Dozens of tiny porcelain legs, arms and heads are stacked on shelves in artist Wendy Franklund Miller’s studio in West Central Spokane. The 100-year-old dolls are one of Miller’s most recent collecting obsessions. In the past, it’s been colored bowls, or photographs of tombstones, or vintage jello molds.
“Artists can get really stuck on something,” Miller said. “When we get started on something, we can’t leave it alone.”
“I love the way the dolls look, the way they feel,” said Miller, 75, dressed in a hot pink cardigan and sporting a silver bob haircut. She hopped out of her chair and hobbled over to the shelf to lift one of a hundred tiny, white arms she had sorted onto black velvet trays.
She had obtained the broken doll parts from a local junker, who dug them up in a landfill under the University District. She spent hours cleaning the delicate porcelain fingers, feet and faces of the dolls, dating as far back as the 1860s, trying not to further damage them.
Miller’s own body has been a bit damaged lately. Decades of hip surgeries to mitigate pain from a bone defect have taken their toll. She finally had a stair lift installed last year to help her maneuver up and down the steps into her brightly renovated studio basement. “This chair has been great,” Miller said.
To make matters more challenging, she began to lose some mobility in her dominant right hand about five years ago due to arthritis. A severed muscle in her right arm a couple of months ago has now made it impossible to lift anything. Tough on an artist who likes to sort through junk and experiment with heavy mediums.
“The new work I’ve done is just drawing,” Miller said, without a hint of self-pity. “Back to the human body again.”
“A lot of my art comes back to the human body. The deterioration of our bodies and just the life cycle: we are born and then we die,” said Miller with a melodious laugh. “We will all end up in the earth like these dolls here, and that’s OK.”
“I am intrigued by the idea that these (dolls) are all throwaways,” Miller said. “That they had been somebody’s dolls, and that the how and why they were tossed away is mysterious.”
Miller’s latest doll obsession was part of a group exhibition last spring at Spokane Falls Community College. Her show “Then/Again,” was a study in reconstructing what was broken. She rearranged the found doll parts. Then she either photographed the “finished” dolls, or drew them in black and white ink. The “new” dolls she created were often scarred or misshapen but still starkly beautiful.
“For me, the photographs and ink drawings of these reconstructed doll parts are a reflection of our world as it is today, beautiful but partly broken,” Miller wrote about “Then/Again.”
“I like how these dolls started out as something, and then they were nothing, and now they are becoming something again,” Miller said, shuffling through ink drawings on a table laden with galleys of a soon-to–be published book about her art. “I’m reinventing them.”
Miller has been reinventing her art, and herself, for more than 50 years in the Pacific Northwest. Over the decades, she has explored painting, paper-making, silkscreen printing, encaustics, photography and now ink drawings. She has exhibited and taught art throughout the United States, and her work is included in private and public collections throughout the region, including 12 public schools in Washington state. She is represented by the Augen Gallery in Portland and was represented by the now-closed Lorinda Knight Gallery in Spokane from 1997 to 2009 and the Miriam Perlman Gallery in Chicago from 1988 to 1992.
Last month, she held a mini-retrospective at the Saranac Art Projects in downtown Spokane alongside a show of surreal still lifes and landscapes by Saranac artist-member Bradd Skubinna.
“I invited her to show with me because she is always doing something new. She doesn’t stick to the same thing,” Skubinna said. “She has stayed young and relevant in terms of her art work.”
“(Miller) really has been a creative force in the art world and has not gotten the recognition she deserves,” said Saranac artist-member Lisa Nappa.
Miller was born a farmer’s daughter in North Dakota but was moved west to Yakima after her mother had the first three of her five children. “My mother told my father ‘This is a really hard life. I do not want my daughters marrying farmers,’ ” Miller said. “ ‘I’m going West. If you want to come with me, fine.’ ”
Miller was recognized as an artist by her teachers and peers the day she started her first art project in the first grade. After graduating high school, she moved to Portland to attend museum art school, but her parents fought over whether an arts education for a young woman made sense. Her father won the argument and Miller returned home to Yakima where she did what she “was supposed to do,” Miller said. She got married, had a baby, and worked to put her husband through college.
“That is what nice girls did,” Miller said.
It was in the generation-defining year of 1969, after her first hip surgery at age 26, when she decided to end her marriage. She wanted to walk her own path.
