Melissa Miller, American, born 1951
Oil on canvas
90 × 60 × 1 1/2 in. (228.6 × 152.4 × 3.8 cm)
Museum purchase funded by The Brown Foundation, Inc., Betty Moody, Jennifer and Scott Clearman, Diane and J. Ronald Sandberg, Dunn and Brown Contemporary, and Deborah D. Dunkum in honor of Alison de Lima Greene
Habits of Mind
- COMMUNICATE Verbalize ideas, thoughts, feelings / ask provocative questions / ask for support
How to Be a Gatekeeper of Information:
Understanding Micro vs. Macro
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
- Beginning of year, establishing habits of mind, close observation, Thinking SmARTer
- The importance of detail
- Labeling and understanding Parts of Speech—nouns and verbs
- Reading strategies: Making connections and inference, finding text support for conclusions/THEME
- Writing strategies: Author’s focus and choice of perspective/point of view/THEME
Connecting to the Work of Art
Houston native Melissa Miller explores the human condition through allegorical landscapes filled animals in the rocky countryside of central Texas. The artist’s daily observation of her local landscape inspires her powerful paintings of imagined scenes. Her narratives resemble the fables of Aesop and Charles Perrault where animals stand in for humans as metaphors for morality and ethics. While Miller’s fables range from lighthearted courtships to mortal struggles between species, the artist ultimately aims to both depicts animal’s interactions in their native environments and her frustrations with her own world.
Although at first glance Miller’s Tapestry appears as an idyllic pastoral scene, upon closer inspection the wild dogs, broken farm equipment, trash, and skeletal remains expose a scene of abandonment and isolation. Through her handling of composition and color, Miller creates an image of despair and neglect that surround that harsh reality of farm life. The animals appear isolated within a landscape dotted with the ruins of farming equipment. Rust and discoloration inform viewers that these once powerful machines are now disregarded and decaying while their sharp points and rough edges emphasis their mincing and dangerous nature. The juxtaposition of the man-made objects within a rural landscape upsets traditional understanding of a landscape painting.
Miller focuses the viewer on this desolate landscape through her lack of a horizon line. In doing so, the artist creates a feeling of isolation by depicting the animals that inhabit the same physical space yet do not interact. Additionally, the cool color palette of greens and blues casts a sense of unease onto the scene. Painted with visibly thick brushstrokes, the blue ground serves as a backdrop for the more realistic images of the animals. Moreover, it takes them out of the ordinary realm of dirt and grass and places them into an unknown space where Miller can comment of issues that are bigger than the everyday actuality of the farm.
Miller showcases her familiarity with the history of art through references to the stacked, vertical composition of medieval tapestries, the cool tones and isolated elements of Giorgio Morandi’s still-lifes and the flatness of Japanese scroll painting. Yet beyond these formal ties to the past, Miller’s deep connection and concern for the native landscape of Central Texas leads the artist to create a painting that speaks to the destruction of the natural environment by the hand of humans. The forgotten relics of machinery acts as reminders of human presence while the barbed wire fence that runs through the lower half of the composition informs viewers this is a marker of someone’s property. The fence with its potentially dangerous barbs places the blame of the destruction of the land onto the human need to own property yet their disregard to maintain and care for the land.
While the artist focuses on Central Texas, this scene of despair could be experienced in many farming communities across the United States. As curator Alison de Lima Greene stated, “In an era when we are becoming increasingly aware of our careless stewardship of this planet, Miller quietly warns us of what is at stake.” Through her allegorical scene that depicts the consequence of human inference with a natural environment, Miller reminder viewers of their responsibly as caretakers for our native surroundings.
- What do you notice about this painting? Look closely at the background, middle ground, and foreground.
- Notice the various groups of animals. How would you describe their interactions with each other?
- Describe the location. Can you tell that this is a dilapidated farm? What are the signs of this devastation in the painting?
- What types of objects are depicted in ruins? Are these objects typically found in nature, or are they man-made?
- Consider how the groups of animals and objects are arranged in the painting. Compare this composition to a traditional landscape that includes a horizon line. How does the exclusion of the horizon line allow viewers to focus on the land itself?
