Between the Suns: a conversation with Rachel Miller

Rachel Miller is an artist and is currently Professor in the Textiles Department (after previously serving as Department Head) of the Craft and Design Program at Sheridan College (ON). Her past works like Surfacing, Drift, and Passing I use natural and reusable materials to analyze the natural world, and our relationship to it. She has extended the same practice to her work Between the Suns, but this time, through a Jewish lens. The site-specific installation resides at FENTSTER’s storefront gallery until May. Behind the glass, you will see a rectangular structure standing tall overlaid with patterns made from wax that had been donated to her from Jewish community members. The patterns are inspired by paper cuts dating back to the early 20th century. These papercuts symbolize Miller’s family history, dating back to 1910 when her grandfather fled Galicia for New York. Just by the foot of the structure is a pile of soil, where there are some more wax papercuts, hidden and exposed.

Niv spoke with Miller over the phone to discuss, as Evelyn Tauben writes in her curatorial statement, an exhibition that “harkens to our present-day limbo—between environmental degradation and the possibility for repair, between life during a pandemic and a new reality on the horizon, between the uncertainty of dusk and the rise of a promising day.” 

Between the Suns by Rachel Miller at FENTSTER. Photo by Morris Lum
Between the Suns by Rachel Miller at FENTSTER. Photo by Morris Lum

You’re a multidisciplinary artist, you work with garments and textures and performance, and they all relate to one another. How did your practices and the gallery space inform Between the Suns

There were certainly ideas that I had that were maybe a bit more 3-D. But I think that given the space it just didn’t really lend itself. To be honest, I think the most challenging part of the exhibition was having the right research that allowed me to create the vision, and also to stay true to the gallery’s mission. I’m not someone who always works within specific themes, and FENTSTER  has a theme of contemporary Jewish life and oftentimes, I tend to work with patterns that are from all over. Once I was able to find patterns that I really connected with then I was able to really get the ground running. So, after the proposal on the design process I worked quite intuitively. 

And concerning the performative aspect, there was something about reaching out to the community and having them donate any wax drippings they had. That public engagement—of having wax shipped to me or physically going to places and people would leave their wax on the porch—felt very informative. I think people were excited to know that it really was going towards this work. It was just me melting wax in my studio, and everybody’s wax kind of melted together, so for me that was a very performative part of the work, and also people just walking by the window and having an experience. 

Any time and any hour really. 

Any time, day or night, you can experience how the work looks in twilight, during sunrise or sunset. The title “Between the Suns” very much alludes to this sentiment.

I find a lot of times people are looking for an absolute answer or an absolute notion of time so to have it be between the suns, between certain things, it’s interesting. And though it’s not seen, the performative aspect is there, and it exists between this unseen and seen space as well. Your work comments on the environment and what people’s everyday actions are doing to the environment, and with the Anthropocene, all those things are performative, but we don’t really see it.

Absolutely. There was also this very timely thing of waiting for the wax to melt and then waiting for the wax to set and then mold and then, you know, carving it when it came out. I had to really rely on time because wax is malleable: it goes from a liquid to a solid. A lot of experimentation happened because there were waxes that were made of different bodies, so you don’t always know which one’s going to work with the other. But generally speaking, it did. 

Between the Suns by Rachel Miller at FENTSTER. Photo by Morris Lum
Between the Suns by Rachel Miller at FENTSTER. Photo by Morris Lum

The papercuts modelled off of those in the early 20th century—during your grandfather’s immigration to America—along with the pieces coming in and out of the soil reminded me of archaeology, as if it could have been a dig that happened to unearth history. It shows that our memories live on; can you elaborate on your thinking behind the soil and the pieces on the ground? 

