Rebekah Miller is a visual artist who works in Dawson City. She first came to the Yukon to work during the summers to make money for school and found it felt like home to her. (Amy Kenny/Yukon News) Amy Kenny, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Rebekah Miller sometimes feels like she’s working in a box.

She says this while sitting on a box located inside a box. Or a rectangle, if you want to split geometrical hairs. That’s the shape of the bright white, sunlight-filled studio where she draws grouse, foxes, rabbits, aspen and rifles. It’s where she works out the shape and structure of the sculptures and installations that make up her practice as an artist. She doesn’t bring people here often.

“I’m a very introverted person by nature,” she says. “It’s hard for me to show my work.”

In fact, Miller wouldn’t be opposed to making art in a vacuum where no one even looks at it. She could almost get away with it, too. Her studio is down a trail beside the home she shares with her partner, Duncan, and their 20-month-old toddler in Sunnydale. Across the river from Dawson City and up the road from West Dawson, Sunnydale is like the centre of a nesting doll set of smaller and smaller communities.

The ability to work in obscurity, however, looks less likely the more awards Miller is nominated for. Most recently, she was announced as one of six artists shortlisted for the Yukon Prize for Visual Art. In 2021, she was a finalist for the Salt Spring Art Prize. Her work is in collections including the Yukon Permanent Art Collection, the Kala Art Institute in California, the Eastern Oregon University Collection and more.

So, yeah. She might be getting used to people looking at her stuff.

Miller started out as a printmaker, after completing a foundation in fine arts at Langara College and attending the Alberta College of Art and Design. She veered away from prints over the years in favour of graphite drawings that are so meticulously detailed, it can make your eyes cross if you get close enough to examine every line. She also started experimenting with sculptures and installations.

From a distance, one of her pieces, Skins, is a stand of birch trees. As with her drawings, up close is a different story. That’s when you realize the trees are only the exteriors of trees — segments of birch bark that can be taken apart or connected by zippers Miller has sewn into the skins.

The idea didn’t start out as a sculpture. It started as the solution to a problem. At the time, Miller was moving to San Francisco for grad school. She wanted to take the forest home with her.

“The reason I did them wasn’t because I was like, ‘oh, yeah, this’ll be cool.’ It was because I was like ‘I need to figure out how to make a forest for my house. How can I pack away a forest into this box to bring with me?’”

That interest in home, or an idea of home, is at the centre of much of her work. Sometimes that shows up quite literally, as in My House, an installation that consists of a transparent fabric house printed with ghost impressions of windows, doors and wood siding. Sometimes the connection is less obvious, as with Porcupine Birch Corset, which she sculpted years ago. In part, it speaks to the idea that we can find our identities and our homes inside our clothing (in another part, it speaks to the years Miller spent laced into a corset as a bartender at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Gambling Hall).

Working with natural materials like these is financially savvy when you’re an artist in the North, where shipping fees are high, but it also makes her feel close to home.

Miller grew up in Buck Lake, Alberta, a hamlet with a population of 60. When her father died, her mother moved the family to Victoria, British Columbia. Being out in the bush, working physically, to harvest and haul things home to work with, reminds her of the labour and farming background on her father’s side. She likes that physicality and that connection. From early in her practice, Miller says she remembers using art as a method of healing and understanding her own familial history. Even as she’s explored that though, she’s wondered — when your work is so much about the past, how do you become more contemporary?

“How do you evolve?” she asks. In the corner of her studio, a piece of iridescent organza fabric shimmers blue and yellow. It’s printed with the image of wood planks and strung up with cord in the approximate shape of a staircase. Miller is a bit embarrassed about it — it doesn’t yet look in real life the way it does in her mind. “I guess that’s something I’m trying to understand,” she says.

Part of that process has included living in Dawson. It’s her first stable home in a long time, after moving from Buck Lake to Victoria to Vancouver to Calgary to California. She says Dawson is a lot like Buck Lake, just not the real Buck Lake. She’s been back to visit since she moved away. Her hometown isn’t what she remembers. But Dawson today is what Buck Lake was to her then, and what it still is in her memory.

A lot of her work now is about making her own reality, she says.

“I have a very strong desire to root myself now,” she says. “This is it.”

Outside, in the driveway, her daughter and Duncan play with their cat, Tom.

“A lot of it is about not so much even a place. It’s about the desire to be somewhere that doesn’t really exist,” she says. “There’s sort of a sad part about it, but then there’s also a very hopeful part about it. And I feel like that’s where my current life comes in.”

The recipient of Yukon Prize for Visual Art will be announced on Sept. 16.

By Amy Kenny, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jul 17, 2023 at 10:57

This item reprinted with permission from   Yukon News   Whitehorse, Yukon
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