February 12, 2014

Speaker Announcement: Catherine J. H. Miller — Fine Art Belongs to Everyone
Category: 2014 Event, Speaker Announcements

Catherine J. H. Miller

Internships. Many of us have been there. Some of us lucked out and got do more than just fetch coffee and make copies. We got some hands-on experience, some networking opportunities and at the very least a window to greater understanding, to new ideas, to a sense of direction for what comes next. For the really lucky, the internship proves to be life-changing, busting a door wide open unto a path previously unimagined.

Portland artist Catherine J. H. Miller was one of those really lucky interns. Her experience disrupted and ultimately altered her professional path as an artist. It’s what led to her work as an advocate for accessibility in the arts.

In 2009, Catherine began an internship with Disability Art and Culture Project (DACP), where she helped to organize an art and culture festival celebrating and furthering the artistic expression of people with apparent and non-apparent disabilities. In the beginning, she approached both the internship and the festival with a bit of skepticism, and perhaps even with some fear that she would be taken less seriously as an artist. She felt a constant need to explain that the work she was doing was neither art therapy nor camp. She also struggled with redefining her own beliefs about disabilities, and challenging preconceived notions in and about the fine art community.

Catherine grew up surrounded by art. It’s her way of life. “It’s how I think, and feel, and know the world,” she explains. She also happens to be blind, something she concealed throughout half of her time at Pacific Northwest College of Art. This makes her story all the more compelling. She has never wanted her blindness to influence how her art is perceived. “Artists are on public display—whether we like it or not,” she explains. “It’s the game of the fine arts, and my disability identity was only going to offer more challenges to me.”

Working with DACP, Catherine became aware of a different set of standards than what she’d been experienced in the traditional fine art world. Here she sensed an attitude of acceptance and expression that was rich and different in a way she never knew existed. It was here that she realized she’d never had conversations about accessibility and acceptance in the art world.

“Fine art is supposed to be a representation of our society today. Yet, people with disabilities are not proportionately represented.”

Upon completing her internship, inspired by the experience, Catherine organized a fine art exhibition titled A Somewhat Secret Place, showcasing artists and writers with and without disabilities. But disability culture was not the focus. The show was all about the art and explored what she feels is marginalized in art and society. “I wanted to make the fine arts a fuller depiction of our shared humanity.” The exhibition evolved into a case study for a book, now a completed manuscript, which provides a framework for defining and discussing disability in the arts.

Catherine’s first love and life’s work is art—creating it, sharing it, and experiencing it. “My heart races, my pulse quickens, for my art. I don’t just want to make things I want them to be loved as I loved them in their creation.”

At the same time, as a result of her work and research, she has emerged as a respected advocate in the arts community, working to ensure that this thing she loves most is accessible to everyone, removing barriers to participation, both physical and ideological.

“To be a good artist you have to live authentically, give your self in your work. You can try to be anything else, or hide parts of yourself, but it will become a roadblock to true creation. Don’t be silly and try to be something you think you should be.”

She regrets never receiving this advice herself, but encourages other artists to remain true to who they are. She would like to see artists living and working authentically, and see their work respected and appreciated on the merit of the work, and not on assumptions made about the artists. Her feeling is that it’s not the artist, but the art world, that is due for a change.

Ivonne Ward

Though Ivonne now lives in Seattle, she remains tight with the TEDxMtHood family, and this is her second year with the planning team. Passionate about people, volunteering and problem-solving, Ivonne is guided by curiosity and a desire to make a positive and meaningful impact in her community.