GARRY FABIAN MILLER’s recent exhibition “Adore” charted the journey of his life and art as it has evolved over five decades. The word “adore” implies the reverence with which the artist looks at the world around him, the intensity of longing with which he translates what he has absorbed into a variety of media, and the sense of belonging to a specific place.
His early work, made when he was 19, explores the horizon that greeted him every day at his home at Clevedon, as he gazed over the Severn estuary at the far shore of Wales. This series of 40 photos was first shown at Arnolfini in 1987 and is currently being exhibited in the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff. “Môrwelion, The Sea Horizon” captures in a square format with the same horizon line the shifting shapes of sea and sky, sea and cloud, allowing us engage with the mystery of the horizon which exists in the mind’s eye.
The next stage involved abandoning the camera for the direct imprinting of leaves and flowers on to photo-sensitive paper. Leaves were collected and collated into grids which demarcate their changing colours as the seasons shift from spring to autumn. Breathing in the Beech Wood, 2007, 24 days of sunlight depicts the inhalation of life as chlorophyll imbues each leaf with a deepening green. Larger grids of beech and hawthorn leaves, collected over 100 days, represent their lifespan as we observe the shift from green through yellow and gold to a russet red.
From his Quaker roots, Miller has learnt the simple truth of attending to the prompting of the spirit in silence and quiet contemplation, as he gleans each leaf during his walks in familiar places. An early picture of three bramble leaves in the shape of a cross, Risen, 1989, embodies in its freshness the hint of resurrection, reminiscent of Hildegard of Bingen’s theology of viriditas, a greenness that sustains both nature and humanity. She called her visions the voice of the Living Light, and it is light that mediates and permeates Miller’s mystical and visionary work.
His art becomes more abstract as shapes are created in the dark room from light shining through containers of oil or water before interacting with the layers of coloured dye embedded in the Cibachrome photographic paper. He keeps his connection to nature alive by a practice of walking the landscape around his home on Dartmoor. Garry speaks of his body as being “silvered” like sensitised film to absorb the surrounding light and then to transmute what he has experienced into images that transcend specific landscapes and become more universal in scope.
His work is influenced by the Romantic writers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Dorothy and William Wordsworth, and by the artists William Blake, Samuel Palmer, and David Jones. A room painted deep blue included the work of these artists as well as the photography of Julia Margaret Cameron and Bill Brandt, alongside some of the images that Miller had made, inspired by his night walks. The squares and rectangles of complementary colour in his recent work are also influenced by the Bauhaus, in particular the paintings of Joseph Albers.
At the end of the downstairs gallery was a series that records The Dark Room’s Erasure, 2020. As his supply of discontinued Cibachrome paper dwindled and came to an end, Garry had to close his dark room and to change his way of working. His success in making that transition could be seen in the upstairs gallery at Arnolfini. This brought together his large colour field works around an exquisite weaving made by a local Bristol Studio, Dash + Miller, which translated into cotton and mohair the work The Colour Fields: Golden Yellow enclosing Pink/Pink enclosing the Golden Yellow, 2021. The diptych was replicated by the technique of Dobby weaving, which inverts the two colours on each side. Hung high in the gallery, the uncut threads were allowed to cascade in a waterfall of pink and gold to rest in a pool of colour on the ground.
On either side of this gallery were rooms that explore Miller’s life and working practice and displayed his ongoing collaboration with other artists and craftspeople. The realm of the moors and tors around his home was charted by the photographer Nicholas White in a work, The Crucible. White’s large-scale photos hung alongside an OS map of the area with the location of each image marked on it. The presiding genius of this gallery was the figure of a 2400-year-old wooden figure carved from oak which was found buried in waterlogged ground near Kingsteington. The inclusion of this rare artefact denoted the layering of time in the ancient landscape surrounding his home, which is reflected in Garry’s practice of absorbing the landscape, the long exposure to light in the dark room, and further contemplation in his studio barn.
A second room was devoted to the artist’s way of life, showing some of the paintings, engravings and ceramics that he and his wife, Naomi, have collected over the years. Miller speaks of his love of the Arts and Crafts movement and the influence of the working homes of the weaver Ethel Mairet and the engraver Robin Tanner in creating a way of life that he has sought to replicate in his home and studio in Manaton. The importance of the hearth as a gathering place can be seen in a large gun-tufted Hearth Rug, The Golden Light, 2017, placed in the centre of the gallery, with its glowing yellow and red concentric circles created by Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh, in response to one of Miller’s images.
Upstairs was a final room where Garry’s work had been transformed into a meditative place of colour-filled soundscapes in films created by Sam Fabian Miller with the composers Oliver Coates and Kathleen Frances, the sound designer Rowan Bishop, and the poet Alice Oswald. His next collaborative venture involves cultivating three fields of woad, weld, and madder to produce dyes of the primary colours, blue, yellow, and red, which can be processed and made available for artists and craft workers to use in making new work.
The integration of Garry’s life and art, his solitary work in the dark room, his collaboration with other artists, the inclusion of work by those who had influenced him, and the fusion of different art forms made this exhibition a rich experience.
Garry Fabian Miller: “Môrwelion, The Sea Horizon” is at the National Museum of Wales until 10 September.