A new Director with Ryan Peter Miller
By Madison Kobe ’18
Ryan Peter Miller is a conceptual painter based out of Chicago, Illinois, and an instructor of foundations, sculpture, and painting. He earned a B.F.A. from the University of Georgia in 2001, and a M.F.A. from Arizona State University in 2008. He served as gallery director and art instructor at ASU for three years. As gallery director, he produced over 120 student exhibitions for the largest public university in the United States and has curated several national exhibitions. Prof. Miller has exhibited internationally in cities including Los Angeles, Berlin, and Beijing, and has shown regionally at Chicago Artist’s Coalition, MDW Fair, Art Expo, and a collaborative performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art. This year, Ryan Peter Miller is taking over as director of the H. F. Johnson Gallery of Art. Luckily, I was able to talk to Prof. Miller and learn more about him as an artist and as a gallery director.
When did you decide you wanted to pursue a career in the arts?
The official decision was made while I was attending undergraduate studies at the University of Georgia. I enrolled at UGA planning to study Biology, but after taking my first college level art class I was hooked, and knew I needed to incorporate the Visual Arts into my research. Unofficially, my whole life was moving towards this decision. I come from a family of creatives. My great grandmother was an oil painter and watercolorist, both of my grandparents on my mother’s side were hobbyists in the arts, my mother is an interior decorator, and my father is a graphic designer. Art was one of my first friends when I didn’t have a lot of friends. I felt at ease and happy creating things by myself, so growing up I was always in an art class either in school or in a community program. My choice to work in the arts has a great amount of support from my family, and I attribute my persistence to that support.
What was the first piece you created that you were proud of?
It wasn’t my first attempt at acrylic painting, that’s for sure. In high school, I painted a portrait of myself and Harvey the Rabbit as a prop for the play Harvey, in which I played the lead. That painting haunted me and perhaps planted some real seeds of doubt for a year or so. I made a lot of pieces throughout grade school that I was proud of. I remember the first piece of art my mother framed was a watercolor of a polar bear I made in 4th grade. She was impressed because it was a white figure on a white background, and I had made a set of minimal marks to describe them both. As an adult, I recall the first time I felt like I had control of my skills was preparing for my senior thesis exhibit. I made a choice to add a last minute work to the exhibition. The show was only a couple days away, and I didn’t have time to afford any mistakes. In my first attempt to paint a hand for the central figure, the brush seemed to move itself, my color choices were perfect, and the image came together almost magically. I felt as though I was watching myself paint. In a moment, I understood everything I learned.
What do you think will be some challenges you will face as the new gallery director?
Being a gallery director is a political position. I will always select artists and curate exhibitions that make me happy and excited first, because that enthusiasm is palpable to an audience. But, I have an audience that is diverse and complex, so it is equally important to consider what they want and need from a visual arts experience. If I am the only one excited about a show, then I have failed. The position is about bringing art to an audience of people that want to see something new and fresh, but can’t necessarily articulate what that something is. I am bringing art to the students, but also their families, to the faculty and staff, but also to the greater community of Kenosha and Racine. I know I can’t please everyone all of the time, but the breadth of exhibitions needs to attract all constituents over the duration of a season or two. I want someone to come to an exhibit at the H. F. Johnson Gallery that they didn’t expect they would like, because they appreciated the previous exhibition they saw here, and trust that I am introducing them to something great.
What are you looking forward to the most with your new position?
I am most excited to work with artists that are challenging and innovative. I am equally excited to share those artists with our students and have the opportunity inform their tastes and preferences. Becoming a successful artist is about becoming a good visual communicator. To develop a visual language you have to read a lot of art, and the better the art is the more articulate you become. I live in Chicago and the artists there, and in the region, are of the highest caliber in the world. Carthage students get a chance to learn from that knowledge directly.
What is your favorite medium to work with?
I am a painter. I identify as a painter over the term artist, or gallery director, or professor. I think painting is not about a material, but a way of thinking about space. Painting helps me to understand what needs to come first and what needs to show up last. Painting helps me see how one thing defines another thing. Painting is an expansive metaphor for the world in which we live. The medium of paint begins as a shapeless mass of color, and through a nuanced process of organization, a previously unseen space is created. That’s about as good as it gets.
What is your favorite thing about working at Carthage?
There is a community at Carthage that is deeply supportive. It is a democratic community, and in the vast array of opinions and approaches towards teaching and learning, the people have created a space in which we all have the opportunity to find our clearest voice.
What advice would you offer someone considering a career in the arts?
This is a durational performance. If you are hoping to get into a career in the arts, meaning you want to earn a living income, you must be committed to the end and appreciate the continuous process. There is no hump to get over. The path is uphill the whole way. This is not a bad thing. It puts temporary failures into simple perspective. If you don’t get this one grant, or exhibition, or sale, it doesn’t matter, there is no real loss. A lack of acquisition is a necessary part to the fullness of the career. A career in the arts keeps you fit for life. You will never be without a new thing to learn.