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Exploring Human Relationships: A Dialogue with Miller & Shellabarger, Pt. 1

In 2011, as an intern at Illinois State University Galleries, I was introduced to husband- and-husband artists, Dutes Miller & Stan Shellabarger. Over the course of a week, I got to observe their performance Seed Drawings and document another performance Sewn Together. I conversed with the artists about life, and watched them transform the bare white walls of the gallery space into an amazingly skilled solo exhibition entitled, Miller & Shellabarger: Alone Together, in which they explored and documented “the bittersweet rhythms of human relationships.” A few weeks ago, I got the opportunity to sit down and chat (over beers) with both of them.  We spoke about their artistic process, the nature of performance, the importance of human interactions in performance work (particularly as it pertains to their practice), relationships, and historic forms of art making.

Danielle Jackson [DJ]: To start, how would you guys describe your collaborative practice to someone who wasn’t aware of it?

Stan Shellabarger [SS]: Lots of times when people ask that question, they want to know what materials you’ve worked in. So people will often ask if you paint or draw or make sculpture. We don’t really paint and we do some things that are drawing-like using marks, but they’re not really what people would think of as pen, pencil, or charcoal drawings. We end up describing the materials we use because we do performance, but we also do works that are sculptural and works that are two-dimensional that hang on the wall; they’re not paintings or drawings. Often times this conversation doesn’t end up being about what the work is about. It all ends up being about the materials we use; people get really fascinated with that. Sometimes that’s confusing enough that people forget about anything else [laughter]. It’s not that I wouldn’t want to talk to them about the underlying context of the work. It’s just too muddy for them to want to go much farther. Then they’re sorry they asked [laughter].

Dutes Miller [DM]: [Laughter] I think lots of times we’ll talk to people about it being about human relations and the way that two people get along together in the world.

Miller & Shellabarger, "Large Tintypes 2," 2010, Tintype Photographs. Image Courtesy of Western Exhibitions

DJ: Your work deals with togetherness and separation. Going back to your show at University Galleries, the show had this tenderness to it, but it was also kind of melancholy. This is evident when you look at the Untitled (Graves) photograph. In it you guys are together, yet you’re in a grave. Now it’s this moment where you realize one of you could pass away and the other would have to live with that. Can you talk about how that idea manifests itself in your practice?

DM: It’s kind of a theme that runs through a lot of the work. I think as we have gotten older it comes through more prevalently just because we are dealing more with mortality in a way. We’re not that old, but we’re not twenty. You don’t think about that so much when you’re twenty. Well, I don’t think I did. We’ve also read some Derrida and one of his ideas about friendship is that, “When you become friends with someone, really truly friends with them, at that point you begin mourning because you know one of you will die before the other one.” That’s particularly true in romantic relationships. It’s just in some ways a plain fact, but in other ways it shows you have to have a really strong emotional bond to face that.

DJ:  You mentioned the importance of materials earlier. Out of all the materials you have used what is the most satisfying?

DM: I really enjoy the performance work the best. I think we’ve been doing that the longest. In my solo practice, I don’t do performance anymore, so I find that rewarding. For me it’s really great to engage in the activity—it’s just not something I do anymore. I do mostly collage, painting, and drawing.

SS: There are some performances that are very arduous. While it was a successful piece as a performance, they were just physically arduous. The gun powder drawings are super exciting because you have this controlled explosion. There’s an element of never knowing how it’s going to turn out. Depending on the humidity and the kind of paper, you get different results. We’re always experimenting because they’re unbeknownst to us. There are these different formulas that work as gun powder, but aren’t really truly gun powder. All make different marks or burn differently. They do different things on different paper. That’s something I’m looking forward to experimenting with more.

There are certain materials that are satisfying in their own way. The cut-paper silhouettes are very immediate. You trace, you cut, and they have this immediacy to them. They also have a real fragility to them. If you’re not careful with them or depending on where we’ve shown them, they’ll only get shown once because they’re destroyed in the process of being displayed. For me, I don’t necessarily have a favorite; they all have their pros and cons.

DJ: How does your process differ from material to material?

DM: I think that you have to approach all the materials differently. Our overall practice and the way that we address things remains the same. It’s always coming up with an idea of what we want to say or discussing a certain metaphor. We try to figure out what materials and processes work with that. Then we deal with the physical concerns and complications of those materials.

