Growing up along the coast of Connecticut with woods to run wild in, Ruane Miller, 69, considers herself an outdoorswoman. She loves to camp and hike, so it’s particularly frustrating that she’s been stricken with Lyme disease.
The soon-to-be-retired professor of art at The College of New Jersey has been recuperating at her second residence near Rhinebeck, N.Y. Her swan song at the college will be Through the Window of My Mind: Ruane Miller, Paintings and Prints, on view at the Gallery at The College of New Jersey Jan. 22 through Feb. 20.
Her colorful, fantastical paintings remind us of the questions that keep us awake at night: Was there a beginning, and will there be an end? If so, what came before? What will come after? And if you travel out to the end of the universe, what lies beyond?
Miller’s images take us to places we recognize but that emanate from the deepest canyons of her mind. She is unafraid to let go and travel there, and incredibly able to bring that world back to us.
The retrospective of 46 works created during the past 15 years is presented on the occasion of Miller’s retirement as Professor of Digital Art at TCNJ, where she has taught since 1986. During her tenure, Miller designed and implemented the development of a computer graphics curriculum and facility for the art department and later coordinated the development of a BFA major in digital arts. She has chaired the art department and served as coordinator of both the fine arts and digital arts programs.
Miller uses both traditional painting and drawing and digital imaging and printmaking. The digital work incorporates her photography of landscapes, wildflowers, and ancient art as well as scans of gouache paintings and sketches. She moves comfortably between the worlds of digital and traditional, often blending the two.
Miller combines a personal poetic sensing of the world with technological mastery of several mediums, combining them in a way that creates profound beauty. There’s even an environmental message in these depictions of vast lands, urging us to protect these precious vistas.
When Miller transitioned to the digital world in 1984, it was new for artists, she recollects. “Graphic designers were not yet using it. The software and hardware were not there. I fell in love with the medium the first time I got on a computer even though the software was archaic. A lot of artists felt it was at odds with creating fine art, though not so much anymore, but I felt it was another way to work and create. I loved the flexibility.”
As the technology improved, artists could incorporate photography and add more to what they could do as an artist. “The vocabulary offered me what painting alone wouldn’t have. I was able to translate my enthusiasm into teaching and program development — this was a medium you could really be creative with and expand your own vision.”
As a 42-year-old in 1986, Miller earned a second MFA from RIT in computer graphics design (her first MFA was at Tyler School of the Arts in Rome). Colleges and universities were just starting to consider adding curriculum in the field. Miller interviewed around the country, liked the atmosphere at TCNJ, and opted for that position. “I found among the faculty, during my two to three day interview, some were not interested in computer art, but all were behind bringing it into the curriculum. The college was very open and I had full support of the department and administration.”
Miller’s favorite place for inspiration is the American Southwest. In 1997, after chairing the art department, she took a sabbatical year, packing up all her belongings. She traveled around the country, camping and exploring archaeological sites.
“I traveled across southern Canada into Northwestern Ontario where I spent eight days with indigenous people in Thunder Bay and in Sioux Lookout, Ontario,” she says. She subsequently journeyed to the Northern Plains into Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah, and then the Southwest and the Four Corners Region, researching ancient and contemporary cultures and their art, artifacts and beliefs.
“I felt a great affinity to the Southwest when I went there,” she says, spending a lot of solitary time. “The landscape and skies are so dramatic.” She was moved by the long vistas, the outlines of clouds and land against sky, the change of color. “I found the desert quite alive, a different kind of life than the more obvious life in Hawaii.” She taught herself about petroglyphs, pictographs and Native American culture, enchanted by the mystery. “These artifacts and art were left so many years ago, and are in touch with the landscape.”
The most recent work in Through the Window of My Mind is from a 2011 residency in the Grand Canyon. She’d already been suffering from Lyme, and her daughter and a friend came to help as she focused on making photographs. It was only in spring 2013 when Miller could paint again.
“Besides the thrill of being able to work again, they express well the feelings of that experience in the Grand Canyon, even if I couldn’t hike to bottom of Canyon,” she says. “The views are embedded in my mind.”
There are also pure digital works from a 2007-2009 series from Petrified Forest National Park, using Photoshop to create composites. For the cloud series, she scanned in pieces of painting and combined them with digital painting. “I move back and forth between media. Sometimes I want more of a photographic feeling. Recently, it’s the painting. Because of the Lyme disease, using a computer is difficult.”
In order to make the Grand Canyon paintings, Miller played a computer slideshow as she sat at her drawing table and sketched, looking at different images as they came up. It would gel and come together for her. “I realized what I was interested in – this repetitive rhythm of form that takes place in the Grand Canyon. The striations and linear pattern. The first couple were more exuberant and abstract images of the Colorado River, then paintings that were more realistically based. It’s an intuitive process though I may have to struggle to get it out. I do a lot of drawing until it comes together as imagery. Then it takes off. It doesn’t always come easily – there’s work I have to do to get to that point. But it always happens.”
Through the Window of My Mind . . . Ruane Miller Paintings and Prints is on view at The College of New Jersey Gallery Jan. 22 through Feb. 20. Opening reception January 22, 5-7 p.m.
The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.