Julie Miles: Painting the Landscape of Her Childhood

| By Lauren Rosenfeld |

When Asheville artist, Julie Miles, thinks about her earliest memories of her grandfather, she gazes into the mid-distance as tears begin to well in her eyes and a gentle smile forms on her face. It is as if she were composing the landscape of her childhood from memory.

Julie Miles

Julie Miles

“Growing up with a single mother,” she recalls, “everything my mom could afford to give us – everything she could do to offer us a good life – was packed into the small home where we lived: a piano, sheet music, books … and I am so very grateful for the life she provided us and how hard she worked to provide it.” Blinking her eyes and bringing her attention back to the room where we sit, a tear rolls down her cheek and she catches it with the back of her hand. “But when my grandfather came to visit us, I was exposed to a new world that was unfolding in the grassy field just behind our home. He showed me entire universes thriving in that scrubby little patch of land. There was wonder and magic there. There was beauty. There was a world of wide-open possibility.”

And most importantly, there was love. The love of a hard-working Michigan farmer who endeavored with his heart and hands to show his small granddaughter that a landscape is more than simply the backdrop of life, but the stuff of life itself: a magical place where miracles emerge from the interplay of soil, sweat, and daily devotion.

It is this landscape — a landscape that is comprised of equal parts of earth and emotion — that she pays tribute to in her art exhibit, “At the End of the Road in the Middle of Nowhere.”

Julie-1The inspiration for Julie’s paintings comes from a series of old family photos of her grandfather’s mint farm in Minden City, Michigan, circa 1948. “I grew up with these photos as a child,” Julie says as she gently touches the snapshots that take on color and depth in her canvases, “but I never really asked about them. When I began to paint, I wondered what I would use as subject matter. About five years ago, I decided to go with what I knew. So I chose to paint from these family pictures.”

Through interviews with family and friends, Julie journeyed back to the landscape of her childhood. The memories that unfolded in these interviews began to give these black and white snapshots a new life on canvas. The most detailed of these interviews (soundbites of which viewers of her show can listen to as they stroll through the Weizenblatt Gallery at Mars Hill University this month) is with the family friend who eventually bought the farm from her grandfather when he retired. In the interview, the family friend describes in detail the process of planting and harvesting mint – and distilling it into essential oil – the process that Julie depicts in her in her artwork. But his words tell much more than simply the process by which one plants and harvests a crop, they tell of the relationship a farmer builds with the land, day after day; season after season; year after year.

Through her family’s photographs and through her interviews, Julie (who has the heart and mind of a world-class ethnographer) began to literally piece her family’s history together through her art. Her canvases, which individually depict the farm in varying seasons, and the crop being cared for in various stages, all connect through a single, common horizon line, the point at which the black soil meets the blue sky.

“There is a kind of monotony that is built into the exhibit – the way the sky and the land go on and on endlessly. But there is also a rhythm to it. The rhythm of the days and the seasons.”

Punctuating the exhibit – and breaking the deliberate monotony of the horizon line, Julie has interspersed wooden stakes into which she has burned twelve-thousand-four-hundred-eighty counting marks: one for each day that her grandfather spent outdoors, from sunrise to sundown, working the land. “Six days a week, for forty years,” she says with no small amount of wonder and pride. Then she laughs: “I gave him Sundays off.”

Putting together this exhibit, Julie felt the same sense of wonder that she did as a child, wandering through the scrubby field in back of her mother’s home. “As I painted the landscape of my grandfather’s farm, my curiosity began to lean into certain questions: What did he think about during those twelve-thousand-plus days? How did he break up the monotony? Where did his mind wander when he was in the fields? He was a very sentimental person. Very sensitive. He was a dreamer. I wonder what he dreamed of while he was preparing the soil and planting the fields and harvesting the mint and distilling it.”

And still, her grandfather taught by example, that doing is just as important as dreaming. “My grandfather worked very hard for forty years, but somehow he always managed to be joyful. I think he took great joy in the simple acts of doing. Of figuring things out and making them work.”

Julie-2This is a trait that Julie shares with her grandfather. And it is one that she is exceedingly grateful for. “I learned from my grandfather that if you can imagine something, you can make it. You have to be resourceful. You have to use your wits. I have this belief that if there is something I need to make, I should be able to find everything I need to make it within arm’s reach.”

As evidence of this life philosophy, she shows me a sculpture she designed for the exhibit: a shadow box containing a small replica of the holding tub into which her grandfather would transfer the harvested mint and in which her mother and aunt (as young girls) would stand and stomp down the mint with their booted feet. The holding tub in the shadow box is a made of a tin paint can. The mint is a handful of green felted wool. Two small boots are attached to a hand-crank which visitors to the exhibit can turn and do their own mint stomping, of sorts. The sculpture is a both a flight of imagination and an example of the ingenuity she inherited from her grandfather.

Yet this is not all that Julie Miles has inherited from her family. She is also a farmer. On summer days you are likely to see her digging her hands into the dirt or helping her children feed their chickens home-grown, organic kale. Or you’ll watch her joyfully collecting eggs on which she might lovingly pencil the names of the chickens who laid them.

There is a thread of connection that can be keenly felt while standing in the gallery where “At the End of the Road in the Middle of Nowhere” hangs. It is a thread that weaves together generations across time. “When people enter the gallery, I want them to have the feeling that they are standing in the middle of a Midwestern landscape.”

And they will feel that. But they will feel more. They will feel they are standing in the embrace of the family who occupied that landscape. The family that worked the soil in that landscape. The family that lived and dreamed and created in that landscape – and whose love of that landscape has been passed like a gift from one generation to the next.

“At the End of the Road in the Middle of Nowhere” will run at the Weizenblatt Gallery at Mars Hill University from February 8th through March 4th. The opening reception will be on Wednesday, February 10th from 6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. For more information, please visit www.juliemilesart.com.

Lauren Rosenfeld lives in Asheville, NC with her husband and four children. She is the author of two books: Your To Be List and Breathing Room. To learn more about Lauren’s work visit www.lgrosenfeld.com.

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