Nic Annette Miller has become one of SLC's most prominent print artists, simply by putting her works in a very different setting. --- Miller took her black-and-white animal designs and applied them to woodcuts, ranging from small magnets to life-size recreations, which have been making their way around the city to shops and businesses as decoration and lively art.
For over two years, Miller has also been blogging about her work and other art she's seen around Utah, showcasing everything on her own Website, Friends Make Prints, giving fans an inside look into the process behind her creations as well as her opinions on local art. I got a chance to chat with Miller about her career and various prints she's done, not to mention asking her for some of those thoughts on the art scene.
Nic Annette Miller
Gavin: Hey, Nic. First off, tell us a bit about yourself.
Nic: Oh, gee. My real name is Nicole but I’ll answer to Nicki, Kiki or "Hey, You." But by what name you call me usually means what part of my life you are from … or, aren’t. My rescue mutt, Sheila, turned me into a vegetarian over 3 years ago by giving me those gosh darn puppy-eyes, and I’m pretty good at lying but telling the truth at the same time. For example, “I’m not watching Grey’s Anatomy,” “I didn’t eat the last slice of pizza,” or, “I didn’t buy 3 pairs of shoes from ShoeDazzle.com. What kind of name is that, anyways?”
Gavin: What originally got you interested in art and what were some of your early inspirations?
Nic: Ever since I was little, I was drawing and carrying around countless amounts of sketchbooks. I’ve been told that I inherited my late Grandma Jo’s creative juices even though all I shared with her when I was little was banana nut bread and a game of Uno every Wednesday. I also have a theory with my mom being deaf and me the youngest of 4, I was a very visual little girl and observed my surroundings in detail. Another thing is, I wasn’t allowed any pets growing up because of my mom’s allergies. Animals were so foreign to me. When I finally adopted Sheila, it changed me as well as the focus of my art.
Gavin: You originally started at Weber State and received your associate degree. What made you choose Weber?
Nic: I went to Weber State for early college. I started taking college level classes in 10th grade and realized I had enough credits to graduate high school with my associate, which allowed me a 2-year scholarship to any university in Utah. Couldn’t pass it up.
Gavin: In 2005, you switched over to Utah State for your bachelor's. What made you decide on USU and what was its program like for you?
Nic: While in high school, I became really addicted to photography and made plans to study it further. My brother attended Utah State University as well as my high school photography teacher/mentor, Bruce Burningham. I was also able to obtain another scholarship specifically from USU, and with my associate's I was able to jump right into the art program, which was an awesome program as it was strong in every medium and had numerous options to explore studying art abroad.
Gavin: While earning your degree, what drew you toward printmaking and how was it for you learning the craft?
Nic: Sean Caulfield was a visiting artist my first year in college, and after hearing his lecture on his work with intaglio, a copper etching process, I went to his two-day workshop and it was my first time exposed to the printmaking world. I was hooked and enrolled in Beginning Printmaking the following semester. Funny enough, four years ago I went to my first printmaking conference in Fargo, N.D., and he walked right past me. He backtracked and said I looked familiar and I got the opportunity to tell him he inspired me to study printmaking -- although I did have to break the news that intaglio was not my forte. During my studies, my printmaking professor, Kathy Puzey, taught me everything she knows about woodcuts and most power tools that I use today to create my animal mounts.
Gavin: During that time, you studied Posters in Switzerland and Printmaking in Australia. How did you get involved with those specific programs and what was it like working with those remote courses?
Nic: Both programs are unique offerings from USU. As well as printmaking, I chose to also major in graphic design, and the department encourages every graphic-design major to attend the annual month-long poster study in Switzerland, which was an amazing experience. We traveled to a new town every day and learned a lot of European and Swiss history. We even designed pocketknives in teams of three and presented them to Victorinox Swiss Army, as well as learned about the prestigious tourism posters that shaped poster making and how we design today. I was very hooked on traveling while in high school and college, so as soon as I got back from Switzerland, I looked into more ways to travel and study art on my own. For six months, I lived in Australia as an exchange student and it was definitely a life-changing experience as to the friends I made and how I learned old-fashioned screen printing. Nothing digital in the process. Although I hardly do screen printing today, the experience taught me a lot about layers, registration and problem solving with limited supplies and money. If I could give advice to anyone in school, art major or not, it's to do a study abroad.
Gavin: During this time, you started breaking out into the local art scene. What was it like for you starting to do exhibitions and becoming noticed around the state?
Nic: I’ve always told people who think art school is easy that most other majors have answers they need to solve. Artists create the problem and the answer and it’s more challenging in that way. So I’m really surprised each time I am asked to do a show or see my name on a poster or in an article. It’s a really good feeling that all my hard work and things I have created are being recognized. It makes all those sweaty days cutting down wood in the sun or long hours carving and sketching so worth it.
Gavin: After receiving your degree, what made you decide to stick to Utah?
