Katherine D. Miller
When painter Katherine Downey Miller was growing up, she had a skylight above her bed. “I’d look up at night, and I’d see all the seasons changing,” she says. “When it was raining, the rain would be pelting down, or branches would fall from the trees. So I think that, for me, nature became about natural movements.”
Miller is rooted in New England, and has been going to Nantucket on a regular basis since she was a young girl. She recalls “growing up by the beach in ‘Sconset,” where her family had a summer place. “My sister just bought a house there,” she says, which is allowing for further reconnection with this particular area. Miller, who received her BS in Painting from Skidmore and her MFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York City, has also taught at the Nantucket Island School of Design and the Arts and for the Nantucket Artists Association.
“Everything I do is about nature,” she says, and she credits water and the ocean as sources of inspiration. “The ocean is the vast unknown, the life force. I’m drawn to its currents, its movement, its light.”
Her most recent series, “Liquid and Luminosity” (in a mixture of oil and acrylic) exemplifies both her artistic philosophy and process. “I tend to travel and bring inspiration back and then begin to process,” she says. “I’ll use photos, sketches, colors, and these pieces will end up in the paintings.” The paintings in this series are about about “showing light,” and draw upon a number of sources. “As a kid, my family would visit Halibut Point in Rockport, Massachusetts,” she explains. “When we’d walk back to the car, there would be fireflies everywhere, like stars falling to Earth. And then, I remember being at sailing camp in Deer Island, Maine, and swimming at night with the phosphorescence in the water.”
Miller painted the series on large canvases, mostly squares ranging from about three to six feet on each side. She chose this shape because she likes the way the paintings look when grouped together. “I kind of play ‘memory’ with the paintings, together or by themselves,” she says. “My MFA is in illustration, and even though the work is abstract, I’m telling a story about the movement of light.”
The paintings also tell the story of the ocean, however. “Having grown up in New England, I’ve been exposed to extreme weather in nature and in the sea,” says Miller. Those elements combine in her art along with “light shafts through the water.” She compares parts of her work to being underwater and looking up at the light. “When I finished, the series contained everything I felt about about water and the ocean.”
In addition to her own work in abstract nature and figurative landscape painting, Miller also takes on commissions. Clients will ask her to create works that fit in their homes, for instance, or sometimes they’ll ask for something more illustrative. “One couple on Nantucket invited me over to their porch for inspiration,” she said. They weren’t looking for a literal interpretation of the view, but the visit led to an ocean-inspired piece. In a separate venture, Miller also paints portraits of dogs. Normally she would conduct these sessions in her Boston studio, but due to COVID-19 restrictions, she has put these projects on hold — but has plans to reopen via Zoom in the near future.
For her upcoming series of paintings, Miller is figuratively traveling to another island for inspiration, this one on the far side of the globe—Australia. Her new body of work will focus on forest fires, and she will draw from those in the North American West, as well. She’s planning on creating abstract paintings using imagery and emotion. “I think that these will be in oil,” she says, as opposed to the acrylics of her phosphorescence series. “I’m researching imagery, making notes, figuring out the sizes of canvas that I’ll work with, sketching from photos. I’m hoping to do large paintings again, probably six-by-six.”
While she has no fixed deadline for her new series, Miller expects that she will finish in about a year. The timing of this project is certainly apropos, and she describes it as a meditation on the Dance of Shiva, the cycle of destruction and creation. “Without destruction, there cannot be rebirth; beautiful imagery can emerge,” she notes. “I am an environmental artist, drawn to anything having to do with the natural world. What’s been happening with the fires is heartbreaking. – Chris White
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