Abstract painter Sara Lea Miller was first exposed to art while paging through a book on American folk artist Grandma Moses, who started her career at age 78. Much like Moses, it wasn’t until Miller was over the age of 50 that she began her own journey with art.
Amid the COVID-19 lockdown two years ago, Miller was intensively working on home improvement projects. At the end of remodeling, she realized that she wanted several large paintings to hang on her walls. Miller had always admired and collected art but was hesitant to make any herself.
“I can’t draw a beautiful line to save my life, so I thought, ‘I’m not an artist,’” says Miller. “During the pandemic, I thought I’d try. I wanted big art, so I started playing, and that has become my motto. Just tinker, play and learn.”
Miller’s “Looking on the Bright Side” exhibition at the Artport Gallery showcases 30 of her experimental, original paintings. These pieces are on display now through Aug. 22. The exhibit was curated by the Council on Culture & Arts on behalf of the City of Tallahassee as part of the Art in Public Places program.
Miller will also give an artist talk on Zoom on July 15.
“Art stimulates your brain and is good for the soul,” says Miller, who has been all self-taught. “Doing something that changes over time really opens you up.”
Miller took art history classes all throughout high school and college. During a summer abroad, she traveled to art museums across the United Kingdom, France, Ireland, Belgium and Amsterdam. While everyone marveled over Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre Museum in Paris, Miller could not take her eyes off of “The Winged Victory of Samothrace” sculpture.
“The way they have it placed at the top of the stairs is just beautifully stunning,” says Miller. “I had seen paintings on slide projectors in a dark classroom and was tickled pink to see these artworks in real life.”
Pink happens to be Miller’s favorite color. The walls in her house all sport the same shade of pale pink against white, hardwood floors. Miller had once pored over boxes of paint chips to determine the colors of her home. Now, she flips through those same colors to determine what hues and shades to use in her abstract works.
Miller moved all the furniture out of her dining room and converted it into one of two studio spaces. She starts every painting by laying a drop cloth on the floor of her sunroom before rolling out a swath of raw canvas on top.
From there, she pours watered-down paint onto the canvas and uses homemade tools to push the paint in different directions. She’s repurposed asphalt rollers, yoga mats, and floor scrubbers to apply the paint without brushstrokes, giving her work a smooth, layered look.
“You get this organic movement and puddles too,” says Miller. “There’s deeper places and shallower places with the paint that you wouldn’t have if the canvas was stretched taut.”
Miller will drag lines of oil sticks, pastels, chalk, and charcoal on top of these layers before adding additional colors. As a result, each canvas takes on its own unique voluminous, cloud-like splatters and swirls.
Once she’s completed a painting, she’ll come up with a playful title, which is often linked to a memory or her source of inspiration. “Blueberry Pistachio Ice Cream” and “Lily Pulitzer Takes on Mardi Gras” are just two examples.
Her largest painting had her tiptoeing around an enormous 6×10 foot canvas. Miller donated the work to the 621 Gallery fundraiser where it was cut up into pieces and auctioned off. Miller’s “Lipstick on His Collar” piece at the Artport Gallery was created from these leftover, unsold pieces.
Her favorite painting in the Artport exhibition is “The Last Widow,” which is not listed for sale. The work features the outline of a woman who is filled in with splotches of blue, green, and orange paint and surrounded by a deep, magenta backdrop. Miller says the painting reminds her of a favorite aunt.
“Gary Gets New Teeth” shows a very different figure—the side view of a man with lips pulled back from a porcelain-white smile. These characters encapsulate Miller’s fearless attitude towards artmaking.
“He’s an odd little duck, but I think he’s interesting,” remarks Miller. “I’m fine with things not being perfect. You can’t be precious about your work but by the same token you don’t have to ruin the parts that you like just to prove that it can survive. There can be a balance, and by destroying it, sometimes you get something better.”
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