Nic: I really love Utah. It’s the perfect place if you like camping, hiking, snowshoeing, rock climbing, snowboarding, and boating. And I like those things. Although I do plan on one day leaving and exploring a new city for a few years, growing old in Utah doesn’t sound bad at all. And I really love my job working for Leia Bell and Phil Sherburne at Signed & Numbered, design work for all of Ian Brandt’s plant-food-based establishments --check out the new menus at Vertical Diner! -- as well as participating in all the galleries, festivals and boutiques in the city. I feel I am a part of Salt Lake City rather than just living in it.
Gavin: What was it like for you setting up your own studio in SLC to make your prints and woodcuts?
Nic: "My own studio" may be a bit misleading. I print anywhere I can, however I can. I volunteer at the Book Arts Program at the University of Utah, which gives me access to letterpress equipment. Leia Bell, my awesome and beautiful boss, has an amazing screen-printing set up, and when I have my woodcuts ready, I sign up for a month membership at SaltGrass Printmakers as I can’t find a press bigger than theirs to use. I hand rub smaller woodcuts and prep my larger woodcuts in my basement apartment. For the larger ones, I have to hand rub a section and puzzle them together on my wall so I have an idea of what it will look like overall when printed in the studio. This is how I’ve recently completed Mary’s Grizzly Bear that I showed at Fresh Boutique in June and, surprisingly, sold in August at Craft Lake City. I’ve also had one-time access to other studios that I don’t think I’m at liberty to say. Top-secret awesome access. I’m also potentially moving to a house with a garage that will be great space to start a real studio of my own. Knock on wood!
Gavin: What's the process like for you in creating a new piece, from initial idea to final product?
Nic: Ideas come to me out of nowhere and I have a whole list of print ideas I’d like to do. Since I do have access to different mediums in printmaking, I take the idea and decide what is the best way to execute it. Usually the size matters, and once I determine what needs to happen to get it done, I start sketching. I like to use library books for imagery references, though if I can, I like to see what I am drawing in person. All of my animal mounts, except for the standing bear, were seen with my own two eyes and I got to spend time looking at them close up. It’s a really overwhelming experience as I find it really hard to eat animals or look at stiff ones. But I tough through it and measure the size of them to try to get them as accurate as possible when drawing. Most of the details in my woodcuts are carved without any planning. I study the images I have in front of me and decide right there and then. Once I have the image carved out, I ink it up, put some lovely rice paper over the wood block, roll it through the press, cut the edges, paste it onto 3/4” plywood and get my power tools out. It’s kind of a long process but I love the results.
Gavin: Considering how some of your works are made, is there ever a point where you'll play with the design or do you tend to stick to what you originally envisioned?
Nic: Not necessarily with my woodcuts but definitely with a few of my other art prints. What’s great about letterpress is there can be a digital aspect to it, which is why it’s a dream for those who are graphic and fine-art bi-polar like myself. For the most part, though, my first layout is close to what I had in mind all along.
Gavin: How did the idea for Friends Make Prints come about?
Nic: One thing that I felt I wasn’t taught during my time in college was what to do after graduation, when I have no access to printmaking equipment anymore. And one thing I missed incredibly about school were all the late nights with my best printmaking friends as we worked on our plates and prints while listening to music, eating junk food, and not making fun of each other. I guess I kind of figured if I could get the equipment together, the friends and I can bring back those late nights, hence the business name. And, of course, once my goal of having all this wonderful equipment has been reached, I can extend the access to the community and all those other clueless college graduates. My first piece of equipment that I am currently restoring is a Kelsey Excelsior 6x10 tabletop letterpress and 15 cases of lead type that I rescued from a trailer park in West Valley. It had some serious second-hand smoke.
Gavin: What was it like building up the Website and first breaking out onto the craft scene with your works?
Nic: I started blogging as soon as I graduated in May 2009 to what I thought was to just talk about art, but it ended up being a documentation of how I came to be where I am at in life right now. It’s really interesting to go to the earlier entries, most of when I was just first learning letterpress at the BAP. I always hear positive reviews on my posts and it encourages me to keep documenting all of my processes. There’s also a post that is funny to me about how excited I was to have a piece for sale at Signed & Numbered, and little did I know I would be working there shortly later. Which, by the way, has been an awesome work experience and really encouraged me to get my work in other boutiques around the city such as Frosty Darling and, soon ,Blonde Grizzly, which then lead me to be more familiar with selling on my own at craft events as well as online.
Gavin: What are your future plans with FMP and what kind of works do you have planned for 2012?
Nic: Once I get my tabletop press, nicknamed The Deli Slicer, up and running, I’d love to create a solid stationery line, and I have to make great effort to have the press ready before January so I can start a yearlong, once-a-month postcard subscription. I print a 4x6 postcard and mail it to you – the artwork on it can be framed or given away as a gift because the plan is they will be awesome to display. Mr. Neil Diamond has already inspired the sketches for the first card. Other than that, I really want to be an adult and get a business loan to buy more printmaking junk to play with.
Gavin: Going over local stuff, what are your thoughts on our art scene, both good and bad?
