Claire Milner, from Marilyn Monroe to the Tiger Burning Bright!
1. What would you do if you had magical powers for a day?
That’s a very big question! I would begin by bringing climate change to that attention of our political leaders. I would make them aware that it is a reality, that it is happening now. That not only must difficult decisions be taken to mitigate it, but they must also be prioritized with urgency, with everyone working together on a courageous long-term vision, ahead of short-term individual political agendas and financial vested interests.
2. How would you describe your life as an artist? What does a typical day look like?
I don’t really have a typical day, it depends what I’m working on. I stick to normal hours as far as possible, but if I’m preparing for an exhibition or event, or if I have to meet a deadline for a commission, I often end up working into the night. Some days I need to meet a client or gallery to discuss a project or exhibition, or do interviews for newspapers, magazines or radio. The great thing is that no two days are ever the same.
3. What drew and inspired you to become an artist?
I was passionate about art as a child and it was always my intention to be an artist. Because I graduated during a recession I took the decision to work as a graphic designer and illustrator in London after my degree. This was a fabulous experience in learning how to work to a brief and to meet deadlines and a budget. During this time I was commissioned by many large corporations and publishing companies. My interest in portraiture developed when my portrait of Michael Faraday appeared on the cover of an important science journal and I was commissioned to illustrate portraits of Chancellors Gordon Brown and Nigel Lawson. This led to further portrait commissions of politicians, Central European Bankers and company CEOs such as Sir Terry Leahy, Sir Martin Sorrell and Lord Browne. During this time I was also creating my own works and taking part in group exhibitions. One of the works I created at this time was inspired by my travels in Africa and was entitled ‘Mother and Child’. It was exhibited in Cambridge and used in a campaign by CamFed, who also commissioned me to create a series of similar artworks for the charity, which was founded by the inspirational Anne Cotton and helps fight poverty in Africa by educating and empowering girls.
4. What is your favourite animal and why?
I love all animals, but elephants have a very special place in my heart. They are sentient, intelligent beings, who have strong social bonds. They show great empathy and mourn for lost family members. They bring tears of joy to my eyes, and of sorrow, for what is currently happening to them. I defy anyone to be unmoved by the sight of one of these majestic creatures with its face hacked off by poachers, all for the sake of greed and vanity, or to resist being touched by watching the adorable antics of an elephant calf.
A quote I love to describe elephants is from The Tree Where Man Was Born by Peter Matthiessen: “There is mystery behind that masked gray visage, and ancient life force, delicate and mighty, awesome and enchanted, commanding the silence ordinarily reserved for mountain peaks, great fires, and the sea.”
5. Do you have any regrets? What would you change?
I wouldn’t change a thing. Everything that’s happened has brought me to where I am now. I’m very grateful to have a wonderful husband, family and friends and to have a vocation that fills my days with creativity that I can use to give back to causes I am passionate about. As long as you live and work with integrity, there is no reason for regrets.
6. What is your greatest strength and greatest weakness?
Here are two examples that can be both!
I’m passionate about my work and the causes I care about. This is great for the message that comes across in the subsequent art I create; the flip side is I feel tremendous pain at the suffering I witness.
I am a perfectionist. On the bright side, this is excellent for intricate work and paying great attention to detail. However, it means I’m always striving for the impossible!
7. Where is your favourite place in the world? Describe it.
I have travelled extensively in Africa and South America and have a great love of both continents, but if I must choose one particular place other than the beautiful North Yorkshire countryside where I live, it would be Rome, Italy where my husband is from. I love to walk for hours in the city taking in the sights, sounds and smells that have become a second home to me.
8. How would you like to be remembered?
I don’t really think too much about being remembered, I prefer to do something good while I’m here, but it would be nice to say that my work helped raise funds and the public consciousness for important issues.
9. What compelled you to get involved in art that champions conservation?
I prefer art to be meaningful, even political, rather than painfully introspective or purely decorative. To quote Picasso, “Painting is not made to decorate apartments. It’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.” Mortality, and the conflict between civilization and the natural world are recurring themes in my paintings. I am currently working on “Wipe Out And Fade Away”, the second phase of the endangered collection. In contrast to their brightly coloured crystal mosaic predecessors, all of these works are monochromatic oil paintings and depict the creatures as if fading from memory. They allude to Picasso’s war painting “Guernica” to symbolize war on poaching.
