Art Activist Geralda Miller Part 2

October  2018



Text Oliver X

Burning Man photos by David Hill

Photo of Geralda Miller at Homage in downtown Reno by Oliver X

Art Activist Geralda Miller

Oliver X: What attracted you to a story?


Geralda Miller: Typically, stories about race. I was always the one who wanted to write about race issues, most importantly. That was something that I tried to do. Even in Detroit when I moved there I would do that. Feature stories, as well as stories about drive-by shootings. I wanted to write those stories. I did a great feature story on Judge Greg Mathis.


Oliver X: [Laughter]. Oh yeah? Was it kind?


Geralda Miller: [Laughter]. Yes, it was...[Laughter].  He lives out in a Detroit suburb so I had to write about this man.


Then 9/11 came. I was in Detroit when 9/11 came and I will never forget that day. I had to write a lot of stories about the Michigan people who were killed. It was calling people; calling family members and asking them about their dead loved ones...I kept saying to them that I hope I was contributing to their loved ones' legacies and write that. It was really moving. It was touching. It was hard.


Oliver X: Talk about how curiosity helped fuel your professional careers in both journalism and art?


Geralda Miller: Well, I am always asking questions. I'm always asking 'Why?'


Oliver X: Were you always curious since you moved around a lot as an Air Force brat?


Geralda Miller: Yes. I've always been curious. I've always wanted to understand why certain things are happening in the world; what's motivating people to do the things that they're doing. So that's something that I think has always been there. And it's served me well in journalism. Being able to ask those questions and to be able to listen to people and to understand.


In the arts, it's interesting, because I don't have to do that as much in the arts. I think I just have this understanding about creativity and play.


One of the questions that I posed before I ever went to Burning Man, I'll never forget. It was the year of the theme of the “American Dream.” I was sitting there with Maria Partridge and Crimson Rose. They were telling me all about this theme the American Dream, and how proud they were of this dream. And I'm thinking to myself, Why in the world should this theme be important to me as an African American woman? What does the American Dream mean to me? I'm sure it doesn't mean the same thing to me as it does to you. I go back to Langston Hughes; I go back to the dream deferred and I'm thinking about that...


Oliver X: Or to Thurgood Marshall, who said “Justice delayed is justice denied.”


Geralda Miller: Right! And so here I am thinking that I'm sure their whole idea of the American Dream is nowhere near mine. And so I let them know that. And I think they got a little defensive about that.


That was my first year going out to the Burn. So I set out to see what this American Dream was all about. I went out there to the Playa and I was thoroughly surprised with the desert at night and how it was illuminated. And all of a sudden, I got to see this playground for adults. And I said, 'Ah, now I'm getting it.' I saw what draws thousands of people to a desert where they have to bring everything in – water, food, everything—and stay there for a week. Talk about curiosity. That was it. Why in the world would you do this? And I immediately understood the sense of play.


Oliver X: Play in what way? The license to play; the opportunity to play; the privilege to play or the entitlement to play?


Geralda Miller: I saw that there was a thirst. A need to play. That people are not getting in the real world. People are working hard; they're working a 9-5. They have their kids and their bosses and all of their stress. I saw that many people need an outlet to just allow their inner child to be free and play and be creative. Even dressing differently than they normally would; wearing fun clothes, or not wearing anything at all. But the ability to just play, that is what struck me and really just amazed me about Burning Man and the Playa. And I guess I want to bring that to Reno. Because what we're seeing now in Reno is that we have Burning Man art here now. Reno is being called the 'Gateway City' to Burning Man—and we are that...


Oliver X: Burning Man has a $50 million dollar yearly impact on Reno's economy.


Geralda Miller: That's a big impact. I think that Renoites are finally recognizing the economic impact that this event has on our city. But I also think that we're getting a taste of that creativity here in Reno. We're getting a slight taste of play in Reno. Reno folks like to play. Reno people love to dress up. You look at the Steampunk Festival here and you look at all of this. There is an element here that loves to play.


