For our newest Backpacker Trail Guide in the visual and performing arts, Erika Senft Miller reflects on a career where process is the product and the importance of community to the creative process - and resolution. All images courtesy of the artist.
Until recently, I have had no physical or social room to put my practice as an artist fully into this world. Consequently, I learned early to work in my head. In my mid 20s I had a head injury. The recovery was slow with weeks and months in a dark room without any external stimulation. After a few weeks, during which the pain slowly decreased and my awareness slowly increased I learned to deep-dive into my body and into my thoughts.
In this regard, I relate to Keith Richards’ strategy of using drugs in order to push deeper, past resistance, into the layer where the good stuff is. Except that I don’t need drugs. I have learned to dive into the murky waters of my mind and connect to my body in a very immediate way. This ability saved my life during my recovery from the head-injury. Thirty-some years later, I have acquired both the physical and the socio-emotional room to bring my art out of my head. Now, I have three studios and related practices: the one in my head, my physical studio, and live performances and exhibits in the larger world — my community.
New projects, next steps and shapes for existing projects often appear in my dreams. So I give myself two hours in the morning, between waking at 6 AM and getting up at 8 AM, where I let my dreams and thoughts surface and travel from night into daylight—this is the time where I undertake the most difficult work of my day — the non-doing. Sometimes it takes 30 minutes, sometimes 90 minutes but there is always a point where I jump out of bed, ready to go.
Then, I know exactly what the next steps will be: Researching a theme, word or image, getting materials, reaching out to people for research or collaboration, scouting materials and sites; those are the easy steps. That’s where my “doing” mode as well as my work experience in project management and teaching are helpful. That’s also where I approach the terrain of the day the same way I approach a new part of the lake on my paddleboard, or a new mountain on my skis— always listening, scanning for subtleties in possibilities, alternate routes or pitfalls. It often takes me to the end of the day until I am tired enough to slow down for painting, drawing, or sewing.
The actual making of my work always feels like play, and all the while, my mind churns ideas and possibilities. This repeated processing of ideas and materials gives me great affinity to cows and their way of digesting food in a careful process in their four stomachs. (The area in southern Germany where I was born and spent the first six years of my life is known for its cows and good cheese.)
Once I have gathered with a wide cast net, eager like a squirrel before winter, the process of making and assembling begins. This is where different materials, collaborators, and medias come together in a nonhierarchical way, one that aligns with John Cage’s concept of chance and nature’s complex systems. The Gestalt of the work surfaces in the same manner that the ideas surface in my dreams. (It’s like daydreaming.) When I carefully listen to this material, as FM Alexander said with regard to poised and effortless movement, “the right thing does itself.”
Learn more about Erika Senft Miller and her work by visiting her website at: https://erikasenftmiller.com