Guess Who? A conversation between an author and her cover artist

A first book is a special moment in an author’s life. After spending years honing my collection of flash fiction, Know the Mother, it came time to find a cover. I spent hours searching online for the perfect art. I wanted something surreal, not literal. I love vibrant colors and didn’t want the book to appear to be a dreary tome full of rhetoric about race and gender. I wanted it to be inviting to women of all races and ages, and for the art to preferably be made by a woman or a person of color. It was a tall order.

I searched “African American surreal art” and the gods of search engines offered up the astounding digital art of Karin Miller. As soon as I saw her work, I knew I wanted it to grace the cover of my book. It was a magical choice. Because of her art, my book won a da Vinci Eye Award for design in 2017.

Miller, it turns out, is not African American, but a white South African. Born in Pretoria, she is an accomplished digital mixed media artist. The married mother of four worked as an information designer in Johannesburg for close to 15 years until she became a visual artist specializing in collage.

Despite being raised on the other side of the world, she plays with the same themes I grapple with in my work: women’s rights, racial equality, ethnicity, classism and beauty. She takes prominent political figures and places them in striking settings, reducing their mystery and power (more on that in the interview below). Her art references religious iconography and highlight the ways the races are connected despite the history of racial strife in South Africa. Better yet, her work is bright, strident and often funny. I was in love.

I was thrilled when she agreed to chat with me about her work:

Desiree Cooper: Your  piece, “Guess Who?,” graces the cover of my book. When I first saw it, it spoke to me profoundly. The classic, 1950s styling of the women reflected the perfect American ideal of womanhood, wifehood and motherhood. The fact that the women have exactly the same faces but are of different races made me smile – we are so much more alike than different. And the fact that each woman is blindfolding the other says how much women participate in gender politics themselves, sometimes becoming their own worst enemies. 

Can you tell me more about the piece, your thought process and the symbolism? 

“Guess Who?” by Karin Miller

“Guess Who?” by Karin Miller

Karin Miller: I created “Guess Who?” in 2011. One of the advantages of being an artist is that I can manipulate my subject, in this instance the ultimate colonial icon, Queen Elizabeth II, into someone else. I wondered what would have been the destiny of a charming, but non-royal, Elizabeth if she had been born and bred in South Africa.

 That’s so funny. I had no idea that the woman depicted was Queen Elizabeth II!

Miller: Artworks are open to interpretation and I love yours!

 What are the drivers of your art? What themes stoke your creativity? 

 Miller: I am, and always have been, interested in cultural dynamics. My art comments on social issues. Religion, politics, sex, race and patterns have been my main themes although I am finding politics becoming rather too overwhelming for me to handle right now.

I use irony to make serious themes more accessible. From political figures to celebrities, I have come to believe that no person should ever be idolized and put on a pedestal. This can be applied to the subject of mothers (and fathers) too. Mutual respect seems to be the answer—respect for each other, for life and for nature. 

 Did you have a formative life experience that shaped you as an artist?  

 Miller: I was born in South Africa in 1957 and have lived though, and experienced, important times and events in history, especially the history of my country. No one born in South Arica can deny that racial and cultural differences add to the complexity of our unique social fabric. Diversity lends interest and vibrancy to our society but also holds the potential for misunderstanding and conflict born of ignorance and a lack of respect for the “other.”    

Themes including the Madonna and Child spool through your work. How does your experience as a mother affect your art?

Miller: I am married with three adult children. As a mother, I have been keenly aware of the significance of every new human life and the huge sense of responsibility it brings.

 Well adjusted kids will hopefully make well adjusted adults who could ultimately make the world a more harmonious, peaceful place.

I can’t thank the Internet enough for giving me a way to find you. As a digital artist, how do you interact with a global audience?

I have a website and a Facebook page. I love the fact that the Internet allows us to communicate with people across the world. My interest in cultural differences, one I have had since childhood, flourishes online. And in a sense, the ability to connect directly with people around the world breaks down barriers and gives us more knowledge, which gives us power. Unfortunately this also means that we are losing our identities as individuals, to a certain extent. I guess that’s a good thing?

 

Karin Miller is represented by the Holden Manz Gallery in Cape Town, South Africa. To view her work, go to: www.karinmiller.co.za

“Self Portrait” by Karin Miller

“Self Portrait” by Karin Miller

The Writing Life: Take my class and turbo-charge your writing!

 Here are five good reasons to stop writing all by yourself:

1.       You don’t become a good tennis player by hitting against the wall. (Just sayin’.)

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2.       You have no idea if your work resonates with readers unless you ask them. 

3.       You need to learn how to take critique—not from naysayers who want to tear you down, but from those who will help you think deeper and reach higher.

4.       You will be unable to kill your darlings on your own. You need accomplices.

5.       You’ll quit if you’re only accountable to yourself. Get a writing buddy or a writing group to help you stay on schedule and produce!

That’s why I’ve teamed up with Writing Workshops Detroit to offer you an instant writing community! Come join like-minded writers of all genres and all levels to talk about the role that narrative plays in your work. We’ll experiment. We will break it down and build it up. We’ll dissect and fiddle. We’ll have fun.

Here’s how we can meet up—take my class!!!

Turbo-Powered Narratives: A Master Class

When: Saturday, November 17, 2018 - 1:00PM TO 4:00PM

Where: Bamboo Detroit, 1420 Washington Blvd #301, Detroit, MI 48226

Class Description: Good writing shares a common element regardless of genre: powerful storytelling. This three-hour class will explore the critical elements of storytelling, and look at examples of story arc in poetry, fairytales, micro fiction and even jokes! Participants will learn how to deploy language to take readers on a journey, whether writing poetry, essays or short stories. The class will be generative and experimental, no need to bring previous work. Perfect for those who are stuck in their writing and looking for new inspiration, or for new writers who don’t know how to get started. 

Photo by Justin Milhouse

Photo by Justin Milhouse

(Skip this part if you already know about me): Desiree Cooper is a 2015 Kresge Artist Fellow, former attorney and Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist. Her debut collection of flash fiction, Know the Mother (Wayne State University Press, 2016), is a 2017 Michigan Notable Book that has won numerous awards, including the 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Award. Cooper’s fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in The Best Small Fictions 2018, Michigan Quarterly Review, Callaloo, Hypertext Review, Best African American Fiction 2010 and This is the Place, among other online and print publications. Cooper was a founding board member of Cave Canem, a national residency for emerging black poets. She is currently a Kimbilio Fellow, a national residency for African American fiction writers.  

READY TO SIGN UP?  (Don’t wait, space is limited!)

New to Writing Workshops Detroit? $55

Returning to Writing Workshops Detroit? $40