Emily Miller: "My eyes were formed there"

10 August - 2 September 2023

Accompanying text written by Rayne Booth


Because that settlement and that land were my first and for many years my only real knowledge of this planet, in some profound way they remain my world, my way of viewing. My eyes were formed there. Towns like ours, set in a sea of land, have been described thousands of times as dull, bleak, flat, uninteresting. All I can say is -  well, you really have to live there to know that country.”

 –from ‘Where the word began’ by Margaret Lawrence,

Emily Miller’s new exhibition, ‘My eyes were formed there.’ explores life in rural settings. The exhibition brings together more than 100 small landscape paintings, alongside four ‘Altarpieces’. The title is taken from the work of Canadian writer Margaret Lawrence, whose meditations on life in a prairie community mirrors Miller’s viewpoint on farming life, and how growing up on a farm formed her visual language and continues to inspire her. 

Taking the countryside idyls depicted in the work of French painter Julien Dupré (1851-1910) as a starting point, Miller’s work subverts the nostalgic and romanticised vision of country life. This clear- eyed approach to the rural is further informed by literary characters such as Mary Lennox in Frances Hodgson Burnetts ‘The Secret Garden’ – an example of the storytelling trope in which a young girl retreats to the countryside to find spiritual healing and redemption in nature. 

Miller works from a shed on the family farm, where she makes her paintings, and prepares the animal hides that form the central focus of her ‘Altarpieces’. Traditionally, Altarpieces were framed portraits of saints, sometimes in bifold triptychs which could be opened and closed for the viewer to cast their eyes on upon relics of these most loved and revered figures in order to contemplate and consider how to live a better life, guided by saintly example. Miller, a registered taxidermist, uses the skins of animals who died through human activity to create her own versions of altarpieces.  Instead of anthropomorphising them, she considers the real life and death cycles of animals and how they are used and consumed by humans. Miller’s process involves treating and painting frames that support her animal hides, displaying them using the strings associated with the tanning process. These frames are then surrounded and adorned with tiny paintings of the farm and prints inspired by traditional folk art.  This approach is informed by Miller's reverence and respect for animals; she aims to create a space for contemplation and encourages viewers to take their time to consider and reflect upon the artwork and the life of the animal it contains. 

Over the past six months, Emily has been creating a series of paintings of life on her family’s farm. These little paintings are made on sanded and primed red wood take from the trees that grew on the farmland.  Each day she creates a small painting of the landscape, farm animals, or of her father at work. In contrast with Julien Dupré’s quixotic visions of farming life, Miller’s paintings depict its everyday reality in jewel like paintings that reference traditional and classical landscape painting methods. 

The countryside is a place of life and death, harsh realities as well as idealised notions of ‘the good life’. Most farmers would see their work as a lifetime vocation rather than simply a job; an engagement with the land and nature as well as essential labour of feeding the population.  As the climate continues to shift, the importance of farmers becomes increasingly evident, but Irish farmers are an aging group, and economic conditions make it increasingly difficult to make a living from the land.

It is hard to be an artist on a farm when you are surrounded by people who work every day to feed and clothe us. Miller wonders if her father sees her pursuits as frivolous. But then, what is art but a way to offer the viewer a new perspective, a space for thinking, a chance to see the world through another’s eyes? 

The eight stands were made with special thanks to Pat Phelan Joinery (Co.Laois).