Eyeing Change

By on April 18, 2018

Teton Artlab’s artist-in-residence shifts space and time

JACKSON HOLE, WY – The installations Billy Joe Miller creates are meant to offer more than piqued curiosity.

“I am interested in a transformative experience,” the New Mexico-based artist said. “I want to create a meaningful experience of place, but the heart of my work is about transformation.”

Miller is an interdisciplinary artist working with installation, sculpture and sound. He is also the Teton Artlab’s artist-in-residence this month and will talk about his work at a studio tour at 6 p.m. Monday, April 23 at the Artlab.

Miller grew up in San Diego in an intensely religious community. As a child, he loved to paint and draw. “But when I started to later think in terms of installation, it just opened up this whole new world of experiences,” he said. “I forever love drawing and painting, but I’m drawn to immersive spaces.”

Growing up in a strict religious church was challenging for Miller, but he was struck by the way people created sacred space and rituals. His past influences his work today as he creates powerful, contemplative spaces.

“I’m also interested in creating space that has a direct connection to the land or the places that it is in,” he said.

Miller moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2006. Four years later, Miller had shown his photography and paintings in shows, but hadn’t yet discovered his passion for large-scale installation. He’d fallen in love with found objects—items he collected on the street, or hunted for in thrift stores.

A phone call with a friend inspired the idea for his first installation. He created what looked like the interior space of a house with found objects like furniture, but also organic materials and his own artwork. Each wall represented a season, so walking around the room gave the sense of  completing a full year. He called the mixed media project “Tomorrow is Spring,” and while he liked the completed installation, it was most significant in turning him toward a path of large-format work.

“I knew I could go so much farther,” he said. “It was a really important door opening.”

In 2012, he met an important art curator in New Mexico who asked him to show his work in a large warehouse space, which he filled with tumbleweeds he hung so they looked like they were swirling through the room alongside photographs. The installation represented spring in New Mexico. It was an important moment in his career, though one of his major breakthroughs came several years later.

After his sister died, Miller thought about the funeral he’d liked to have given her. He knew he’d want there to be light. It inspired “Winter’s Well,” an installation that opened in 2014 on a New Mexico farm. It featured an open oval grave meant to represent a doorway, with a mirror mosaic on the bottom.

“That was when the immersive work really started to feel like something I wanted to explore and move forward,” he said.

Miller’s work is often a response to the natural world. He’s interested in the awe nature inspires, as well as ideas, such as national parks. The idea of transformation also informs much of his work.

“Part of coming up here is it’s so exciting to get to explore the epic power of land and nature, but also see its enormous vulnerability in terms of climate change,” he said.

He brought with him a bunch of rope he wants to experiment with and use to augment other materials. Rope is a way to draw in space—it’s also handy, he said.

He hopes to create at least one smaller site-responsive sculpture while in Jackson.

“Over the course of this residency, I intend to make installations and interventions in nature that intermingle the man-made with the organic, creating moments of contemplation and temporary monuments or impromptu sanctuaries,” he said.

The scenes he wants to recreate operate as performance and ritual he hopes to capture in photographs.

His time so far in the valley has offered some interesting kernels. Miller has always loved moths—there’s the transformation element, but also the way they are drawn to light. He recently learned that in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, grizzly bears can eat thousands of moths.

“I don’t know that I’m going to make work about that,” he said, “but learning that is all part of drawing interest and empathy and makes me think about how we are interacting with nature.” PJH

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