Gammy Miller: The Littoral View

TSGNY: Creatures of the sea, both physical and imagined, inhabit your fiber and non-fiber work. How far back do you trace the origins of that connection?

Gammy Miller: My preoccupations as a child were reading, shell collecting, drawing and stitching.  My intent was to be an “artist” or a “marine biologist,” neither of which I had a clear idea about, nor did I receive any encouragement in either direction.  After earning a degree in fine arts and language — and some dithering about — I became a teacher in the New York City school system. In 1973, fate barged in when the Board of Education set me free to live for long periods of time in Skunk Hollow, New York, an almost uninhabited part of the Fire Island National Seashore. So there I was with the chance to begin anew near a shore lined with shell shards, sea birds and bits of fishing line.

Moon snail (Euspira eros) fragment with waxed linen.

GM: That’s how my life as fiber artist began: with simple half-hitch knots in endless repetition, drawing lines around time- and surf-worn shell shards with waxed linen, a fine marine twine fragrant with beeswax. It was littoral art.  I called the first works “neckhangings” because, although wearable, I wanted them to be considered as a form of art.  I researched and identified all the inclusions, due to my abiding interest in the natural sciences. The Operculum collar includes a patella longicosta, a kind of limpet shell; opercula, the calcareous lids or closures of the Euspira heros or Northern Moon Snail, collected over a period of two years from the drift line on Fire Island; beads and cinnamon sticks. I knotted the collar in number three waxed-linen cord, which I used to buy by the pound from Seaboard Twine, a marine supply house on Murray Street.  My final order with them was for 20 pounds, of which only two remain.

Operculum collar: half-hitch knotted in Irish waxed linen.

TSGNY: How did the “neckhangings” evolve into non-wearable work?

GM: In 1979 I decided to work with basket forms, still using the half-hitch knot.  Although this technique provided a pleasing surface, it became problematic.  In order to have a clean edge, I needed to weave the myriad ends back into the basket.  Very time consuming — even for me who enjoys a certain amount of tedium — so it was logical to move to coiling with needle and waxed linen, using what is known as the “lazy squaw” stitch. (Within the Navaho community, the “lazy squaw” refers to the wrapping of the weft several times around the core before stitching to the previous coil. According to tradition, the squaw who used this method was looked down upon by her peers.) For me, it was difficult not to be a “lazy squaw” because I had to use an awl for each stitch. That solved the “ends” problem but led to sore fingertips. I sometimes covered these baskets in ash or earth, then baked them at low heat so they have some resemblance to clay as well as fiber. I continued to use marine detritus; bones, twigs, shell shards as elements in the composition.

Arizona Basket coiled in waxed linen, baked in earth, with sandpaper and antique glass beads.

TSGNY: That repetitive work with the awl must have been tough on your hands.

GM:  It was! After 18 years (and a severe bout with carpal tunnel syndrome), I turned to the freedom of drawing with pen and ink on cold press Arches watercolor paper, collage and small constructions.

Ornithology: collage with bird’s feet, birch twigs, thread, wire and silhouettes.

TSGNY: Did you miss the feel of fiber, or was it liberating?

GM: Separation from the pleasures of using fiber was a hardship, so I began to stitch on the paper with deconstructed fabric or silk threads for accent and color as elements in the composition.  I use repetitive marks, which for me are akin to the act of knotting, coiling and stitching in that each action becomes part of and essential to the whole.

"Offshore": pen, ink, pulled threads, false eyelashes, stitching.

GM: Drawing freed me to explore again the natural sciences, ornithology among them, and the use of language.  For me, part of a finished work includes an apt title.  I have begun to use faux-Latin nomenclature for part of a current series on maladaptations in the evolutionary process.

Ischnochiton galfonsii, ventral view: pen, ink, false eyelashes, stitching, pulled threads, collage.

TSGNY: When you say “maladaptations,” are you commenting on our human impact on their evolution?

GM: I’m definitely using the term “maladaptations” as a snide comment about how we, the most powerful species on Earth at this particular time, are affecting evolution both purposefully and inadvertently.  Some of the drawings, however, are merely playful, as if one could stir a bunch of genetic traits in a soup pot to see what would emerge. I have titled these pseudo-scientific drawings of organisms using binomial nomenclature. They have a genus, sometimes actual; species, always made up; sometimes followed by the name of the author of the scientific name, which in this case is me.   Thus Chiton ciliata falsus, var. gam (chiton with false eyelashes) and  Ischnochiton galfonsii, ventral view — Galfonsii being the latinized name of a fictional scientist who discovered these species of chiton, probably here on the east coast. The drawing of the dorsal view has been lost.

