‘I Can Always Draw My Way Out of a Feeling’: Artist and Author Chanel Miller on Why Doodling Is Her Essential Emotional Outlet
Miller says the process of art-making, not the result, is what matters.
If you know Chanel Miller’s name, it’s likely because of one particular story. In 2019, the Chinese American writer and artist came to international attention after she published a memoir, Know My Name, describing her life as a rape survivor who was sexually assaulted on the Stanford University campus in 2015. Her powerful words have brought comfort and hope to survivors around the world.
But she has more than one story to tell.
The 28-year-old is now making her name as an artist whose drawings and prints twirl between humorous and heavy subject matter. Her museum debut at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco last year included the unveiling of an arresting mural about the cyclical nature of healing.
Now living in New York, Miller is continuing to heal, helped along by her daily practice of doodling, and is finding joy in life as well as confronting fresh wounds. Her recently published works include comics in Time and the New Yorker, which have explored topics from the eccentricities of lockdown, to how the pandemic has fuelled racism against Asian Americans. Recent incidents of anti-Asian violence, such as the murder of six Asian women in Atlanta earlier this month, have prompted her to get out on the streets and take part in demonstrations.
We caught up with the artist about art as a tool for building confidence, processing trauma, and honoring the everyday.
In your book, you describe how art therapy played an important role in your life, from doodling on walls as a young person trying to process tough emotions, to attending structured art therapy sessions as an adult. Can you tell me a about what art has meant for you as a therapeutic tool?
I’m very grateful that I have drawing because it allows me to go to darker places in my writing. I think I wouldn’t venture to those places if I didn’t have a type of outlet that would keep things more lighthearted and expressive. The world of writing can be quite serious and all the sentences live in straight lines—it’s very methodical and meticulous. So to be able to create lines that go anywhere I want, that don’t fit a specific format or adhere to rules of grammar, that’s very freeing.
This is a moment in time when, for various reasons, the world is going through a collective period of trauma. What would you say to anybody who is wanting to explore art as a therapeutic medium?
Don’t be precious with it. Just get anything you can on the page. I started doing diary comics and it was just a way of documenting my day, and to highlight little beautiful things, to show myself that my life was moving forward and to put value in an ordinary day.
I think when we’re in heightened states of trauma, all we want is for things to go back to “normal.” So if you have a day when all you’ve done is sauté some mushrooms, clean off your desk, and make your bed, drawing those scenes can be really meditative and a way of honoring those tasks and celebrating how wonderful it is when things are just calm. I think that’s all we want sometimes.
Instead of thinking about the final product and what you end up with, I want you to think about what it’s doing for you. Consider it a practice in listening. It doesn’t have to look a certain way. It’s just about tuning your ear to your own mind.
In the book, you unpack some of the doubts that you had about your ability or confidence as an artist, and you write about trying to regain the sense of self-assurance that you had as a child. How did you manage to break down that wall?
I started to investigate where the lack of confidence was coming from. Was it because there aren’t a lot of people who look like me that are prominent artists? Or do I not affiliate being Asian American with doodling? I did the same thing with literature. Who gets to create literature? Which stories are taken seriously? Is it only older white men with moustaches sipping whiskey, or can it be me, a young Asian American in her mid-twenties?
The point is that I started questioning the forces that were keeping me from creating and recognizing that they were not valid. I’ve always loved to draw. There should be no reason for me to hold that back.
Last year, you unveiled your mural, I was, I am, I will be, at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. How did that project come about, and how did it feel to have that moment of recognition?
Abby Chen, the curator of the museum, said they were building a new contemporary wing and asked if I’d like to be involved. I immediately said yes. She brought me to part of the museum that hadn’t even been built yet. There was still a lot of plywood, and there was no window or no glass installed, but she took me across the street to look at it from afar and just said, “that’s your wall.”
That was really stunning because that was how much room she was giving me to continue my story. Because survivors have so many stories. So that was beautiful. I love that it’s in such a prominent space. That museum is in the center of my community. It’s in the center of the city where I wrote my book. And even though I as a person sometimes feel small, that mural is so large and it’s so connected to anyone who walks by it.
What has been the response to the mural?
It has been wonderful. I’ve heard a lot of people say that it’s brought them peace, which I think is really nice. It’s alleviated the pressure to move out of difficult feelings, and the pressure to move past everything that’s happening now, because the point of the piece is that healing is cyclic.
We are always transitioning between past, present, and future, but life is not linear. We will not clear this pandemic fully ever because it’s affected all of us and the trajectory of our lives. So it’s important to keep coming back to what we’ve been through, to honor those experiences, and still be looking forward.
You also talk a lot about printmaking, which you first discovered in college, and later studied further at the Rhode Island School of Design. What drew you to that as a medium?
