An Interview with Jo Miller

jo miller here and now pic josh murfitt

Here & Now, a neon text piece, is the first artwork to be shown at the pop-up gallery The Window at Silver Street. Jo Miller, the artist behind the work, talks to Florence Austin about the piece, its links to mindfulness and the personal relevance of the here and now.

Where did your idea for this piece originally come from?

The idea for the work came from my interest in mindfulness. Through reading and research I came across the expression ‘here and now’ and remembered a Guardian Q&A interview. One of the questions is ‘when were you happiest?’ and on more than one occasion the answer has been ‘here and now’. I didn’t understand this and it puzzled me. In recent times, as I discovered and worked at developing a mindful practice, it started to make sense to me.

Where did the concept come from?

In January 2018, I was fortunate enough to be included in PLACE, an exhibition curated by Robert Good and the ALL team. Although ideas about Brexit and the refugee crisis were at the forefront of my mind, I felt I had to explore the theme of place from another, more personal angle on this occasion; one that I felt justly qualified to respond to. Then I just felt stuck and the deadline was fast approaching, I felt quite despaired that I would not be able to respond to the theme. At this point, I sat down at the computer and decided that it was absolutely my last day to work on my response. I typed in “place” and tried to really focus on what it meant to me but nothing resonated. Interestingly, there is a process in making an artwork for me which might involve weeks or months or even years of thought, research and the collection of material but there has to be a moment of absolute clarity for the artwork to take form. All of a sudden, that morning, it came to me. My search for a sense of place, of belonging in time and space was all reduced to the here and now. This is what mindfulness teaches us. A lot of my previous work has been text and language based and within moments from the concept emerging, I knew that the artwork would quite simply be these words and I knew that it would be a neon sign (despite never having used neon before.) The simplicity of that moment of clarity always surprises me. It is not something you can make happen. But as an artist, you have to trust that it will.

What is the relevance of ‘here and now’ to you?

I would say that the relevance for me of the ‘here and now’ is quite personal. In a nutshell, the phrase is central to the practice of mindfulness which encourages us to locate ourselves in the present moment; to strive for a state of active, open, intentional attention to the present. Through simple mindful actions or meditations, mindfulness requires us to focus on the here and now and to stay aware of our present experience. It requires us to stay with our thoughts as they are, neither grasping at them, nor pushing them away. This can be amazingly liberating but staying with our thoughts and feelings is a curious concept when you first discover it. If we feel bad, why would we want to sit with those feelings? The point is that we are made up of all nature of experience and thought and emotion and we cannot expect to only experience the good. But we are living in a society and a time when we are led to believe that we can achieve constant happiness….only it is always dependent on an external source. “I’ll be happy when I get that job, when I’m in a relationship, when I pass my exams.” Our happiness is constantly dependent on external (and frequently material) factors. If we do achieve them, we are likely to remain unfulfilled and vulnerable to life’s events which are outside our control. The idea is that when we feel discounted, or sad or anxious or angry or any other emotion, we sit with that feeling. Remarkably, when we do sit with a feeling or an emotion and if we do manage to objectify it, we are far more able to reduce its negative impact than we are if we constantly try to deny it and push it away or search for an external factor to replace it. I am aware that Mindfulness is something of a hot topic at the moment and I’m keen to stress that I consider myself to be a beginner and therefore no expert in mindfulness practice!

How does mindfulness manifest itself into the work?

It is important to stress that I am not presenting this work as an expert in mindfulness. And further, I do not want to be advocating some evangelical zeal to my art practice. Rather, I am expressing my personal and artistic response to a search for my own sense of belonging in time and space and to find a positive way to anticipate and respond to more difficult and challenging life events, thoughts and emotions. I do like the idea that I can share this simple concept with whoever sees the work in passing, or stops to observe, or reflect or ponder.

How has mindfulness helped you personally?

I have come to mindfulness through my own search for…it is hard to encapsulate it in one word but perhaps I can use ‘peace’. This quest has come about as a result of my own challenging life experiences and through those of the people I love. My study and practice to date has helped me to develop a positive and tangible mindset and to navigate the challenges of life! To try to explain more, I think it is important to separate me as an artist from me as someone who is trying to learn about and cultivate a mindfulness practice. This can possibly be difficult to separate because whilst I feel the work exists in its own right as an artistic expression, I cannot avoid the directness of the text and the message it conveys. However, for me, the words bring comfort and grounding. Whilst the words are in no way meant to act as instruction of any kind, they are a sharing of a philosophy that has helped me and continues to help me.

How do you hope people will interact with the piece?

It is intended as an invitation for reflection, as a point of reference, as a location of the here and now for whoever views it. As I have said, it will of course mean different things to different people, as is always the case with any artwork depending on the experiences the viewer brings to the work. But by using white neon, I do like the idea that it will shine out during the deepest winter months as a point of reference, as an invitation to the viewer to locate themselves in the present moment and to maybe give them a moment of peace.

‘Here & Now’ is currently on display in The Window at Silver Street.

Image credit: Josh Murfitt