DJ: How do your solo practices differ from your collaborative practice?

DM: They’re just really different in appearance and subject matter. I deal with queer pornography and the representation of sexuality in queer pornography. There are ideas of sexual desire and human appetites. It’s a lot messier than our collaborative work. It’s more painterly. It’s based in materials, but in such a different way that it doesn’t visually look like that work at all.

SS: When you’re working by yourself, you’re by yourself! You don’t have someone else to discuss and bounce ideas off of.  You don’t have this banter back and forth about the way this or that might look. The dialogue, that normally takes place externally is really different. We live together and work at our house, so I can show him stuff I’m working on, but that conversation is with a peer instead of someone you’re collaborating with. 

Stan Shellabarger. "Untitled," 2011, 6-color reduction print woodblock print. Image Courtesy of Western Exhibitions

DJ: So what are your themes like?

SS: I’m mostly doing things performatively, artists’ books, and some print stuff. My work tends to be more process-driven and action-driven as opposed to the collaborative work.

DJ: I was reading about your work [Stan] in an Art Practical article. The writer described your walking books as an accumulation of actions whose gestures then become self-portraits. Do you think of the work as self-portraits?

SS: I don’t know that I think of them as self-portraits, but I definitely think if you’re paying attention then you’ve figured you know something more about me—maybe that I’m OCD [laughter]. I’ve been obsessed with the same activity; walking, art making, various ways of mark making, and various ways of trying to make time evident. I feel like a lot of times, I’m collaborating with time. It’s difficult because it refuses to say anything [laughter]. So I end up having to figure out what the work has to say.

DJ: The article stated that you restricted your distance.

SS: Yeah, when I was doing the walking books a lot of times, the books would make reference to where I was walking. So if it’s a small room then the book is laid out to make reference to that space or that particular spot. I did a really big print (two years ago) that was a six-color reductive woodcut print. It was eighteen feet, which seems really gigantic, but if you’re pacing eighteen feet, it’s not very far to walk back and forth. You really have to change your gait and your stride so that you don’t physically make yourself sick by constantly walking and turning. In that case, I had to restrict myself physically, so I wouldn’t get sick when I was walking and also because it was a really arduous task publishing myself. Dutes assisted in the printing process, but I was inking all the blocks.

At Spudnik Press, I was getting technical assistance from the director, but I was still doing it all myself. There were ten prints per block. Every time I printed, it was around a hundred prints. It got much faster. That was partly because as we went on, the surface area of the blocks was reduced each time. I had to put down less ink. I’m not a printmaker, so I was teaching myself about mixing inks, putting ink on the blocks, pressure, and pulling. It ended up being an immense amount of work. It was almost four or five months of arduously walking, printing things, drying, walking on the blocks again, and getting ready to print again. I was really happy with the end result, but I was always anxious about the way it would look. At color four it looks like shit and at color five it looks fantastic. It’s like, “I still have one more color. What if I fuck it up?” 

Miller & Shellabarger, "Untitled Silhouette (Conjoined 40)," 2010. Image Courtesy of Western Exhibitions

DJ: Let’s go back to the collaborative work. You mentioned the cut- paper silhouettes earlier. What’s your interest in that and antiquated forms?

SS: A lot of it has to do with the accessibility for us as artists. There isn’t really anything high-tech about casting a shadow, but at the same time it can be incredibly expressive. It also means that an audience can look at them and know its cut paper. There’s nothing weird going on. I think people have a real direct tie to the material. They may have cut snowflakes before. They may have done silhouettes at school or at church or something. With that particular material, people have a real direct knowledge of it.

DM: And I think a lot of our work has these really simple materials to them or simple processes. It’s deliberate. When people see it they can have an “in” to start thinking about what the piece is. With the Untitled (Pink Tube) performance, people have a very visceral reaction to it, not just because it’s this long pink thing, but because they understand crochet. They’ve seen people doing crochet.  They have ties to people in their family who did it. All of that comes to mind. It’s easy for people to relate to that piece because they have a direct understanding of that. Every material or process that we do is selected for some sort of representation or metaphor just by the process. With the cameos—they’re very romantic—it’s a gift that people would bring back when they would go on the Grand Tour in the Victorian Age. You would come back and bring your wife a cameo of herself. It’s playing off of what those objects and processes already are.