I loved that it can be mass produced, and was really valued in society as a way of distributing a message. And I just loved the smell of ink and the tactile doing of it, the rolling of the paints.
In that year that I was waiting for trial, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was not working, and I just thought about how there are other pieces of me, there are different skills that I have, that I need to be nourishing, because right now they feel dormant and I need to remind myself who I am and what I’m capable of. I sought out printmaking, and it brought me back to a more tender time, when I was in college just simply focused on creating.
Are there any artists or artistic movements that have inspired you in your own art practice?
[The American cartoonist] Lynda Barry came to my university when I was an undergrad. I was just stunned at the way she talks about drawing. Her lines are so organic, and she really encourages people to not judge themselves so harshly. To her, celebrating comes with the creation, not the product.
I was also introduced to Kara Walker in college. Her ability to take on heavy subject matter is something I admire, and it’s very powerful to see the way people gravitate toward that heaviness. And Marcel Dzama, his watercolors, I love their perfect mixture of strange and whimsical. I think with all these artists, I love that you can see their voice in their work so strongly.
You and I actually crossed over at the University of California at Santa Barbara. I worked on the school paper, and I know you sometimes did illustrations.
Yeah, that was my first job at school. The art director would send out a text, saying, “Here’s a story. We need a drawing, and whoever gets to Stork Tower first”—our little headquarters were below—“gets the assignment.” I always drew by hand and scanned it in. I never drew digitally. I enjoyed it, and it helped starting to pair images with words to accompany them.
This past year you’ve been doing comics for Time, the New Yorker, and publishing some of your work on Instagram. Do you see yourself developing that practice further?
Oh, absolutely. I actually started doing comics while I was writing the book to sort of counterbalance everything that I was feeling every day, and now I can’t imagine my life without being able to express my thoughts this way.
They feel intimate and I think people appreciate that. They’re like small confessions or ruminations rather than set pieces. For my own sanity, I have a stack of fresh notebooks at all times, my own little stationary store that I’m running at my desk. And as long as I have materials on hand, I feel like I will be okay. I can always draw my way out of the feeling or not be totally lost or consumed by something. It’s really a lifeline.
We’ve spoken about a few different artistic media, but in the book, you also spend some time imagining a number of different kinds of art expressions, in the form of installations or performance pieces. Have you ever considered exploring that further?
I guess when it comes to installations, and especially when I was fantasizing about doing them on Stanford’s campus, to me, it was really about taking up space and forcing people to look at something in a way that I could accomplish without having to physically be there on a soap box every day. So that’s what I wanted to do, and I still think about it. I have so much to say, and sometimes it feels too big to channel into sentences, and so to be able to create something that can inhabit a space for you, and speak for you, would be very helpful.
With some of the subject matter for these imaginary pieces, for example in Construction, you would have victims noisily hammering nails for every day they have had to survive with what happened to them—work like that can draw up painful feelings for survivors as well as create space for other people to share in their pain. How do you feel about navigating that difficult space?
I think it’s an interesting balance. You want to wake certain people up who are avoiding this subject matter, but you also don’t want to trigger. I want to care for everybody, but it is the artist’s job to resurface something people would just rather not look at because it would be more comfortable and convenient. Like you said, making room for that pain is what’s needed, and is a way to honor victims and also just really sit with what needs to change because what you’re looking at is not acceptable.
You moved to New York about a year ago. Obviously, the pandemic has changed everything, but what did you imagine that the city would be for you? Were you hoping to join an artistic milieu or community?
Writing [in San Francisco] was incredibly lonely. It’s a solitary act, but in addition to that, I was anonymous. I didn’t feel comfortable joining writing groups because I couldn’t talk about what I was writing, so there was this additional layer of isolation. Moving to New York, I was really looking forward to working on a new book, having publishing meetings in person. When I would visit my editor, we would spread out the pages across her table and physically move them around and mark up things. I just prefer that way of thinking and collaborating.
I’ve been in a room by myself for like three years, and now it’s happening again. But at least this time I can be open about what I’m going through and what I’m doing, and that’s made a huge difference. In the future, I just can’t wait to be an artist in the world and a writer in the world.
What’s at the forefront of your mind right now?
I would like to highlight an organization in New York called Heart of Dinner. They raise funds from the community and work with local food businesses to create meals for Asian elders. They put these meals inside brown bags, and they made a call for volunteer illustrators to decorate the brown bags. I went and picked up my bags last week, and I was drawing on them last night.
I love that art can live anywhere. It can live in a museum or it can live on a brown bag. Both are equally important to me, as long as it’s touching someone. So again, if you are worried about creating art in your own home, think about another surface to draw it on. Think about enhancing something that might otherwise just be a plain paper bag with your own creation. There’s so many different ways of expressing yourself.
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