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Editor’s note: This is one of a series of conversations with creative Mainers about how they’re dealing with social distancing and staying home amid the coronavirus pandemic.
WOOLWICH, Maine — With the coronavirus pandemic gaining steam, portraitist Martha Miller found herself stuck at home in late March with just her cat for company. There was nobody around for Miller to paint or draw. The lauded artist, with a book and many solo exhibitions under her belt, was at a loss. Miller wanted to throw her creative ompf behind some kind of new project.
Enter the Getty Museum Challenge.
On March 25, the California museum issued an online invitation for people to photographically recreate their favorite works of fine art using themselves as models and household items as props. The Getty then asked people to post the pictures on social media with its hashtag: #gettymuseumchallenge. It was a way to keep art and creativity circulating on the internet during the COVID-19 crisis.
Miller took up the challenge in a serious way, plunging into the work with dedicated glee. Most saw the Getty prompt as a fun way to kill some time but she went further. Miller began translating her favorite two-dimensional portraits into not just photographic re-creations but also into shape shifting, artistic video performances. She’s posting all of it on Facebook and Instagram as she goes.
Miller is now considering this new artistic work as her next important series and is treating it as an art residency, while locked inside her own residence.
Q: I’ve seen other people doing this Getty Challenge but you’re taking it to a whole different level.
A: I’m just treating this time as an artist residency. I live alone, Monday through Thursday. My husband works at Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington. He’s one of those essential workers up there. He comes home Thursday nights and has a three day weekend. So, I’m here with my cat, alone. I rake the yard. I tend the fire. There’s not a whole lot to do.
Q: Seems like the Getty Challenge is really giving you something to do?
A: Yes, the challenge just sent me off in a whole new direction and — oh, hang on, my cat’s got a snake.
Q: What? Really?
A: Yeah, but he’s OK. It’s a garter snake. Hang on, I’m putting him under my wood shed.
Q: You can call back if you want.
A: No, it’s OK. This is a real visual: I’m dressed as Princess Diana right now and I have a snake in my hand. Anyway, I’m combining my love of portraiture — I’m a portrait artist — with my love of art history and I’m also finding that I love performing. I’ve spun off a series of videos from this. I’m creating these characters and they just beg to be moved around, like puppets. It’s been really fun.
Q: It’s fun but you’re also treating this as a serious art project?
A: I get up these days and plan to do a character in the morning. Then, I have my lunch and do another one in the afternoon. That’s my workday right now.
Q: How many have you done, so far?
A: I think I’ve done 26 or 27.
Q: You’re definitely teaching me something about art history with these because they’re not all really famous pictures — like these Marsden Hartley portraits.
A: There are so many fabulous artists. I really loved doing that Hartley with the hairy chest. That was a blast. My husband comes home and he just shakes his head. Ha, ha.
Q: Are you finding all these props and costumes in your house?
A: Yeah, I don’t go anywhere. I find pictures that I know I can make happen. It’s not the other way around. It’s mostly [held together] with pins and tape just long enough to get the picture. I love the impermanence of it, being able to click the camera and have this magic trick happen.
Q: I see there’s a Frida Kahlo self portrait here and she’s got her husband Diego Rivera on her forehead. Who is that on your forehead?
A: My husband, Gary. Yup, I did a photocopy and glued it on my forehead. Ha, ha. Right now, I see my face as a blank canvas. I have that kind of a face. I don’t have super-distinct features. I’m able to goof around and that’s been fun to discover.
Q: What’s the logical end for this? How far are you going?
A: I’m scheduled to start teaching again at the Maine College of Art in June — but we’ll see if that happens. It’s hard to know. I tend to work in series and just run something till it’s run its course. I can feel when things are winding down but it’s not close to there yet.
Q: That’s good to hear. I’m looking forward to the “Princess Diana and snake” picture.
A: Oh, well the snake got away but I’ve got at least another month of being alone. There are so many portraits and so much time.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.