Janelle with Building Virtue: A Study (2017 - cont) during her BFA show at School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Janelle Miller is a multi-disciplinary artist and archivist whose work reclaims historical narratives rooted within Black communal structures while allowing for interventions of nostalgia and folklore to take hold. Her understanding of the terms object, item and material go as follows:
Object: Something that holds space; it exists. An object has a life force in that there is beginning, the creation of the object, and a technical end (but who is to say that an object is ‘done’?) There is a history within black culture and African culture in which an object has a life force that is bestowed by the creator. Ownership.
Material: The word that comes to mind with material is sourcing. In order to create something that is not fully realized resources are needed; the matter needed to create. The materials are what create the object.
Item: Not much connection to the term.
Janelle understood her call to be an artist at a young age. She saw her growth into her artistic identity as an organic process that began with the encouragement of her maternal figures. These women came to influence Janelle’s aesthetic taste; her artistic practice could be seen as a connection to this maternal relationship to art. Her artistic practice is also influenced by print based media, such as the prints of Elizabeth Catlett and Margaret Burroughs, and she herself works within collage and prints. The ability of print media to communicate, to tell stories is what drew her into the medium. With print media being widely produced, it is easily accessible for many people. Through having easy access to the artworks, people are able to connect through the stories being told, and this helped to influence her practice to focus on community and group engagement.
It is through the introduction to her collection/installation Building Virtue: A Study (2017-cont.), that the idea for object / item / material / me began to form. The collection is an array of fans that depict black folks in various scenes: a boy and girl praying, a mother and child tending a garden, a young couple playing the piano together, and a mother with her children as they celebrate one child’s birthday. The fans were placed on pews in churches to be used during services. The images portray a message of virtue; they show individuals being pious, in love and enjoying their time together in a form of wholesomeness. On the back of the fans are advertisements for funeral homes and insurance companies that were in the local area of the church. She connects the front, an image of virtue, with the back, an advertisement, as creating a sense of trust through the ideal family; the family would be like the individuals on the fans, and use the services offered on the back. But, that is just one aspect of the fans that drew she in. The fans, to her, became a way of looking at the black community in a larger scale. The fans have a targeted audience; the audience of individuals within the black community who have seen the fans or used them. Building Virtue is about displaying the dialogue that the fans have with their setting as art objects within Janelle’s practice, and with their historical meaning.
Janelle began collecting the fans in the summer of 2017 while she was a studio assistant to the artist Maria Gaspar. As mentioned at the beginning of this essay, she is an archivist. Through her works, she is building an archive that is meant to retain memories and stories. She does not alter the pieces that she collects. She leaves no stamp of herself upon them. Her goal is to “let the works breathe” as they are; to allow them to speak for themselves. In this process of archiving, Janelle is a curator; she wants viewers to become a part of a collective expressions. The fans in Building Virtue are part of this process.
object / item / material / me came to fruition from my introduction to Building Virtue in that I saw the power that these fans held. The fans retain a sense of values within the black community; they are pieces of the community’s history and identity. Building Virtue is an ongoing project as Janelle will continue to collect the fans, display them, and research them. As Janelle and I were finishing discussing her collecting process, and looking at her fans, the waitress at the restaurant we were at came up to us upon seeing the fans and was overwhelmed with nostalgia. “My grandmother would use those during service.” This moment allowed for a reflection upon Janelle’s practice; it allowed for the work to speak for itself.
Next up // May 15th: Artist Spotlight - Fontaine Capel