When artist Nic Annette Miller set off on a six-week solo road trip to exhibit art in Salt Lake City and soul-searched her way across the country, she didn’t expect that the journey would profoundly affect the way she thinks and talks about her life and art.
Although her sculptural wood prints of animals initially started conversations about vegetarianism, her work is shifting to mean more than that.
In this essay “All I Can Do”, Nic bares her soul, writing honestly about art, depression, vulnerability, and the courage to listen to your soul.
This is going to sound a bit strange. Do you think it’s possible for a person to move around in their body and to have thoughts, but be empty inside? It’s like the mind and body are talking to each other and making stuff happen, but they’re not talking to the thing that gave them functionality. That thing, it’s the soul. And I wasn’t aware I was lacking mine.
Hear me out.
My summer kick started with two opportunities that I took full advantage of in order to go on a long solo road trip (with Sheila the dog as my co-pilot). The first opportunity was a show alongside artist and great friend, Hayley Nichols, at a small gallery in my hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah. The other, delivering a large elk head sculpture print to a home in Nashville, Tennessee.
Eight years ago, I started making woodcuts of animal heads around the same time I adopted my dog and became vegetarian. I like to call my work conversation pieces about sourcing your own food and how we treat animals. Here is where I think I only operated by mind and body. Yes, my hands carved the wood, printed the block and made an object, and of course I thought about how and why. But where was my passion? Where was the fire? Why wasn’t I more of an activist? How come I wasn’t trying to convert more people to vegetarianism with my belief? What was the point?
Yes, my hands carved the wood, printed the block, and made an object, and of course I thought about how and why. But what was my passion? Where was the fire?
After my body made an installation of a faux fish market and my mind fully prepared to talk about the fish industry, I instead had people approaching me with nostalgic stories. Memories with their family and the joy that the day on the lake brought them. How meditative and serene a catch makes them feel before releasing it back into the wild. This created an unexpected emotion: yearning. I started craving human connections, especially over a meal, as being a vegetarian can be isolating at times. I wrote more about it here. And as I started talking to people about my doubts, my soul started kicking.
Earlier this year, I unemployed myself from a dream job as an art director in New York because I felt unhappy and unvaluable. It was easy to blame myself for these feelings and I was ashamed that I wanted to feel happy and valued. I sat in a deep funk, wondering what I should do. Pursuing my dream of being an artist – getting those obsessive ideas out of my head and into the real world – felt crazy and irresponsible.
My thoughts circled like this: I live in the most expensive city and I should be “an adult” with stable income. But what type of job do I want? Am I good at anything? Am I a benefit to anyone? What’s wrong with me? What would bring me the most joy? Be an artist. I’m crazy. Repeat.
When I made the connection of my current state of mind to my suicide attempt in 2003, I realized that depression wasn’t in the past as much as I’d thought. A much younger Nic, who survived a night of numerous pills and liquid charcoal, thought she had overcome the darkest obstacle she would ever encounter. A much older Nic felt confused and weak when her thoughts spiraled into the dark questions of purpose. Although my past experience taught me that death is not an answer to anger or sadness, all my anger and sadness in the present left me where I could only feel like I don’t need to exist but I don’t want to die. I would never wish this type of lonesome suffering of anyone. Until distraction was able to push it aside from time to time, I would stay stuck and numb. My soul started weeping.
One day, I fell into an internet black hole of murmuration videos and articles about the formative flight created by European Starlings. It clicked that the motion of these flocks mimicked my mind’s depressing thoughts. The strange and chaotic movement created thick smoke, like shapes in the air, as if a monster is emerging. However, there is also an absolute beauty and wonder if you stop trying to think too much and just enjoy it.
Then suddenly, clarity. There are two perspectives when you approach a thought – the negative and the positive. I can be scared of depression, let unanswered questions spiral out of control, try to hide it from others, and feel terrible about myself. Or, I can accept depression as part of who I am, and learn how to live with it. Ask myself better questions and try to answer them. For example, I often pondered what was wrong with me when I was sad, but now I think, “Do I want to be happy? Yes! What will make me happy?” There is more pro-activity on this train of thought.
I can be scared… and feel terrible about myself. Or I can accept depression as part of who I am, and learn to live with it.
While admiring murmurations, both the strangeness and beauty they project, I was overcome with this positive outlook towards my depression and working on “All I Can Do.” This became my mantra, and the title of the European Starling woodcut series.The phrase hit me like a lightning bolt – I am all I can control. I can do, think, act, and love the way I want to, so long as it’s true to what I want. No relying on what others may think because it must remain genuine to me and what I think. This is my life. No one else is living it.
Soon, I had energy to hand carve seven birds with different wing orientations and because I lacked the space to do an installation, I created a stop-motion video. My soul started stretching.
The launch of the European Starling project in the spring was receiving great feedback and I felt proud of my honesty of connecting it to depression, however the act of changing the way I think and treat myself day-to-day was a challenge.
I left for my road trip feeling vulnerable and unsure of what I was doing. The mentality of “All I Can Do” – to have faith in myself that I am choosing what feels right, served as an interesting practice on the road. Two pieces of advice stuck with me during my travels — the day before I left, my friend Rachel grabbed me by the shoulders, looked me in the eyes and said as slowly as possible, “Have the best time possible.” This gave me choice. And a palm reader in Taos reminded me of Mahatma Ghandi’s wise words, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” This gave me focus.
Each day of the six weeks I spent exploring the East and Southwest United States started differently. Often I wasn’t even sure where I’d be sleeping that night: from my Honda Element to a loft in a printmaking studio to a camper on a farm. Every day had magic and I believe that’s because I turned off pressuring thoughts and lived in the moment.
Along my travels I met some of the kindest people. They all lead me to experiences I don’t come across often, such as a twenty-mile hike, singing inside a James Turrell piece, and dancing in the middle of the night in an empty parking lot. When I shared my story, they shared theirs. That human connection I’d been yearning for was fulfilled by bonding over sad and hard times followed by bravery, pride, and laughter for getting through it. My soul was screaming and cheering.
Now I am back in my Brooklyn apartment, sitting with memories and opportunities I didn’t even know were possible. Driving 6,588 miles from New York to Utah, then through Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina, has changed me. Better yet, the time has allowed me to become a healthier version of myself.
I still have similar questions – like if I can be an independent artist or if I need to get a job – but all I am going to do today is work on what makes me happy, and have faith that it will lead me to what I am supposed to be doing next.
There is fear when speaking the truth, but it’s a shame when it’s withheld. Not once did I think I would share my story like this, but the more I do, the more comfortable and confident I am in my own skin – in that active mind and body. Now that I’m using art as a therapeutic practice of accepting depression as part of life, I wonder what else can I start accepting. My soul is laughing.
Now that I’m using art as a therapeutic practice of accepting depression as a part of life, I wonder what else I can start accepting.
Now my mind has been dreaming up a lot of new projects, and my body is timid because the work is unfamiliar. But there’s this thing that is now talking to my mind and my body, giving them more functionality, more purpose. That thing, it’s the soul. It feels passion. It feels fire. All I can do, is try.
Photos courtesy of Nic Annette Miller