, and so I thought it should be painted, and I thought it should be painted in a particular way.

Williams: As you were painting these pieces, did it change at all how you saw motherhood and how you saw your own relationship to it?

Miller: I don't know if it changed my relationship to motherhood. I think it allowed me to express my feelings about it and make them visible, which helped me individually.

I think it helped me think also about motherhood as we experience it today, and the ways in which our culture pays a lot of lip service to mothers but doesn't often support them in the ways that they need to be supported.

Williams: How would you describe those feelings toward motherhood that you were exploring in this work?

Miller: I think mostly I needed to feel seen as a woman, and that is why a lot of the portraits are with the subject: The woman interrogating the viewer. I think a lot of art about motherhood is often concentrated on the connection between mother and child, which I have those pieces as well.

But (the project has) started more to see and notice the woman, as a woman, as a mother. It's less about the child and more about the woman who is experiencing all of the emotional and physical manifestations of motherhood and womanhood.

Williams: I was reading a really interesting bit of text about this work that you shared on Instagram, and you had mentioned this gap between this socially acceptable vision of motherhood and the reality of it. What do you think leads to that gap? And how can we close it?

Miller: Gosh, that is the question. I think that as time passes, we often sentimentalize and become nostalgic about our children and the period of time we spend with them when they're very small, because it goes by quickly. And so we just remember the good parts, and we often don't remember the really difficult parts.

Sometimes there's a hesitancy to talk about that, and I think it's really helpful for women, and for culture, to talk about it: to be real, and to be authentic about what you're experiencing.

It’s that that I hope to capture, just the reality of the situation — the good, the not so good, the really difficult, the really beautiful. It's all a part of the puzzle.

Williams: Did you learn anything about yourself, as you were creating these pieces?

Miller: I learned a lot about myself. When I embarked on (the project), it was all about me as a mother. And then as I went along, I realized, "Oh, this actually has a lot to do with myself as a child."

I lost my parents (at a young age), and that was a loss of that connection. And I think we get very good at obfuscating that grief as time goes by, and then art has a way of just opening it all up. And sometimes you can step away and say, "Oh, there's something happening here." And that's what happened to me.

I took a step back, and I looked at it and I realized that it had become an outlet for expressing a lot of feelings that I've kind of buried for quite a long time. That's really a very beautiful part about artmaking. You don't have to go looking for it. It just comes out.

Williams: I noticed that the show is called “Love Letters to My Mother.” Does that mean that these are love letters to your mother, as in Shawna’s mother? Or is it kind of a broader commentary on who the ‘my mother’ is, so to speak?

Miller: Well, I think people can interpret it however they like. For me personally, absolutely, love letters to my own mother. She was also a painter, so I grew up watching her create mostly pastel portraits. And it was the kind of thing where it didn't even faze me. I just thought that's what people did, because that's what my mom was doing. And then it took me probably 30 years to realize, "Oh, that's actually really special." So yeah, I have her in mind.

Williams: Now what medium do you work in?

Miller: I work in oil on canvas mostly, and on wooden panels. I also do some work in charcoal.

Williams: Is there a reasoning or a drive behind those choices?

Miller: Definitely. I chose oil paint really for its historical connotations of heft and permanence. When I thought about doing this work, I wanted it to look purposeful, intentional, somewhat timeless. And I knew that oil paint was really the medium to convey that message and those feelings. So, in my case, the medium is very connected to the message.

Williams: Do you think that it maybe grants a heft and a permanence to the experience of motherhood, too?

Miller: I hope so, that was definitely the intention.

Williams: You mentioned that idea of the medium and its connection to the message. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the relationship between art and art making, and motherhood and raising a child.

Miller: The first one that pops in my mind is that we can embark on a project. Let's say the project is raising a child or creating a body of work. And you think you know what that's going to look like, you have an idea or a goal in your mind. But then every sort of thing will happen to kind of throw a stick in the spokes, so to speak, and you just have to work around and figure out what's the next best step in every scenario.

So, in that way, the two are very similar. You never know what's coming. And you just, you just work through it as it comes up.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.