There’s memories that reveal and conceal themselves. Oftentimes there’s traumas that sometimes come out later. I think of my own family history when people had to flee from a traumatic or dire situation. In pretty much all of my work, the materials I’ve used have always told the story. So it’s not just about the aesthetic or about the format or the setup. Wax is something that is malleable, it adapts. And when I was thinking about my family and when people immigrate, I thought maybe this is something connected to not just my experience but across many. I’m American, I moved to Canada, and I mean I moved here for work, it’s a much different situation than my ancestors, of course, but there is something about arriving somewhere unfamiliar. And you think “how do I stay resilient, how do I adapt”. And the wax material was very critical because it takes on a form and shape that depends on how you move it, it has that adaptability, but it also has the capability to be melted down again. And then to be adapted into a different environment. It can transform. The wax is going to break, and we’re not going to always be strong, but we can get back up. We can remould ourselves, we can reinvent, and that malleability, that flexibility, that’s always been something very important in my studio practice and also in the way that I approach my life.

You don’t necessarily always work within Jewish themes, but do you think there’s something inherent [concerning Judaism] that’s within you and that informs your other pieces?  

The current work I do is not necessarily interconnected with Judaism. When I look back at that work it’s about experience, and a journey, and a lot to do with identity, so I suppose, your makeup can’t not exist in the other work. I never really thought about that part until I began to research the papercuts and these patterns. There’s always been a more spiritual, I suppose, connection to my work. When I’m working, sometimes it’s very quiet and I’m often thinking about a lot of these things as I’m going through the process, so oftentimes these thoughts are already happening, whether or not the work has a theme that’s related specifically to contemporary Jewish life. I think it’s always been there. 

How was it like working with and handling the wax papercuts? 

They’re so fragile, yet through so much time and change the papercuts managed to stay resilient. The wax, it’s strong for technical reasons because any more fragile and it really would have broken. As I was installing the work, with the vibration from when I was hammering and carefully nailing things in, a couple of wax pieces fell. Actually, some of those shattered pieces are the ones that are on the ground. There was so much intuition about the install too. If one of the wax papercuts fell, and I can’t pin it up because it’s too complicated, I thought, well, I guess this one’s going to go on the ground, it doesn’t want to live on the wall.

It’s so nice when the process of installing the piece can lead to things you never thought about maybe. 

I never thought about it. Those pieces kind of began to dictate if they wanted to be on the floor or not and I came to a point where I just didn’t have a choice. Because I was also, you know—speaking of between the suns—I was also working around a Shabbat schedule. I began installing on Friday morning, and I had to leave before the sun went down. And then I came back Saturday after Shabbat was over. And then the rest of the install was on Sunday. So I really just kind of had to work with what I had. And I had to think fast. I didn’t have a lot of time to just ruminate. 

How has collaborating with FENTSTER  informed your work?

It’s been wonderful. Thinking about my family history and my Jewish identity, I mean who knows right now but maybe the direction of my work might change. Either way, it’s really allowed me to be more open.

Evelyn plays such a major part in this, also in regards to her writing and her analysis of the work. Probably one of the most positive experiences that I’ve had in a while with a collaborator. Evelyn lets the artists express their vision, and her energy and her excitement is very inspiring.

Did you have any intentions for how the piece would be received?

I really wanted to make a piece where people could experience the work. Without it telling them how to think, I never want to make work that tells people what they should think or feel.

It’s lovely that people can stand outside however long they want and can carry it with them throughout their day as they continue walking. 

I got a random Instagram message from someone I never met before. And what happened was he actually posted an image of the piece and I just saw that my name was tagged. I think it was the night after I installed it. And I reached out and said thank you so much. And he said. . .I think he was delivering for Uber, and he wasn’t having a good day, and he walked by the work and just thought this is what we’re here for, we’re here to be creative. We’re here to get inspired. And this is someone who probably isn’t from the Jewish faith. And I think that’s awesome. Whether or not they are, it doesn’t matter to me, it’s important for me to make work that hopefully could connect with people of all communities and different backgrounds. 

Header photograph by Morris Lum. 

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Can’t get enough? Subscribe!