- Compare the blue/green background with the images of the animals. How would this artwork be different if the background was painted realistically?
- What other visual clues are juxtaposed in the artwork? For example, animals are placed within groups but do not interact.
- Explain how the stacked, vertical composition projects a sense of isolation. What other words could describe the tone of this painting?
- How do the sharp points and rusted surfaces of the machinery add to this feeling of unease?
- Notice the blue tones used throughout the work. What associations do we have with the color blue? How would the mood of the painting change if the artist used more red tones?
- What do you think the artist is trying to communicate to the audience with the juxtaposition of the derelict man-made objects placed within the rural landscape?
- How do the contractions in the image add to the feeling of tension in the work of art?
- What personal connections can you make with this image? Are you reminded of something when you look at it?
- Have you been to a farm or driven by a similar scene? How would it feel to be standing in the middle of this scene?
- While there are not any humans depicted in this painting, how does the artist reference human presence?
- Are there bigger issues to explore here? For example, man’s interactions with the land, the loss of small farms through communities.
- How does this painting make a statement about humans’ responsibility as stewards of the land?
Connecting to the Classroom
- (First round use of art) ALL questions on conversation starters, such as what do you notice about this painting? Look closely at the background, middle ground, and foreground. This is an excellent painting to come back to several times throughout the year as new language arts concepts are introduced.
- GRAMMAR LESSON—Revisit painting and ask: Let’s label all the things we see in the painting. Can we group them as to type (goal—identification of “labels” for word patterns—nouns—proper/common/collective). Then, as follow-up, let’s identify some labels we can give for what the animals are doing (goal—identification of “labels” for word patterns—verbs). Revisit: Can we make any statements about the painting? For example, what is the difference between “The dogs scavenge for food.” vs. “The dogs are in the foreground.” (Goal—identifying the difference between action verbs and state of being verbs.)
- READING— [Developing an understanding of TEXT EVIDENCE] Revisit painting and ask: Let’s look at the painting again. What are the animals doing? What is strange about the artist’s choice of animals? What CONCLUSIONS can you reach about the artist’s choices? What SUPPORT do you find in the painting for those conclusions?
- READING—Revisit painting and ask: Let’s look at the painting again. Can you make any CONNECTIONS to anything you have experienced? Can you make any CONNECTIONS to things that have happened in Houston, other cities, or countries? Can you make any CONNECTIONS to any stories we have read? (Goal—understanding that readers make connections to themselves, the world, or other literature when they read).
- READING—THEME. Revisit painting: What “Big Message” do you think the artist is making through the choices of subject? In literature, we call this “Big Message” the THEME. (Follow-up with read-aloud and class discussion relative to THEME. Follow-up question—How does this “Big Message” of Tapestry relate to the THEME we discovered in [name of short story read in class to illustrate theme].
- Have students make a list of the “NOUNS” in the painting. What descriptive ADJECTIVES can they use to describe the specific NOUNS in the painting?
- Have students write simple and compound sentences with specific nouns and vivid verbs, relating to the activities they observed in the painting.
- Have students write a “reader’s response” to the painting, CONNECTING to it.
- Have students write a “reader’s response” to the painting, highlighting the TEXT SUPPORT statements in the response.
- Have students write a “reader’s response” to the painting, exploring the painting’s THEME.
Subject Matter Connection
In reading and writing, attention to detail is important. By observing Tapestry and its familiar subjects, students can put into practice the art of observation, and those observation skills can be repeated and re-emphasized throughout the school year when students observe works of art, read, or prepare to write. Because the subjects of Tapestry are familiar, students should be more comfortable about communicating their thoughts and verbalizing their ideas about this work, skills that carry over into both group and independent language arts practice activities and assessments. Although the subjects of Tapestry are simple, the overall theme of the painting is complex; therefore, the work is ideal for working with students on their ability to analyze and synthesize relationships. This habit of mind is important to the language arts curriculum because analysis and synthesis are central to understanding more difficult concepts such as theme or cross-genre comparisons.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.