“In those days no one could believe I left him,” Miller said. “He even said, ‘You get nothing out of this marriage and I got a degree.’ I said, ‘I got to leave.’ ”
Miller moved to Seattle with her 3-year-old son and rented a little cabin on Lake Snohomish. She set to work painting right away in oils, watercolors and acrylics. She sold her first painting and hit the art fairs every weekend to try and sell more. A customer took notice and brought her into his gallery.
“I was lucky in a way,” Miller said. “I just jumped in.”
Despite initial success, Miller came to the conclusion that she needed to make a better living to take care of her son. She moved to Spokane and graduated from Eastern Washington University in 1976 with a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene.
“When you have a kid, it is not OK to live on the edge all the time,” Miller said. Her part-time job allowed her to pay the bills and pursue her art.
Miller took art classes at Spokane Falls Community College and Gonzaga University. She attended every guest artist talk offered at the former Cheney Cowles Museum, now the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture. “I was in such awe of the artists I met from all over through that program,” Miller said. “They were an arts education for me.”
Through those influences and exposure to what other artists were doing, Miller became enamored with creating handmade paper. In typical fashion, she threw herself into the medium. To make paper, Miller would start with vats of cotton rag pulp she made herself, cooking them down and processing them in a blender. She then had to dye, rinse and cast the pulp into molds. Next she built up her designs by a transfer process called couching. She would tape patterns on the frame or use screens and pull the frame through vats of pulp to make designs. The bright colors she used was the paper itself.
An early fascination with discarded objects meant Miller would add bits of old telephone wires, shells and other found objects to add depth and character to the works. She began sewing fabrics onto the paper to create paper quilts. Other times she laid silkscreen prints on top of the paper, edgy images of vintage cars in front of blighted buildings, women in sunglasses or medical book illustrations of the human brain.
Miller’s handmade paper series called “Witness” dealt with her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease. The images molded into the paper were domestic objects, signifying life choices. The letters and expressions embedded in the designs were ones that her mother would trip over while trying to call up the right word.
In the 1980s and ’90s, Miller won artist residencies on both coasts and was hired to teach paper-making workshops all over the country. She launched a solo exhibition “Influences: Paying Homage,” in which she created handmade paper pieces that showed the influences on her of 16 female artists whom Miller had met and admired. The show garnered a lot of attention, traveling for a couple of years to Seattle Pacific University, Spokane Falls Community College, the University of Montana and North Idaho College.
Miller’s show was credited for bringing attention to the often overlooked contributions of women artists. And for taking women seriously as artists. “Some of the artists I represented in ‘Influences’ were famous like Georgia O’Keefe, but most were from the Northwest and not known,” Miller said. “But to me, you are successful if you can continue to make art. They were all my role models.”
Painful hip and bone issues forced Miller to start to move on from the medium that made her a name. “I just couldn’t keep lugging five-gallon buckets of wet pulp anymore,” Miller said. “I was getting really well-known in paper-making, but my body was just wearing out.”
During a one-month paper-making residency at a studio in New York in 1996, Miller asked a fellow artist if she could dip some of her paper into the hot wax the artist was using. That’s when Miller’s foray into encaustics began. Miller’s encaustics processes and pieces were just as fascinating and innovative as her paper-making stage had been.
“In the late ’90s when I started dabbling in encaustics, there were no books on how to do this 2,000-year-old practice anywhere,” Miller said. “It was very experimental. I could make up my own rules.”
Miller’s encaustics incorporate more of the found objects she likes to rescue from recycling centers. She may take old gears and gadgets and sink the shapes into the wax to form engravings of the lines onto her encaustic-on-wood pieces. She started collecting old photographs for a recent encaustic series, “Illumination.” The show consisted of four sets of 25 black and white wax-covered blocks with vintage pictures embedded on one side. The cast-off pictures were old black-and-white photos of babies in christening gowns, children posing with birthday cakes, and burial photos. Birth, aging and death – the life cycle all neatly wrapped up in a set of thickly layered blocks.
The birthday cakes were especially intriguing to Miller. “I found all these huge photos with little people with little tiny white cakes, and I thought those photos looked so funny,” she said.
Some life cycles and reinventions include attaching yourself to another person. Miller thought she was done with all that until she “met a cute boy” in Spokane in the late ’70s who was a law student at Gonzaga. Despite reservations about getting married again, Miller decided she was ready to reconstruct her own love life with Jake Miller in 1977. The reinvention of Wendy Franklund Miller as a married woman has held up well.
“At the last minute, I figured I will never know for sure, so I went ahead,” she said. “It has been the best life ever.”
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