DJ: So how long have you guys been working on the Untitled (Pink Tube)? How big is it now?

DM:  Since 2003.

SS: It was over sixty feet the last time. It’s in a show in Milwaukee at Inova. That piece then goes to Rollins College in Orlando, Florida. In September we’re going down there for the opening reception to crochet and perform.  It was originally in Bellevue, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. The Bellevue Art Museum (BAM) had a show called The Mysterious Content of Softness.

DM: There’s something about that piece that won’t be evident until it’s “done.” We only work on it together and in public. When one of us can no longer do it (probably because of death), the other person is going to publicly unravel it. Once again it’s this acknowledgement of death and this absolute possibility that it’s going to happen. It also works as a metaphor for our relationship. When the relationship is no longer physically there, it’s going to be unraveled.

Miller & Shellabarger, "Untitled" (Crochet, Basel, Switzerland), 2008. Archival Inkjet Print. Image Courtesy of Western Exhibitions

DJ: That’s kind of the grieving process too. The unraveling is a way for you to deal with that process—a way to mourn.

SS:  Yeah, when we performed in Bellevue, they were excited because a lot people came with questions that only we could answer. One of them was if that [the unraveling] was true or not. People had read about the piece, but they wanted to know if it was really true. We told them that it was true and some of them were really upset. They were just like, “It’s really a shame that all that work would be destroyed and that there wouldn’t be something to donate to a museum or to look at.” On the other hand, there were others who thought it was really fantastic that we would have this thing to do after the other person passed away.

DM: And there’s so much time and memories involved with having gone to so many places and performed. It’s like you’re forced to remember.

SS: I was not near as excited as they were about the unraveling of the piece. There was this woman in her seventies. She was a widow, so she had a different perspective. Her husband had already passed away and she was on another side or something. I couldn’t join her in the excitement [laughter], like at some point in the future it might be me that has to unravel a tube. It did, however, prompt us that evening over drinks with a friend to sit and have a long discussion about parameters for unraveling the tube. It’s not ambiguous now. We came up with clear guidelines for how that might happen, but still leaving a lot of room.

DM: The other person, who has to do it, has to do it, so that there’s some decisions left for them. At that point, you can’t have the conversation anymore. There were some things that were decided before.

SS: There are a lot of conversations where one of us would say something and then be like, “Oh I don’t want to be held to that and I don’t want you to be held to it either, so I don’t think that should be one of the things you have to do.” That was good. It was better to have that conversation than to leave the other person hanging out trying to decide whether they’re doing it the right way.

DJ: It’s interesting hearing about the different reactions.

DM:  One of the great things about performing in public is that you actually get to see and hear peoples’ reactions. People have reactions to art all the time, but artists aren’t always present to hear them or engage in a discussion. You never really know how people are going to react. When we did the Graves piece in Basel, there was a group of three or five Irishman who walked up and saw the piece. They thought it was the most hilarious thing that’d ever seen [laughter].  They were just laughing out loud like, “Oh my God, that’s hilarious.”

SS: Maybe that’s just a cultural thing and the Irish have a different way of thinking about that. There were other people that came up and were very upset.

Miller & Shellabarger, "Sewn Together" (Bone Student Center, Illinois State University), 2011. Image Courtesy of University Galleries


DJ: I think the awesome thing about your performances is that people can talk to you guys. During your Sewn Together performance, I remember having a conversation with Dutes about my life and what I was going to do upon graduation. It’s interesting to sit with you guys now because I’m doing something totally different than what I’d previously thought [laughter].

DM: One of the things you don’t see in the documentation is those exchanges that you have with people. All of those are really a part of the performance, which is part of the reason there is no video documentation of the Pink Tube piece or the Graves piece. I think when people see that they think that they’re really seeing the piece because you’re so used to watching things on television and that being “the thing.” Its like, “No, things are documented. You can get the idea of it, but there’s no replacement for being in the same place at the same time with someone.”

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2 Responses to " Exploring Human Relationships: A Dialogue with Miller & Shellabarger, Pt. 1 "

  1. […] “Exploring Human Relationships: A Dialogue with Miller & Shellabarger.” Read Part I Here. While Part I focuses on the artists overall process as well as various themes and materials that […]

  2. Keith Perks says:

    I was a roommate of Stan’s and would like to get in touch with him. I’m sure other friends would like to hear from him if you could pass this along. Thank you.

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