Ruth Miller – Portraits of Humanity


Meeting with an amazing woman.
Portrait written by Claire de Pourtalès

The content of this site is free and is not damaged by un-welcomed publicity. I do this work with love and passion but it requires a lot of time. I would like to continue to offer a wider market to our artists, to show how embroidery is a wonderful art. But I do need a little bit of help. If you feel like it, you can participate with a little donation to help me continue. I will be so grateful! Thank you! Claire

At 70, Ruth Miller is an artist in her own right – even if it was only at 51 that she made the choice to hold this title.
Born in New York, she developed artistic skills very early on. Supported by her mother, she was be able to attend an art-oriented education. At 16, she discovered the tapestries of the Senegalese artist Papa Ibra Tall: “A light has shone in me“. This was the medium she will choose.
She finds the paint “messy” and prefers “dry, clean and quiet” fibers. There is a heartwarming familiarity to the thread.

Ruth Miller with Fishing in a tea cup ©Ruth Miller

Life is not easy for Ruth, however. In 1975 she tried to settle in Mississippi, the region of her ancestors, but the culture shock was too difficult (“I had the impression of stepping back in time, I couldn’t be myself ”) and she returned to New York. It will take her another 2 decades to get to exhibit her works. Meeting actress CCH Pounder will be decisive. She offers her to set up an exhibition in her gallery in Los Angeles. At least 10 works are needed. At the rate Ruth works, 10 years of work await! The click has occurred, the artist finds her home in Mississippi. A house that has suffered so much that it will take more than 2 years to do the necessary work. But at least Ruth can live there without having to worry about her rent. She immerses herself in her tapestries.

Gift from my students in 2018 (Penland School of Crafts), with their embroidered initials ©Ruth Miller
Fishing in a teacup (detail) © Ruth Miller

She chooses to embroider very large portraits: “I started doing large-scale works because I learned in college that large pieces are more respected. The large size allows me to embroider more details – and the more details, the more realistic the portrait. If I embroider smaller pieces, I cut off body parts (I don’t make smaller bodies).” She starts with a self-portrait because she’s embarrassed to ask her friends to pose for her.“It took me over 19 months to embroider Flower, my self-portrait.”
The large size of her works allows her to create all the details that carry her vision. But it also means that a work can take more than a year to complete.
“I try to prepare myself as much as possible so that the embroidery work is not slowed down by various thoughts. It’s a choice between the spontaneity of creation and the time available.”

“At the very beginning, I was not interested in visual realism. I was captivated by African styles as well as by Japanese engravings of the 19th century. I was fascinated by the strong contrast of the design on the background. You can see these first influences in my (unique) self-portrait. Little by little I added shadows and light towards a more naturalistic style. The more I went, the more I wanted a perfect visual realism, but using unusual colors. The influence of the Impressionists was very great: Seurat, Caillebotte, Van Gogh taught me to see more deeply.
When I started out, few African-American works found their way into galleries, museums, or even in art history books. I was unaware of the existence of so many artists. And then I discovered Roy DeCarava’s photos (The Family of Man (MOMA), and The Sweet Flypaper of life catalogs). African-American works often turned to history or politics. DeCarava’s photos encouraged me to show the kindness, the humanity of African Americans. I have since discovered the works of Charles White, Howardena Pindell, Wangechi Mutu, Kerry James Marshall and John Byrne which lead me to always go further in my expression.”

The 2019 Governor’s art award ©Ruth Miller
The “Queen” garden ©Ruth Miller
My income is officially below the poverty line but in my garden I feel like a queen. Life brought me here, for some reason. I was not born here, but I believe in fate and one day I will know why.

In the end, Mississippi has little influence over Ruth. “I came with the inspirations I received in New York, a very stimulating city! Mississippi didn’t win over me. I try to focus on my art.”

“For me, people are landscapes in motion. That’s why I need to have real role models, who will set the tone for my work. When you create fictional characters, they all tend to look the same. I need their variety to talk about the universality of human emotions. I think what makes us human is universal. If I can understand what motivates me, these themes should touch at least a few people. And at least some of them will like what I’m trying to say, and how I say it.”

“I call my works tapestries because my embroidery covers the whole canvas. But I also have smaller works. When I embroider on these large pieces, I always have lots of ideas that come to me. Sometimes it’s for the current piece, sometimes for new pieces. I always keep printer paper to throw in my ideas. It can be a very simple sketch, or a few words. I need real faces, real bodies to express my ideas. The drawings are only supports to help organize the photoshoots. I want to use what nature has already created.”

I draw in pencil, so I can correct it if necessary. I don’t think ‘in color, it is done when embroidering. So simple sketches are enough.