Artists throughout history have chronicled the important issues of the day; similarly I want to create work that inspires people to engage in a universal subject, reaching a tipping point in my own lifetime. Climate change, the environment, conservation and habitat loss are all issues that could have devastating implications for the human race as well as for animals, and they represent some of the biggest challenges we face. The responsibility for the future of the planet is ours, but we have to act now. I’m not a conservationist, so instead of feeling powerless I lend my voice through my art. As the late, great Robert Rauschenberg said: “The artist’s job is to be a witness to his time in history.”
10. Do you live sustainably at home?
I always try to do my best in this respect. I am a lifelong vegetarian; I use vegan glue in my work and I live as sustainably as possible, with a low carbon footprint.
11. What are you most proud of?
It’s obviously a privilege that large corporations and celebrities such as Rihanna own my work, but I’m most proud that my art has raised thousands of pounds for conservation charities. Most recently my tiger painting, “Burning Bright” created with 32,000 Swarovski crystals, which shockingly represents ten times the number of tigers left in the wild, was exhibited at Hotel Café Royal, and auctioned at a black tie event at The Savoy Hotel, London in October in aid of Save Wild Tigers, The Born Free Foundation and The Environmental Investigation Agency.
12. What was it like to immortalise Amy Winehouse and Marilyn Monroe in Swarovski crystals? How long does each piece take?
In August 2010 I was commissioned to create the large-scale portrait of Marilyn Monroe in Swarovski crystals for Rihanna. The process was a sustained period of total focus; I worked over Christmas, seven days a week, and many nights. It took four months to create the portrait, six including the design and research stage. Rihanna was on her “Last Girl on Earth” tour during the creation process, so the designs were agreed prior to this. Before I began, I researched Marilyn’s life in detail to decide how best to capture the complicated and contradictory aspects of her personality, the glitter and public facade, the vulnerability and sadness in her eyes. I wanted to emphasize the person behind the headlines and avoid a typical blonde Marilyn. As she said herself: “It takes a smart brunette to play a dumb blonde”. I decided on my eponymous “Blue Marilyn”, after being inspired by her own words. She said: “People are used to looking at me as if I were a kind of mirror instead of a person. They don’t see me, they see their own hidden thoughts.” The crystal portrait visualises this concept, revealing the viewer’s own reflection, making observer and observed integral to the overall image. It is a larger than life reference to celebrity, enhanced by the intrusive close-cropped composition; so too is the second minimalist portrait I painted on the reverse, portraying Norma Jean Baker which represents the private side of the dichotomy of fame. This second portrait was created only to face the wall, hidden and unseen, whilst its crystal mirror image stares out at the world; a nod to her alter ego, Marilyn Monroe.
Once finished, the portrait weighed 80kg and required five men to load it onto the transportation from my studio where it began its journey to Rihanna’s home in the U.S.A. in February 2011. The most rewarding aspect of this commission was the overwhelming reactions of all kinds of different people who saw the original and said I had captured the ‘essence’ of Marilyn, many of whom said she looked like she was about to speak. Even though it is impossible to replicate this effect in photographs or online, the subsequent reactions to the portrait via publicity which emerged the following year were also touching and meant a great deal to me.
The portrait of Amy Winehouse is similarly entitled “Blue Amy”. It is a mixed media portrait incorporating quotes and textual information about Amy Winehouse. The portrait is painted as a mirror image as a metaphorical reflection on her life and musical career and accolades. This piece is now owned by the Amy Winehouse Foundation and is primarily a painting, which includes some Swarovski Elements. This work took 2 -3 weeks to complete. As you can see, the timescale very much depends on the size of the work and the materials involved in making it.
13. Who is your great hero or heroine and why?
I will have to answer in the plural:
An individual hero would be Emmanuel de Merode, conservationist and Chief Warden of Virunga National Park; a world heritage site which was threatened by the oil industry and inspired my painting “Darkness Visible”; who, with a team of Congolese rangers, works to protect the park’s exceptional wildlife, amidst a region ravaged by civil war. These people devote their lives to making a difference, even if it means putting their own lives in jeopardy when they are on the frontline in the fight against poaching.