Chiton ciliata falsus, var. gam (detail). Pen and ink, edged with silk and stitched with false eyelashes.

TSGNY: Now that you no longer have the physical stress caused by the demands of repeated knotting, would you say your current technical choices present any particular challenges?

GM: The greatest challenge is to keep the compositions “eloquent without unnecessary chitchat” (to paraphrase Miro), to resist going too far by adding one more mark, one more stitch. Repetition can be a drug. One has to know when to stop.

TSGNY: Which seems like the perfect place to stop. Before we go, are there any artists who inspire you whose work you think we should know about?

GM:  There are many artists who inspire me, and I guess most are fairly known.  Morris Graves, Anne Ryan, El-Anatsui, Hiroyuki Doi (an obsessive circle maker) and Chun Kwang-Young.

TSGNY: Thank you, Gammy. You can see more of Gammy Miller’s work here and in her solo show, “Unnatural Selections” at the Hudson Opera House from March 31 – June 3.


24 thoughts on “Gammy Miller: The Littoral View

  1. Marvelous work, Gammy! I’m glad to learn some of the history behind it and am impressed that you discovered an early instance of false eyelash use!

    • Thank you………………..Susan. What I have been trying to imagine is the life of a false eyelash maker. There can be few jobs more painstaking and assuredly low paid.

      • Exquisite photographs of Gammy Miller’s work! Gammy has the ability to bring new life and beauty to shells, twigs, even false eyelashes, by marrying them together in her art.
        I love her work. The interview told me a lot about her sources of inspiration, which are unique and wonderful.
        Thanks for this visit with Gammy Miller.

  2. Gammy,
    How wonderful to see the full spectrum of your creative output. It is enlightening to read about the underlying interests you’ve had in marine biology. I have always enjoyed your works’ intriguing and playful qualities, with the interesting interplay of the micro versus the macro- now even more so.

    • Thank you, Carole. I’ve always had an affinity for your fine careful work so I very much appreciate your comment.

  3. A wonderful insight Gammy.
    Thank you so much for sharing it with me.
    As always your work is beautifully captivating and a pleasure to view.

    • I am so pleased that you are able to see what I have been doing since you were here. It seems long ago. Thank you, Jacob.

  4. Aloha Gammy,

    Brava! Congratulations =) “maladaptation,” enjoyed that inadvertent path and the beautiful truths revealed thereupon. Mahalo and mahalo for being beautiful, for living beauty, truth and…. love.

    Aloha nui loa.

  5. Gammy – why are you keeping these beautiful pieces all to yourself. So glad we can now see them. Somewhat reminds me of A. Einstein and or Robert Hooke’s position when they formulated their ideas of how gravity might work. They first just spent a lot of time working things out, and when they were satisfied they put their papers aside and went on to other things. Not fair to the rest of us. 😀

    • I am overwhelmed by the mere idea of being in the same sentence with Einstein and Robert Hooke. I see little comparison, except for the idea of working things out over a period of time. I don’t know that I have kept things to myself, so much as having a reluctance for self-promotion. The work that I do gives me peace and room for explorations.

    • I am overwhelmed with the mere idea of being in the same sentence with Einstein and Robert Hooke. The only possible comparison is “time spent working things out.” I am not keeping things to myself so much as having a distaste for self-promotion. I am pleased with the work that I keep. The process of making art gives me peace and room for explorations.

      • Its all true and thanks for your mind Gammy. All feels right in your presence much like sitting with your art.

  6. Eloquent words, elegant work! World-class art Galatic-class artist.

  7. Incredible work Gammy!

    I always love seeing your work.
    It will be a thrill for those who
    attend this show.

    • Sean!!!!

      What a surprise to hear from you. I am especially happy that you could see my latest as you are so far away. Thinking of you often.

  8. dear gammy i have known you for so many years of my career in art and i n the
    teaching of art. i always considered you one of the more rational and kind parents,
    but i had no idea of the well thought out, yet impassioned art you did and do. and
    that you were looking downward to the floor of my art studio for scraps for inclusion
    in your works. sure hope my art room yielded some choice debris and even spurred
    you on to produce. please continue and also put together your own website. so that
    others may share in your process. fondly, carole randall