Gloom 101: T. M. De Vos interviews Robbin Milne!

I’m intrigued by the animals you depict—the owl, the cat, the tyrannosaurus—and I’m curious as to what in these animals speaks to you. Are they avatars for a human quality, or do you instead admire their anatomy, their movement?

First, in summary, I paint to express something very internal, not always something I’m aware of, but I do start with a thought—an inspiration or something I need to say when I begin a piece.

The animal images come from many things. I am drawn to birds specifically, and animals that show emotion or strength: usually in their posture or their eyes. You ask about the dinosaur, which was done specifically for a band: there was no real emotion for me except to make it big and bright and strong-looking.

The owl was taken from an image of a blue owl. I was moved by it and have become more intrigued with owls in general since drawing the one you see. The cat felt forlorn, and I tend to be drawn into that space with any subject: the longing, the forlornness, the sadness of the creature.

What struck me about your portraits–”A. Roy,” “Peter,” “Chris,” “Brooke,” even “Owl” and “Kitty,” to name a few—is how dramatic and indelible the eyes appear, as if the subjects have a private grief. How intentional is this effect, and how do you create it?

There is no intention at all. When I draw, I draw what I see; I am looking and just trying to get the essence or resemblance at some level. I don’t plan to make eyes or any part of the drawing look a certain way. It may be the images I’m drawn to create have a certain feeling for me, but it is unintentional. I look for something that is compelling to me.

The relationship between several of your portraits and newsprint is thought-provoking—even haunting, with the way the faces seem to grow almost organically from the page. I’m curious about “A. Roy,” “Helen,” “Meg,” “Brooke,” “Malewski,” “Chris,” “Model,” and “Michael Dolman” and their relationships with the pages on which they’re painted. How much does the text already printed on the page “speak” to the portrait? How much is the viewer meant to see and respond to the text in tandem with the painting?

The pieces on newspaper have many stories. The whole process started in a life drawing session when I ran out of paper. I looked around, because the model still had time left, and found newspaper in the corner of the studio.

I kept that drawing on the wall in my studio for years to remind me of that experience and to stay loose in my drawing and not tied to “outcome.” The end result is not precious but, instead, the “process” is what is important. I began again to draw on newspaper because of the response I kept getting from the public during open studios. I finally sold the original piece to a client after she hounded me for years for it. So I began making others.

Text is important to me. I am a writer, too. I became a painter after taking an art class while working on my English degree. I found drawing and painting a way to express things sometimes words couldn’t.

Those images you mention have stories too:

“A. Roy” is Arundahti Roy, the peace activist and writer. She is inspirational to me, and the image seemed compelling.

“Meg” and “Brooke” are both actresses and glamour queens. I just felt it important to show beauty on a piece of newspaper that was so impermanent. The text compels me to use the page I use—not necessarily in context with the image I choose to draw, but sometimes they do relate. In Meg, her clenched fist felt right over the text… basically, all the newspaper pieces have something compelling to me when I begin: the text for the text alone, the image for the image alone. Then, when they are together, it makes another piece altogether. I like using newsprint for the layers of meaning, as I do in most of my work.

“Malewski” is a very fine photographer of models and fashion. I met him through social networking; he wanted me to do a drawing for him. I felt it compelling to use his eyes and hand. His own self-portraits and the text, to me, were appropriate.

“Model” was feeling very fragile to me and, over the text and imagery of sports, I liked the contrast. So each has their own story.

Michael Dolman is a local Southern California singer and songwriter whose music is compelling to me. He sings about the tough stuff: the social and political climates of our world and his local community.

“Helen” is a model and, I felt, she was somewhat exploited; using her image over the text, “Silver belles.” seemed appropriate to me.

In your abstract work, the female figure appears frequently, often as an outline or silhouette, and always in vivid, startling contrast. Even in a work like “There,” which seems to defy any narrative a viewer might want to impose upon it, the feminine shape still feels central to the work. In this work, the figure seems ethereal, almost an astral body; she seems focused upon, or drawn by, the light part of the canvas seems to be drawing her. What does she see, or perceive in some way that is not seeing?