My particular heroines include Virginia McKenna O.B.E. for her resolve that the welfare of individual animals be central in conservation activities and for her dedication through the Born Free Foundation to keep wild animals in the wild and not in captivity. Also Dame Daphne Sheldrick who founded the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, who perfected the milk formula to sustain infant milk-dependent elephants and rhinos. The Trust’s Orphans Project rehabilitates Kenya’s threatened elephant and rhino populations, which face poaching, habitat loss, deforestation and drought. So far over 150 infant elephant orphans have been reintegrated back into wild herds, resulting in wild-born calves from former-orphaned elephants.
14. What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a large private commission, which requires discretion, so that’s about all I can say about it. After that is finished I have two more private commissions to complete, for Italian and British clients. At the same time, I’m creating a new collection of artworks, to be exhibited next year.
15. How will you spend Christmas?
Christmas will be spent quietly with family. New Year, noisily with friends!
16. Favourite film of all time and why?
I remember watching the film Born Free as a child and it had a very strong impact on me. I was lucky enough to meet the film’s star, Virginia McKenna, earlier this year, who is a wonderful and inspirational person, still working tirelessly for conservation through the Born Free Foundation.
17. What or who inspires you work?
I live by the motto of the brilliant artist Chuck Close who said: “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and get to work”. That being done, I am inspired by nature and my desire to use my work as a visual highlight of important issues such as the human impact on the environment. From this starting point I am further inspired by the extensive research I carry out into my subject. I like to tie it all together by giving the work a connection to art history, taking inspiration from ancient, renaissance, modern and contemporary art. You will also find references to classical literature including Dante Alighieri, Alexander Pope and Shakespeare as well as Latin statements in my work. I suppose I take a Shakespearean approach, creating art that has a humorous or tragic quality with a deeper meaning beneath the surface.
18. What drew you to work with Swarovski Elements Crystals? What is it like to work in this pop art medium?
From about 2007 I started including crystals in my mosaics. I wanted to combine the skills of an ancient art form dating back to the third century BC, with a medium that is synonymous with high fashion and luxury in order to create contemporary crystal mosaics. The work had to be rooted in the historical mosaics of the past whilst at the same time exploring a contemporary medium. The added appeal was that no one was doing anything similar at the time. The technique I use highlights the andamento or “flow” of the crystals and shows the structure of the subject in the same way as an ancient mosaic, reinterpreting my studies of Roman and Byzantine mosaics in a painterly way. Swarovski has described my technique as “Painting with Crystals”. These crystal artworks have a third dimension and are tactile, constantly changing mood depending on the intensity of light and the position of the observer. In sunlight they refract light in a rainbow spectrum and in the semi dark, they take on the appearance of a hologram, which is an extraordinary effect that no other medium can convey.
There has been a natural evolution from my early work in paper collage, mosaic and hole punch dots to my later work with Swarovski crystals, painting and mixed media. Each process involves deconstruction and reconstruction. Each progression has the underlying intention of breaking things down into their constituent parts and building them up again. This means that the process of making the works has a direct relation to the subject matter; a metaphor for what we are doing to the planet and a reminder to pay attention to minute detail and the big picture simultaneously. The reflective medium of the crystals doubles as a physical manifestation of “reflection” meaning to give careful thought. In this case to question our consumer driven world and “selfie” culture and to literally mirror a society where people, animals and inanimate objects are valued mostly for their physical appearance or appeal as commodities.
19. What brings you the greatest joy?
Definitely my husband – he’s the best!
20. Where are you happiest?
I love to experience nature and watch wildlife, anywhere in the world. Even a simple birdsong can be a beautiful experience. Ultimately though, I feel most at home working in my studio.
21. What advice would you give to your younger self?
Be fearless, and don’t put your dreams on hold!
To find out more about Claire’s Work visit – www.claire-milner.co.uk
Claire Milner was in conversation with journalist Alison Jane Reid. Copyright Alison Jane Reid/Claire Milner All Rights Reserved. December 2015