No One Can Be Viola Davis
Studio Check-In was born out of a desire to tell the stories of the people who work behind the scenes at different arts and cultural institutions.
Institutions are defined by the people who work within them and the objects they steward, but they are also defined by the community members, artists, and audiences that intersect with and support the work and mission—different audiences and participants help make the story more full, more human, and more alive.
In this Studio Check-In, Ilk Yasha speaks with poet and artist Shala Miller. Shala’s work is about intimacy, relationships, self, and history, using photography, poetry, music, and video.
Shala, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. I always begin with a simple question: Can you tell the readers a little about yourself?
I'm Shala Miller. I'm from the suburbs of Cleveland. My parents are and were Southern. That plays a big role in how I think about language, performance, and most things. My father was from Richmond, Virginia, and my mother is from a very small town called Mathson, Mississippi.
I came to art making young, around five or six. I wanted to be a performer, but I was incredibly shy as a child. There are still some traces of shyness present, but this pursuit of being a performer and singer fell to the back burner because I was so shy.
Then I discovered photography when I was about twelve or thirteen. From there I slowly found my way back to performing through self-portraiture. It wasn't until much, much later that I started to include music and performance in my video work.
Given that sixteen-year-old Shala was interested in performance, was there an artist at that time who inspired you?
I remember being very taken by Disney Channel actors. I also remember Seeing Viola Davis in Antwone Fisher when I was way too young to watch Antwone Fisher, and she's only in it for a few minutes toward the end and she doesn't say anything.
I said that's what I wanna be. To this day, I still wanna be Viola Davis. I never will, but you know, that's who I look up to.
Don’t say that—you never know! You’ve got a long career ahead of you.
Well, no one can be Viola Davis.
You’re right—no one can be Viola Davis. In your book Tender Noted, I love how your photos are in dialogue with your text. How do you approach multidisciplinary work?
My interest in image-and-text started a long time ago. It started when I became interested in photography from a graphic design position, in magazines, and the way people would treat images on MySpace, blogs, and stuff like that. As I got older and started to learn more about conceptual photography, Carrie Mae Weems and Lorna Simpson in particular, my whole worldview shifted.
It first began as very short poetic texts next to or below an image, and then it grew from there—I started to write much longer poetic texts, like scripts for videos. That transitioned into writing personal essays. Also, film essays, which are in Tender Noted. It grew and grew as I started to perform more, think about installation, and think about language in a spatial context.
What are your earliest memories of being excited by language?
It’s hard for me to pin down when I was first taken by language. As a kid, I was fascinated by slang being used the wrong way or the right way or whatever. Or somebody not knowing what something means and how that shifts over time, but then also shifts depending on where you are.
I used to be nervous to call myself a writer because I wasn't trained in writing besides taking a few classes. When I was in high school I wasn't the best student so I didn't believe I had the intellectual prowess to call myself a writer. Which I know is silly, but it’s the truth. The way I was able to find enjoyment in writing was by paying attention to the way I talk. What would help me in my classes was dictating my essays first. Then from there, edit and write even more. I started to do that with personal essays for films, like The Echo, that's in Tender Noted. When I was writing the text for the images or text for the videos, I was thinking about how it would be performed. My relationship to language is always about how it's spoken and understood in that way.
In terms of photography and combining image making and writing, something both helpful and exciting is music. It’s something I'm still trying to find the language to describe, but there’s something about vocal jazz, which is what I listen to the most that feels akin to how I feel about image-making and writing and vulnerability. I see all those things as interconnected.
You’re doing a program with Studio looking at Ming Smith’s work, another fellow Ohio native who works in Harlem. Thinking about the relationship between music, sound, and photography, is there a song or vocalist that echoes this blending and blurring?
There are four jazz vocalists who are like my mothers who I learn from and adore. That is Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughn, and Ella Fitzgerald. In particular, if I were to identify a [song] that makes me think about image making and vulnerability, a song called “Street of Dreams” by Sarah Vaughn.
The thing that moves me the most is when and how a jazz vocalist decides to end a song. Usually, the live performance is different from the recording, but sometimes it will happen in the recording too. I also don't have that much musical theory knowledge, so the way that I describe things might sound a little silly, but usually at the end of the song, it feels as if the melody is moving in one direction, and in those last few notes it takes a departure and ends in a place different from where it began, but still feels right. There’s something about it that feels very uncertain.
The end of “Street of Dreams,” the way that Sarah Vaughn ends that song, is such a surprise, but it makes so much sense. That kind of vulnerability is what I strive for in image-making and writing.
Your work feels very intimate and there’s a sense of vulnerability embedded in it. It takes a lot to put this kind of work out! Have you always been this open?
