We’re beelining to Baltimore today for a very special behind-the-scenes hang (and Q&A!) with artist, educator, and farmer Kenya Miles. Miles has two main bases for her creative endeavors—a designated art room at home, and nearby, a 2,400 square foot studio and garden. That larger space and garden (which she tends herself) have given her the opportunity to deepen her long-standing investment in the world of natural dyes and materials, and nurture a community of like-minded creators and enthusiasts. Though her debut edition was a striking, spiritually-imbued print of one of her primary-colored abstract paintings, Miles is also a talented textile and fiber artist. For years, she’s explored earth pigments and natural dyes, and studied a range of surface and structural techniques. These days, her textile pieces are often tinted with dyes made from the spoils of the on-site garden we mentioned. Scroll through the pics of her studios and you’ll definitely get a sense of their multi-functionality.
Don’t stop at the tour pics though—Miles’ In the Studio also includes an interview where she’s planted a bumper crop of insights and interesting info ready for harvest. Get the scoop, for instance, on the paint pens she whips out for on-the-go artmaking, and the intention with which she includes her young son in her everyday art practice. Or maybe you’d like to know more about the hand-occupying activities she turns to for a meditative moment or the singer who provides the soundtrack for her most productive days. Read on! — Team 20x200
Where's your studio?
My studios are located in Baltimore, Maryland. I am fortunate to split my studio time between a dedicated art room in my home and a 2,400 square foot studio and garden I tend, 3 blocks away.
What's your favorite tool in the studio?
My favorite tools in the studio are hands down my multicolored pack of UniPosca paint pens which allow me to create quick drawings several times a day to allow for ease in creating an ongoing body of work over the last 4 years. My other favorite tools are a needle and sashiko thread. I am on conference calls often early in the morning until late in the evening. This allows my hands to be in a mode of creation, embellishing textile pieces I have worked utilizing natural dyes.
What do you wear when working in the studio?
I was raised during the Golden Age of Hip-Hop and have always dressed in a style harkening back to this time. At my home studio I am often in a hoodie of some sort (likely a bleached black hoodie by Dope on Arrival with the words “You study the culture, I am the culture”). Often in a pair of tights or something I can move comfortably in. It’s not a space that I get too messy (while it is often a mess lol) so I don’t have a uniform. In the dye studio I mostly wear clothing that I can get stained and shoes that are closed-toed to prevent injury.
What's on your in-studio playlist?
I am a big Alice Smith fan so I am often listening to her music or watching her live performances. I am also a fan of Eve Ewing, the Chicago poet and critical theorist, and have been listening to her live lectures and conversations with Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates is a Baltimore native and his writing and relationship to the city have been a connective thread for me.
What's the first thing you do when you arrive?
I am a big sweeper lol. I actually just make piles and piles of dirt around the studio and hope nobody trips on them. I like to sweep and think of nothing and everything. It helps to ground me in the time I plan to spend in the studio that day. I love to iron as well. If I am doing textile work, I will just iron to feel like I am completing a task and to bask in the crispness of a well-pressed piece. In my home studio, I might listen to a song I have been aching for, do a quick drawing or read a page or two in a book on plant medicine, artist theory, or indigenous plant wisdom.
What's your work style? Late nights? Intense creative bursts? Slow and steady wins the race?
After having my son, Indigo, 5 years ago I had to readjust to what it meant to be a working artist and a mother. It can be said that women carry the culture. I was very intentional in bringing my son into my studio practice very early on. We often make paints together with earth pigments and soy milk or water colors. We have created several pieces together and separately working alongside one another. If I’m working on a larger piece and need long amounts of concentration, I work while my son is in school (which looks very different during COVID-19) and I work late into the evenings or weekends when he is away. Including Indigo into my practice has been an essential part of his learning. He has seen me farm during long summer days, paint for hours into the evening, and hand sew endlessly as a meditation. I often wonder what his memories will be of me and I work as hard as I can to solidify that devotion to whatever you love yields the sweetest fruit.
Tell us about Blue Light Junction and your long-standing study and appreciation of natural dyes. How does it permeate your fine art practice?
Blue Light Junction is a natural dye studio, alternative color lab, retail space, dye garden & educational facility in central Baltimore. An independently run studio that draws from the education, experiences, and relationships of the Baltimore Natural Dye Initiative (NDI), Blue Light Junction is focused on growing, processing, and preserving the history of natural dyes and their artistic, practical, and commercial applications.