In “Here” and “There,” both were made together, another story that confirms for me the process rather than the outcome. I was painting both as abstract pieces. There was no thought of figures. Part of my process is putting on paint—layers—and removing them, layering and layering. I took sandpaper to these two pieces, and the female figure appeared before my eyes. This is why i firmly believe that painting is part beginning, continuing the process of creating, and then mostly getting out of the way: recognizing when the painting is speaking to me about what decisions to make next. It’s the reward of painting. It’s the reward of process. I did continue to paint “Here” and “There,” both then becoming a story for me. She longing, being here on a shore; he there, wanting to be with her and not able to be.

When I showed them, they were both purchased within an hour of the opening, and I’ve had requests to have more like those made. Those two are special pieces. There is no way to replicate them. But instead, if stay true to my process, I feel I honor what happened in those two pieces. With the original life drawing on newspaper I’ve done so. I remain open to the process. I show up, I paint from my heart and, if someone responds to them, I’m happy.

I’m noticing that your nature works–photographic and oil—show interest in rock formations or trees. It’s interesting to think about these natural objects in tandem with your depictions of the female form: on one hand, rocks and trees could be thought of as masculine, even phallic; on the other, their curves and clefts echo the female form in many ways. How do these reflections of the human animal in the mineral and vegetable inflect your views of nature and our relationship to it? Is there a closer female relationship with nature as a result?

To answer specifically, I do tend to see figures in trees and nature, not necessarily female, but organic shapes tend to be more female and figurative.

My photography centers around nature; the images show time and place and talk a lot about the daily passing of life. I like showing natural composition and juxtapositions: the shadows of nature layering over a manmade structure, or light becoming another shape or form, so there are many opportunities with nature.

Whether photography, painting, drawing—any of the media I use—the layers are dense. My paintings are about texture and color and subject, but also all have writing and drawing underneath, and throughout. What becomes the final piece is less important to me than the process of making it. It’s why many of my pieces take more time to create: I live with them for awhile, as I did with the mermaid series or my “spirit of the tree.”

That said, I tend to work quickly when I work, and I have also been spending time doing a daily practice of creativity. I am still working on both of those series in conjunction with new work and a daily practice of either sketching or photography—as sort of a journaling. My newest fascination is for daily work using the iPhone applications to modify my images, either photography or images of art I’ve made. There are so many ways to create.

Figures do tend to filter into my work, which is why I dub myself an abstract figurative painter. Now I’ve expanded my concept of myself to a visual artist, because I find that saying I’m a painter doesn’t describe the diversity of images I’m creating.

Engaged with the ropy coils of something like seaweed, but perhaps more constricting, the “mermaids” also invite inquiry. The shapes of their bodies are undulating, organic, reminiscent of the waves themselves, yet there is a trapped feeling, something “stuck” about them—particularly Numbers 10 and 11. Number 10 is imprisoned by some intelligent sea vine and Number 11’s own hair seems to be alive and about to smother her: these are not Disney images of the mermaid. What can we learn from your mermaids about femininity? About beauty?

My mermaids: again, a bit of complexity in a simple form. I am still actively working on this series, and it’s now been about 4 years. I have about 15 small canvases, and a large 9’ by 4’ mural.

These forms say many things to me: with them I explore sexuality, independence, and environment. I have not yet come to terms with the series as a whole. The forms take on dancerlike movement; I danced myself for awhile in my younger life and find the movement necessary to create mermaids. The sea is a very deep and satisfying environment, and I have a huge concern for it, so I am using the space for my mermaids with much more than just “mermaids belong in the ocean,” and more in wanting to depict a place that is also fragile and needing care. Much is to come from this series yet and, you are right, these are NOT Disney mermaids. I hope to have more of a storytelling quality to the images, a deeper musing.