For me, becoming an Artist with a capital A also meant being able to let go of my pieces. It’s the same with children after all. They must be able to stand up in the world without you. So I adopted the reality of the artist, and accepted that my works would go away. But to have the 10 pieces I needed for my exhibition, I also had to accept poverty and social isolation because I couldn’t sell them! Fortunately, the Mississippi artistic community is very helpful! I was able to do a few exhibitions – but I have not yet managed to get the 10 pieces originally requested!

Sometimes I also need to create pieces faster, to have a more diverse portfolio or to offer more affordable works to the public. These are embroideries that will leave a large space to the background. I like that these spaces can be full of suggestions. They are alive.”

The studio ©Ruth Miller

Aphrodite – creative process

“Here we have a drawing with the most visual references. We can see the environment where the photo was taken. Only the chair was kept on the embroidery because the rest did not give a good composition. I make a first drawing fast, just lines, then photocopies. Then I can experiment with my colors on each copy. “

Transfert on linen ©Ruth Miller
First steps ©Ruth Miller

“Here I transferred the design to my linen. Since the girl is wearing a black top and her skin is medium tone, I used a dark linen to back up the embroidery.
When I first saw the photo, I was amazed at how universal this scene was. I had to watch it over and over again to remember my own actions, those of others to understand how this theme was universal. When I embroider my portraits, I try to express a theme and I find a title that expresses it. The title and image should help the viewer understand the story unfolding in front of them.”

“The girl is drawn in red while the leaves and the chair are in another color. It helps me because when my nose is on my embroidery, I don’t always know which part I am embroidering!”

Visual aids ©Ruth Miller

“I embroidered some skin in strategic places to give myself an idea of the tones to use for the leaves. In my first drawings, I had only suggested these colors. In fact, the wool is much more saturated. I used markers but they did not allow me to go back to a shade.
The slate is placed on a trestle. So I can observe it from a distance and photograph my work. The first time I showed my works, in New York, an artist convinced me to keep my drawings, sketches, preparatory memos, photos of my progress.
Note that in the background are the shelves that are in the photo. They came with me from New York.”

Choosing colours ©Ruth Miller
Lights and shadows ©Ruth Miller

“Here I am working on the shadows and lights of the dark jeans, as well as the effects on the wooden chair. The girl is wearing a black top, and I have to make sure to augment my stitches so that the lighter shades of the fabric do not show.”

“I marked the area of ​​the foliage with large purple dots. The leaves are slightly transparent to indicate that this scene is imaginary.
The title, Evoking and Capturing Aphrodite, tells us that the young girl is on the move to capture the best view of herself in a selfie. Despite her natural beauty, she makes an effort to present herself better, in a more powerful way. Why “powerful”? Spending on beauty products exceeds billions every year around the world. Beauty has a power of seduction, which can translate into more money or a better job.
The ancient Greeks prayed to Aphrodite to come and dwell in them and give them her power. There were temples dedicated to Aphrodite but also caves. My foliage is a memory of these caves, of these sacred spaces, where a sacred process takes place. The girl can then capture Aphrodite with her camera.”

Birth of Aphrodite ©Ruth Miller
Evocation et Capture d’Aphrodite ©Ruth Miller

“I started by adding colors to the background, like a sofa. But I wanted more. I was inspired by the Kuba raffia embroidery. Everyone who reads home magazines has seen these cushions with black, cream, beige and rust shades which form very colorful designs. I have 2 books on these embroideries because I love them.
My experience is limited, but I believe the Congo is one of the most sophisticated spaces in Africa when it comes to art, drawing and dance. These cultural creations are not born without a philosophical background. There must be more evidence but it is difficult to get this information. Often all that remains is a chaotic mixture of colonialism.
But for me, these embroideries are immortal, timeless. As the theme of my embroidery is also universal, these Kuba designs were perfect. I made them a bit transparent too, to increase the effect of an imaginary scene. My living room, where the original photo was taken, doesn’t look like this at all! ”

June 2021 – The Evocation and Capture of Aphrodite was acquired by the Mississippi Museum of Art, from Jackson (Ruth tells us about it here in her blog).

If you want to see more of Ruth’s work:

Some books recommended by Ruth:

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, Edited by Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley
Aesthetic of the Cool: Afro-Atlantic Art and Music, by Robert Farris Thompson, introduction by Lowery Stokes Sims
George Tooker, by Thomas H. Garver
The Art of John Biggers: View from the Upper Room, Harry N. Abrams. Published by the Museum of Fine Arts Houston
Picturing Mississippi: Land of Plenty, Pain and Promise, Mississippi Museum of Art (which includes Flowers, Ruth’s self portrait)
Materialities: Contemporary Textile Arts, Surface Design Association Members’ Juried Catalog 2015 (which includes The Impossible Dream in the gateway to self-love, by Ruth Miller).