Local artist Chris Miller developed Martha!, the final installation of the Friends of Congress Square Park Art In the Park series, FoCSP volunteer Julia Whyel had a remote interview with Chris to discuss his creative work.
This installation is an adaptation of an artist’s book that I’ve been working on called Martha!, after the last known surviving Passenger Pigeon who died in 1914. The exclamation point is both for emphasis and the notation of a factorial, which is used to express large numbers in permutations and statistics. 7! for example, is equal to 7*6*5*4*3*2*1, or 5,040. Before their unexpected decline and eventual extinction, Passenger Pigeons were astonishingly abundant. Each page of “Martha!” shows 1!, 2!, 3!, 4!, 5!, 6!, and 7! birds, absent in flight. It’s a meditation and a recitation of big goings on; an exponential buildup and reciprocal count-down to zero. It’s a testing-to-failure of my own, for one, severely limited human capacity to comprehend vast quantities, to perceive truth at any considerable distance, to register gradual change and to reconcile singular identity with group identity. It’s a prayer for the overwhelmed and the imperfectly informed. Guilty, and guilty. There is however in these troubled times something hopeful about a counting book beyond comprehension. Enormous issues are on the table right now. I can’t imagine how we might achieve something like a just society, but I do believe that it lies within the realm of possibility. Wonderful, horrific and anything in-between, inconceivable things can happen so fast.
How did you become interested in passenger pigeons?
Parenthood is a big influence in my practice these days. My son has a sprawling interest in prehistory, we were reading about pleistocene megafauna and that research thread led to a list of more recent extinctions. There have been a few but the passenger pigeon comes up most in pop culture. You see a lot of articles about it because they were so plentiful. I’ve found drawings and read anecdotal stories about how they used to darken the skies, some accounts say they flew by in clouds for days on end, the sun would go down and come back up, and the passenger pigeons would still be going by. Then they disappeared relatively quickly. Extinction isn’t a cheery topic, but a lot of us are thinking on that scale these days I think.
How else does parenthood affect your creative practice?
It’s all consuming, for my family at least. I’ve got two boys, aged four and seven, they’re interested in everything. I get excited about the things they’re excited about. A question like “hey papa, are there any volcanoes in Maine?” can lead to a summer vacation in an unexpected place. It’s great to see the world through their eyes, and a lot of elements of my work probably come from that. A big interest in play, natural history. Sometimes their questions are wonderful prompts, they ask the craziest questions.
How do you approach design differently for indoors versus outdoor public spaces?
The thing about my work, there’s no bread and butter. Every project has its own unique set of requirements. So usually when I do something, it’s almost always something I’ve never done before, which I get excited about. My process and my education both started with building, having a background in sculpture and work in the building industry as a laborer, it’s a different starting place. Part of what I love about any project, whether it’s a residential interior that’s got some really unusual features or an outdoor sculpture installation, is just figuring out how the materials work, how to build things right so they’re durable, but also testing those boundaries a little bit. I decided on the materials for Martha!, when I saw nylon scraps on the laser cutter at my makerspace Open Bench Project, so I guess community is important in figuring out how to design for durability and how to understand materials.
Have your thoughts on public art changed at all this year?
It definitely has. My attitudes about it have shifted, in a visceral way. Experiences of quarantine and having those fears that we’ve all felt, especially in the early stages, got me thinking in different ways about what it should be and could be. That will keep evolving. But I had the urge to put a bunch of stuff out there, I had a creative burst and had the impulse to make things more deployable, less expensive. It’s got me thinking about what art can be out in the public sphere, especially in these challenging times.
You have a permanent installation in Bramhall Square on Congress Street, and that also has an animal element to it.
It’s a lot of the same material that inspired that. It features a lot of pleistocene megafauna like wooly mammoths, giant sloths, giant beaver. It’s a much different work, it’s an illustration, like an interpretive kiosk of the local history of the area. It’s drawn in charcoal in a pretty illustrative style and it’s captioned with a legend. It’s also an unusual use of materials, it’s a vinyl vehicle wrap printed from an original drawing to scale.
What are the connections of design and technology in your practice?
Some areas I’m really interested in focusing on are housing, it’s a much different approach than public art, but a lot of the same challenges that come up in public art come up there. I practice architecture in a limited way, I’ve worked for architects. Housing has been a special interest of mine because it’s something in the built environment that incorporates so many other things through the lens of domesticity. It’s also a problematic thing these days, we live in this incredibly overheated housing market, we have an enormous population of unhoused people, I’d like the opportunity to focus a lot more on those problems going forward.
Before Martha! was an installation, it was and is a book project, can you talk about the book and the potential of doing a printing?
This goes back to my kids being my conspirators, it is a counting book. I’m not sure exactly when the project started but it was in the early days of quarantine when everybody was having a rollercoaster of emotions. I was doom scrolling, worrying, being up late at night trying to get my head around all these things, around the numbers that were in the news. The mortality rates, the numbers of people marching in the Black Lives Matter protests. These huge, extremely consequential numbers everywhere, and the numbers kept changing and eventually they disappeared from your consciousness, these numbers started to flatten out into ‘big’ and ‘bad’. So Martha! was a counting book of enormously consequential numbers. It was an accordion book first, my hope is to cut a small edition and sell them with half the proceeds going to a worthy cause. I almost arbitrarily picked the Good Shepard Food Bank because when we were installing the piece in Congress Square Park I saw one of their vans pull up and they handed out meals. I know they’re serving the unhoused community in Congress Square Park, and it seems like it would be a fitting thing to try and support their activities.