Nic: I really cannot think of one bad thing. I could say we could use a larger scene, but I can already see it growing. There are a lot of efforts being made by local establishments to have gallery showings, events, and more. I’m really excited by Micol Hebron’s push to get Utah artists shown outside of Utah and the new local gallery at the Salt Lake Art Center. And it’s not just fine art, but graphic art, too. I see more local businesses with fantastic logo and design work, handmade signs and am really impressed by all the visual elements small businesses realize are important. I feel as though the AIGA SLC Chapter has also made great efforts to get the design and art community merged and a’happenin’.
Gavin: Is there anything you believe could be done to make things more prominent?
Nic: More advertising for shows and events would be great, as it seems like the same artsy folks attend, but not so much the whole community. Education in the process of how pieces are made would probably be key to understanding prices; especially how most galleries – or anywhere you can show at – take a cut of sales. The prices I have on my pieces can go both ways: People are surprised at either how high I am charging or how low I am charging. Which goes to show why knowing these things can be helpful and possibly get people to support and purchase more.
Gavin: Being a printmaker, what's your take on the rise of print artists in Utah and the work coming from that genre?
Nic: I love it. I feel like printmaking, which seemed like a dying art, is making a huge comeback. Letterpress machines have stopped being manufactured, so the craft has become really popular and it is pretty hard to get your hands on one. But we have really strong letterpress businesses in Utah that are part of the efforts to not let it die such as The BAP, Sycamore Street Press and The Mandate Press, to name a few. What Copper Palate Press is doing downtown is really inspiring, that there are passionate printmakers in our state who are young and sharing what they do as much as possible. Also the merge of Uinta Brewery using local screen-print artists such as Leia Bell, Travis Bone and Trent Call for the art on labels is a really beautiful relationship of how supporting local can come full circle.
Gavin: What are your thoughts on the rising craft scene in Utah?
Nic: Any way to keep people creative, making things with their hands, and supporting local is something I am 100% behind. And how great is it that local company BigCartel is a supporter, as well as allowing artists to create really affordable customizable online shops to help reach clientele far away? That should say a lot right there about the rise of the craft scene in Utah, that we host that kind of company.
Gavin: What do you think of craft fairs like Craft Sabbath, Beehive Bazaar and Craft Lake City, and the work they do to promote the scene and artists?
Nic: I’ve honestly only participated in Craft Lake City, but would love to try the others. So from the CLC perspective, it’s really awesome what they are doing. The second annual was my first experience on my own and it was the most encouraging experience to never stop. It was the right opportunity to show my work in such a huge event that a large chunk of the community attended. It’s really fun to have these kinds of events and it’s a great way to get the artist and people to meet in person.
Gavin: Who are some people you believe people should be checking out from art and craft?
Nic: Oh, lordy. Where do I begin? Darci Bertelson and Emily Bunnell for painting, Adrienne Smart for book arts and prints, Arie Leeflang is a seamster god, Ernest Gentry for beautiful ceramics, Eva & Kirk Jorgenson of Sycamore Street Press for all paper-good needs, Mary Toscano for drawing/printing/being an awesome person, Travis Bone for gig posters, Andy Chase for prints and pillows, Jake Miller for tats and just anything Dan Christofferson touches. Anything. And a whole lot more. It’s really amazing how many creative beings are in Utah.
Gavin: What's your opinion on Gallery Stroll today and the work being displayed each month?
Nic: I love the Stroll. It’s giving artists the opportunity to show so often and in so many venues, and giving people a unique night on the town, as well as giving local businesses a chance to be seen by people who wouldn’t normally stroll in. I wouldn’t complain if there were gallery shows every weekend – like a Stroll in each section of the city i.e., Sugar House, South Salt Lake, etc.
Gavin: What can we expect from you over the rest of this year and going into next?
Nic: A whole bunch. I feel like I have achieved a lot since graduation with small living space, as well as very limited equipment, and have slowly grown and gained what I need to keep working. It’s like one of my favorite scenes in Gran Torino, where character Thao is shocked in Clint Eastwood’s garage saying, “How do you have all of these tools? Are you a millionaire or something?” And Mr. Eastwood says with sass, “No. A man acquires the tools he needs over a lifetime.” So right now, I’m Thao aspiring to be Clint Eastwood.
Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to plug or promote?
Nic: Check out my Website, where I blog about what I am working on and there’s a link to my online store -- wink, wink. Alpine Art is having a holiday boutique sale Nov.19–30, where my work will be for sale, and please, oh please, come to my solo show called Horny at Stolen & Escaped Gallery, which is in the basement of Frosty Darling and Kayo Gallery. I am working on some pretty great horns/antlers and a large bird installation. Opening reception is Dec.3 and will be on display until Jan.13 -- as long as I don’t have a panic attack first! Also, the Christmas Art Adoption will be held at Signed & Numbered on Dec.10 and it’s a great way to support community donations and local art right before the holidays. Art Adoption is always a really fun socializing event, as well, sponsored by Wasatch Brewery!
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