No! Recently I was like, oh my God, why do I have such a big mouth all of a sudden? I used to be so quiet. Artmaking has always been a place of salvation for me in every way. Things shifted when I made The Echo. I’m interested in metaphor, but I found that I was hiding behind it so as to not reveal so much about myself. I found healing in laying myself bare and being vulnerable. So yeah, it's challenging and no, I'm not always like this and sometimes I think I need to pack it up.
As an educator, I’m always imagining who the audience is for particular works of art. The poet Simone White did a program with us last year for our Kahlil Robert Irving exhibition at MoMA, and she said, in a matter-of-fact way, that she writes as if no one is listening but that she actually only writes for thirty of her Black friends. Especially as your career picks up, I can’t help but think of who the audience is for your work. The more you bear, the more the audience sees. It becomes this wild game.
I see it as if we're in an auditorium. The doors are open, I'm on the stage, I turn around, and I let it out. You can come into the auditorium if you'd like, let it out with me if you know the song too, or you can keep on keeping on. I find my audience to be anyone that may also feel like they are in this room with me already.
Ohio is home to many great Black thinkers and makers. I’d love to hear about how Ohio has impacted and raised you.
I'm from Ohio, and even though my parents lived in Ohio longer than they lived in the South, those Southern roots don't go anywhere. Especially because of the Great Migration, and there being so many Black folks who have come from the South or have some lineage to the American South. There’s something there about language. I think about survival and care and hospitality too. In terms of my practice, that's something I'm still discovering.
Do you have a Southernism that you heard them say that's implanted in you?
My favorite one is from my father. He used to call me “doll baby.” My mom said “baby doll.” I heard that growing up and thought it was just normal, but I realize not everybody says "doll baby."
How does it feel to come to New York City?
It may be corny, but I’ve always had that dream of getting out of the Midwest, out of the suburbs, and going to New York City, ever since I was little. It’s challenging living here, emotionally, financially. But I couldn't imagine myself calling anywhere else home.
So much has happened since I moved. My father passed away while I was in my second or third year here. In the wake of that, I realized how important chosen family is. That loss was incredibly significant. I was very close to my father, so I had to reorient my whole world and understand who or what I thought was my foundation, which was my parents and those who raised me, it's actually me who needs to be the foundation. I’m also blessed to have close friends who legitimately feel like family.
I also lost my father last year. I hear you in my core. When you do lose a parent, there’s this incredible shift of responsibility. You watch as the world you made gets smaller in an instant. With that shift, you become responsible for your history in an entirely new way. In some ways, you either maintain, rebuild, or reenvision a world for yourself. Is there something you're excited to build in this new journey you’re embarking on that would honor your father or be something he would be proud of?
That's a very touching question.
Yeah. I'm sorry.
Oh no, please don't apologize. It's such a beautiful question. I'm happy to answer it. It’s so funny, I was just talking about my father with a friend last night, and we were talking about love in particular, and I was speaking about how I learned so much about love. Which feels strange to say, but I mean, it's the truth. I learned so much about it in the wake of his death.
My father was someone who came from the generation of thinking that a man has to be the breadwinner, strong, putting food on the table, and not emotional, you do what you need to do for your family, and that's your purpose. He was very serious and quiet, and was not someone to be overly affectionate. He also struggled a little bit with saying “I love you.” I didn't get a lot of hugs and stuff like that, and it's not to say I feel there was any lack because I felt incredibly loved by him because he had his own way of loving me.
As a parent, you're responsible for your children. My father did so much and he really didn’t have to. You know what I mean? He really didn’t have to do it and he did it anyway and he chose to do it, all the time. In that persistence, even when I got on his last nerve, when he could not stand me, he still chose to be supportive and to love and to show that, because he cared about my wellbeing. It's hard to continue to show up and to choose over and over again. That's what I am trying to figure out for my world.
We had to get my father's funeral together really fast, so we weren't able to tell everybody about the service. There was a man, Xavier, who would cut the grass for my mom and dad. He was cutting the grass as we pulled up in the hearse from the service. He knew my father was ill, and I'll never forget this scene, I saw Xavier see us and the car and he put it together that my father had gone. He is this burly man in a muscle tank and he immediately started crying and bawling. My dad was the first person to give him a chance. My dad had a second fridge in the garage where he would hide snacks and pop, and he was always like, go in the back and make sure you get something to drink. Xavier mentioned that, something so simple. Giving somebody a chance and always making sure there was pop in the backyard.
I love this so much. So generous. Sometimes we don't need to hear “I love you,” but know that the love lives in other ways. That sensibility to be hospitable, the spirit of his patience, tells you it's exactly love that shines through him. Shala, thank you for sharing these stories. I feel like we are calling your father's name out and enlivening his memory. Thank you so much for your time.