The studio opened in January 2020 and was essentially a divine call for me. Working as an Artist in Residence, farmer, and facilitator during the NDI gave me the resources and connection to community practice I had been longing for in my textile work. Having taught natural dyes for many years prior, I felt a strong urge to cast a wider net to BIPOC communities, and to highlight and uplift legacies and traditions disconnected from the modern natural dye movement. I am constantly in search of ways to incorporate natural materials into my fine art practice, and am looking for greater ways to highlight earth practice into public art and engagement. To say it’s been a dream come true is only stroking one side of the canvas. The work I do is tremendously demanding, and unknowing at times. The enthusiasm, delight, and support of my community has been essential in continuing what I see as legacy work.
What's your favorite way to procrastinate in the studio?
I snack way too much in my studio when I am not quite ready to work. Chocolate and homemade popcorn with yeast are a deep pleasure of mine. I look at old photos or read old poems I have written or quotes and text I have jotted down from one source or another. I also love to string up marigolds in the Fall as a constant meditation. It’s really all a part of the process for me. Even in the unproductive hours, I am creating a space for my hands and heart to align towards some specific response to the feelings that begin to stir up.
Whens, Hows & Whys
When did you first realize you wanted to become an artist and how’d you get there?
I knew when I was relatively young that I wanted to be an artist. My dad was an architect whose career was short lived due to systemic racism. My uncle is also a painter who had a studio in the attic of my grandfather’s house. I had examples through my family of what art looked like, and when I was 14 my dad built an art room for me with his old tools and a drafting table. It was everything to me! My friends would come and sit for portraits and I would illustrate a number of comic strips I was working on for local papers. I attended classes throughout DC and Maryland at many prestigious museum schools. An early entrepreneur, I sold half sheets of paper to fellow students with their names in bubble letters with cartoon characters in the background lol. It was obvious I was only ever going to be an artist. The journey to this point has been one grounded in intuition, faith, and divine guidance.
How do you get over creative blocks?
I don’t lack for ideas. Time is generally what I am running up against. I used to wonder if I would be able to create everything that was pouring out of my head. Now that I am older I am just squeezing as much work into whatever time I can spare. A friend and I were discussing what we did with all our time before we had children, “We were at brunch,” she said. It’s so true!! Sitting around basking in the sun, eating avocado toast, waxing poetic about life and art, all the while not making shit lol. I work in many different materials and I try to do my best to stay connected to each of those practices, whether it’s dyeing, sewing, painting etc. I think that connection keeps the creative waves in motion. I am also an avid dreamer and like to sit in nature and imagine the energy surrounding me carrying me into the work I am meant to create.
What do you like best about 20x200?
20x200 offers a range of art prints and original work which allows for a variety of interests to be fulfilled. I’m one who likes to have art hanging on every inch of their wall with tacks and washi tape. Maybe I shouldn’t admit to hanging higher valued art that way lol but every piece gets the same treatment with me. It’s loved and seen, frame or no frame. The work 20x200 offers feels the same. There are prestigious artists represented alongside contemporary working artists, and it all feels just the same: super accessible.
Which artists' 20x200 collections do you most covet (and why)?
Dorothea Lange’s photo, I am an American, speaks to me for a number of reasons. I can relate as a Black American to the conditions of daily life as an outsider in the country you were born into. I lived in the Bay Area for 11 years (mostly Oakland) and worked in TV News for 10 years. From a historical perspective I often wondered why the internment of Japanese citizens during WWII was a neglected part of the narrative in writing and broadcast TV. What value does history have if it is only told from the perspective of the victors? From a purely aesthetic perspective I love how the classic Ford is still around on the streets of the Bay Area, making it at once contemporary and retro. Black and white too is timeless for me, and offers depth and nuance I don’t often get from color photos.
Why do you think it's important to have a dedicated work space for your art? What advice would you give to artists looking to build a creative work space?
Since 2009, I have had a dedicated studio space of some kind. While living in Oakland, an old friend who I went to SVA with extended the opportunity to share a space with him in his Berkeley studio. I got my sea legs during that time with him. I watched his commitment and practice daily, always showing up, always making. To this day, he is one of my favorite artists. I can see all of those hours of practice and discovery in his work. It was important for me to learn that whatever the work is it must be experienced through practice. If you have something inside of you, in order to discern the good bits from the less desirable, you have to lay it out, shape it, and ask what more it needs. My spaces over the last 8 years have come to include a garden of some kind, which has allowed me to deepen my knowledge of plants and to engage in earth practice alongside my studio work.
The 411 on Kenya Miles
Kenya Miles is the artist & alchemist behind Traveling Miles Studio. Her work primarily focuses on textile and fiber art with an emphasis on earth pigments and natural dyes. Whether quilting, dying rope, hand-painting fabric, or painting canvases, Kenya’s work and process is a ledger of years of wandering and apprenticing around the globe. From the valleys of Oaxaca, Mexico to the red clay roads of Ntonso, Ghana, her work honors ancient practices while harmoniously drawing on a distinctive contemporary voice.