A fleeting glance at Natasha Miller’s charcoal and acrylic painting, “Calling Home” reveals a serene coastal landscape in a tranquil cove with rocky outcrops, gazing aspens and muted evening light creating crisp silhouettes. But look again. With bold pops of primary colours, Miller subtly uncovers lives still lived on this wild coast: vibrant saltbox houses perched on cliff tops, clothes fluttering on laundry lines, a red dory tethered to a post, a tire swing tied to a winter-bare tree. Someone still lives here, and yes, Miller tells us, this is home.
Putting down roots on remote Deer Island in the Bay of Fundy is what moved Miller to rediscover her art practice. To aptly articulate the raw beauty of her surroundings, Miller fortuitously created her own composite medium. Using maple charcoal from her Italian wood-fired pizza oven, she creates hauntingly beautiful seascapes and landscapes that visually communicate an evocative east coast narrative. Rapidly gaining momentum and collectibility, Miller is represented in over ten commercial galleries in North America and Europe and in numerous private collections internationally. Currently, her 40-piece exhibition is traveling Europe through a Paris-based gallery while she actively participates in International art fairs like Toronto’s, The Artist Project.
When did you start painting? I have always painted as a hobby and have been painting professionally for three years now. I have been lucky to have very strong, artsy/crafty women in my family on all sides. My mother has always been very supportive and encouraging and my late paternal grandmother was a professional artist. She did a residency at the gallery at the Banff Springs Hotel in the early 1980’s, which is serendipitous as I now have work at the Galerie D’art at the Chateau de Frontenac Fairmont Hotel in Quebec City. Every time I paint a tree, I hear the voice of my grandmother and my aunt, as they taught me the fundamentals of painting and the joy of painting en plein air.
You grew up on Vancouver Island. How did you end up residing on a tiny island on the opposite side of the country? My common law husband and I both worked at Van Isle Marina in the Tsehum Harbour where we met. Eventually, we decided to take a boat from Sidney all the way around Cape Horn to Halifax. We traveled by boat for five years and eventually settled on Deer Island, part of the West Isles in the Bay of Fundy, population 600-700. My husband’s family has roots here going back to the early 1700’s.
How does living remotely inform your work and impact your life as a full-time artist? I don’t think I would have an art career if I didn’t live here. The island has gifted me the need to keep my hands busy and that’s what propelled me to start painting again — the peace and quiet allow me to capture the area’s beautiful scenery and coastal life. My current studio takes up 75% of our tiny house, circa 1890, but we have purchased an old store here on the island and plan to transform it into my studio/gallery.
The closest city to us is Saint John, NB which is an hour-and-a-half away including a ferry trip. I have to mail order most of my supplies (other than charcoal) and I ship 95% of my art to galleries and customers. But island life is quiet in a good way — we are basically hermits and have very few distractions (there isn’t even a restaurant!) so painting all day, every day is really easy to dive into.
Describe your unique style and technique as a charcoal artist. My current style and technique happened by accident. We were operating our mobile wood-fired pizza business at local farmers markets and had piles of charcoal in the yard from the oven. I always loved using Conte crayon, smudging and getting my hands dirty so I figured why not try using some of that charcoal on canvas during the long east coast winters. It was an aha moment that took a lot of trial and error to find a way to make a compound that would stick to the canvas.
I pioneered a technique, material and style that use a combination of charcoal, ash, soot, acrylics and sealers. I think the secret is the high burning oven (1000 degrees) and the soot that accumulates from that. Surprisingly, there are between 40-60 layers on every piece. I do one or two layers every day and work on multiple pieces at once. It’s a time-consuming, messy and often frustrating process but it can also be therapeutic and calming, almost like sculpting.
Your paintings really have a distinctive Atlantic Canada feel without being contrived. What is it you want to communicate in your work? I want to appeal to a broader demographic so I attempt to keep my paintings “coastal neutral.” I want people to be able to place themselves in my scenery or feel a particular familiarity. In general, I try to keep my paintings free of people (other than signs of life) because I want my art to be relatable, like music. I want viewers to make a piece their own memory or imagine it’s their own location or something they just happened upon.
Generally, you just don’t see many people on beaches here, it can be almost lonely or haunting in a way. But, there are a lot of laundry lines here. A lot. Growing up on the “wet” coast, I didn’t really learn how to utilize a laundry line, but now we hang all of our laundry out, year round. It’s one of my favourite things about domestic life here on the island and favourite things to paint.
Tell us about your moody monochromatic colour palette and high contrast silhouettes. I’ve always been partial to the moodiness of black, white, and grey — it’s a naturally occurring palette on our coasts. I love dusk and dawn and attempt to capture the silhouettes that are boldest at those magical times of day. I often paint trees from British Columbia, the east coast and Ontario all together in one piece as a nod to our diverse ecosystems. Boating has played a significant role in my life since I was a baby and boats, particularly red ones, make a significant appearance in my work because I love the pop of colour they give to any body of water.
I spend more time in the studio now than on the water, but my paintings are a summary of all my time spent on or near the water. I rarely use photos for inspiration and just work from images in my mind. The charcoal compound I work with is really finicky and usually determines what the painting will become.
How did you connect with The Gallery at Mattick’s Farm? How is this gallery unique from other galleries? The tea room at Mattick’s Farm holds fond childhood memories for me. A few years ago, I saw the Gallery at Mattick’s Farm on Facebook and just loved the style and feeling of the gallery. It was timely because I had been hoping to find a suitable gallery on the island that I could work with and reached out to the lovely curator, Dawn Casson.
I love Dawn’s diverse range of artists that include pottery and jewelry and other mixed media. Dawn is a gem to work with — she is very supportive and encouraging and my sales have been really good there. Sometimes I have to pinch myself, I feel so lucky to be doing what I love and selling in my hometown.
What are you currently working on and what does the future hold for you? Ever since I took the plunge into the full-time art world, I am grateful to say I am becoming busier and busier. I now have a running five-month waitlist for commissions and have new opportunities popping up all the time. I am currently represented in Canadian galleries in Halifax, Charlottetown, Saint John, Quebec City and Victoria and would love to add representation in the prairies and Ontario. I also hope to do more International Art Fairs and am currently exhibiting at the annual The Artist Project in Toronto — Canada’s largest contemporary art fair. We also plan to get the studio/gallery here on Deer Island up and running sometime soon.