Mississippi Gulf Coast artist Ruth Miller creates large narrative portraits and domestic scenes in vibrant hues. In her best-known work, Teacup Fishing—a nearly 5-foot-long, 3-foot-wide piece—a black woman’s skin looks touchable and lustrous, its surface layered in golds and pastels, shadows and undertones. She wears a wide-brimmed hat on top of loose hanging locks; a clean, worn-in blouse and skirt; and green sandals with her bare toenails visible. She sits languidly in a boat, situated on a small, blue-green body of water. On the horizon, a sunset explodes in lavenders, pinks, and blues. She reads from a magazine in her left hand, while her right hand is clasped on a fishing rod; curiously, its line has landed in a cup of tea, instead of in the lake. The woman doesn’t seem to notice; or maybe, she isn’t bothered that it’s been misplaced.
Looking from a distance, the finely detailed work is stunning in its vitality, resembling a painted portrait. Indeed, Miller studied painting at Cooper Union in the late 1960s, and her sister, Ohio-based choreographer Bebe Miller, was the model for the piece. Yet every tendril, each atom of brushstroke-like detail, was hand-stitched—sewn using Paternayan wool yarn against a steady backing fabric. Working on and off between a cross-country move and renovating a new home, it took Miller almost seven years to complete the grand embroidered tapestry.
Miller’s works convey beauty and meaning in ways that are different from painted objects, while also troubling the notion that embroidery is craftwork rather than fine art. Miller says she has a personal, physical connection to the objects she makes that she didn’t feel while painting, perhaps due to the long hours involved. She also feels an “inexplicable connection between embroiderers of the past” when completing a piece; she can visualize a community of artists across time that she uses her work to commune with.
Miller lives and works in an unincorporated town on the Gulf Coast, but she was born and raised in Manhattan. The oldest of three siblings, she had a busy, city-kid childhood going to museums, plays, and dance and music lessons. Her Mississippi-born mother taught her to sew, and two of her aunts taught her the basics of needlework.