Turning toward your non-figurative work, I feel a synesthesia between movement and color. “Time1,” for example, struck me as a very kinetic piece. The crimson strokes remind me a little of Chinese calligraphy, whose appearance on the page can betray something of the writer’s mood and speed. While “Time1” was by no means perfectly round or clocklike, it does invite a cyclical sort of gaze: the line back on itself, the red on one side comments on the red on the other, the white emerges from beneath every section and makes itself known. These repetitions and duplications seem to parallel the ways memory intrudes upon the present and the ways we reenact similar patterns in different times. Without imposing my own interpretation on the work, I’m curious to know how deliberate this effect was and what this piece reflects about your own concept of time.

Again, I’m intrigued and it is most rewarding for me to hear people’s interpretation and what they see in my work, because even as I begin a piece with a certain thought or theme, the work (to me, if it’s a successful work) will begin to tell me what and where it needs to go. That said, if I allow myself to be out of the way, meaning not thinking too much, but letting my hand and the medium be most present, then I find it’s almost a natural process and the piece begins to take shape. In these pieces, like a lot of my work, it’s about documenting: time and place and markings…so if that comes through, I feel it to be successful.

My last question is about the audience for your art rather than the works themselves. I’m interested in how you’ve used the Internet to expand the viewing community for your work, and whether you use it alone or in conjunction more traditional exhibitions. I’m also curious to know how many viewers—I noticed you received quite a few positive messages on RedBubble—contact into deeper dialogues about meaning and process after looking at your portfolio online.

Let me thank you for inquiring about my work first and taking the time to look at the work with curiosity and care.

When I graduated from Mills College, my intent was to work like crazy and have two to three shows a year. I did that for about the first five years after graduating. I do look for venues and have open studios in the traditional fashion; I have also had a gallery represent me for a short time.

I felt an online presence was needed to expand my potential and to show the work more consistently. I went to social networking sites because I didn’t feel my own webpage was getting enough exposure. I have been fortunate to expand my viewing audience to all parts of the world. I have also been fortunate to have sold some work and been commissioned for work around the country and in Europe. That being said, I find it a double-edged sword. I am one person, and keeping up pages and producing the work sometimes conflict. Redbubble was put up because I had so many inquiries as to purchasing prints of my work. I am not always diligent in keeping up with the online presence.

There is not a deeper dialogue with the online presence: there is exposure, but I find it fleeting. I feel, when the work is hanging in a space (not necessarily a gallery), that there is more room for experiencing the work and dialogue. It’s just not feasible to have the traditional shows all the time. Ther is a certain pressure now I feel for artists to be showing their work virtually. I find it enormously difficult trying to balance the time producing the work and promoting the work, let alone really having any serious creative dialogue. I am grateful for what the Internet has done to expand my horizons, both in connecting with other artists and in allowing my work to be seen.

T.M. De Vos

Published by lenavanelslander

Lena Vanelslander swam many waters. History, Comparative Culture Analysis, Languages, Mythology, Literature, Poetry, too many to sum up. After a life of tribulations the turning point came in her mid twenties: she started to write actively poetry in English. Her melancholic and darkminded nature colour her poems to an individual signature in both time and space. Poems got published in the Stray Branch, Savage Manners, the Delinquent and The Sylvan Echo. Her first chapbook ‘Ma Chanson de Rien du Tout’ has been released in September this year. Her first book of poetry, written with Marilyn Campiz, Quills of Fire, will appear in November 2009. Currently she edits writers' profiles for and

2 thoughts on “Gloom 101: T. M. De Vos interviews Robbin Milne!

  1. Being this article is about me, it’s very difficult for readers to imagine or visualize any of the images we speak of here, so it feels like a pretty private conversation, please check out my webpage currently being updated for more current work, and the redbubble site to view the images spoken about here in the interview…

    you can go backward and forward from the page i linked here.

    thanks Tiffany, I was hoping for some of the images to be viewable in the interview.

    Robbin Milne

  2. Hey Robbin,

    I posted this for T. … I do understand and honestly I tought about it, but at first hand it wasn’t actually clear to me which images you were talking about.

    This will get better in the future as T. M. De Vos will be able to post everything herself 🙂


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