Oliver X: And all of the crawls...


Geralda Miller: The crawls are a great example that people here just love to play and have that need to express themselves that they're not getting on an every day basis.


Oliver X: Why doesn't something like Bay to Breakers in San Francisco scratch that itch and need to play? Why does it take a remote region to draw out that sense of freedom? Bay to Breakers has dress-up, costumes, silliness, nudity and fun...What is it about the Playa that allows people to tap into that sense of adult play you're speaking of?


Geralda Miller: I really don't know the answer to that question. But I'll tell you for me living here, and I've been here since 2002, I can count on one hand the number of times I've been to Lake Tahoe. And I know when I say that people are going to say, 'Are you crazy?' I'm just not drawn to the big blue jewel. But I am drawn to the Playa. I am drawn to Pyramid Lake. I am drawn to these dry, barren areas that for me are spiritual places. So that's why I go. I'm just drawn there.


Oliver X: Would you call the desert a blank canvas in some ways, that begs for the animation of people's creativity to color it?


Geralda Miller: Absolutely! When you look at the Playa, there's nothing there. Nothing! And you can create this wonderful playground. Be it just for a week, but that's what it is. Pyramid Lake is the same thing, as it is to me, quite barren. Pyramid Lake is mystical and wonderful.


Oliver X: You have been at the forefront of bringing Reno and the Playa closer together culturally through art events, murals and installations here in Reno. What made you think that Playa art and culture would resonate so strongly here in Reno, besides just due to the proximity of Reno to the Black Rock Desert?


Geralda Miller: I think it started with my good friend Maria Partridge. She was the one who was initially pushing for Burning Man art to have a temporary space here in Reno. Then there was the idea and process of purchasing “BELIEVE.”  That idea came from someone in the city going out to Burning Man and saying, 'We should have this here.' I love the large scale art that is at Burning Man. I love seeing the integration of fire and intersection of science, engineering, technology and art on the Playa. I just wanted to be able to be a part of sharing that beautiful art with people here in Reno. Why shouldn't we have more examples of that, or have those artists who are producing the work on the Playa become fixtures of the Reno art scene?


Peter Hazel is a perfect example. I remember when he first came out on the Playa with his “Daffodils.” It was this burst of color on the Playa. And then when I met Peter and he told me the story of why he built the daffodils, I was so moved. He told his girlfriend, 'I'll never be able to write a poem for you; I'll never will be able to do anything like that. But I can use my hands and build something for you.' And he built these beautiful daffodils and that touched my heart. I said, 'Oh my gosh, this is a wonderful man!' And he's been a great friend ever since. Then he moved to Reno and I was like, 'Yay!' He's returned to the Playa several times. He had his flub last year. He had the prime location with his “Jellyfish” and it didn't go so well. He came back this year and he redeemed himself. And I told him last year I wouldn't even go into his piece. I said, 'I’m not going in it. It doesn’t look good; it's not finished. Nope!' And that was the critic in me.


Talking about curating art in Reno and on the Playa and deciding what art has merit and what is exceptional—and what isn't – is tricky. And with Peter's piece, I had to be honest and I had to be truthful with him. I told him, 'Peter, you missed the mark.' He told me this year, 'Geralda, you were absolutely correct. A lot of people told me it was great and they blew smoke up my skirt, but you didn't.'


Oliver X: Admittedly, I've heard more than a few whispers over the years from respected art critics who have dismissed some of the installations at Burning Man. This is a very unpopular stance to take because Burning Man is so universally revered. But real art deserves real critiques and I'm sure more artists welcome honest reviews about their work.


To me the most impressive thing about Burning Man art is the scale and scope of the engineered installations.


Geralda Miller: In June, I made the decision to go to Washington DC. I went for two reasons: Number one, to get an infusion of blackness overall. As a charter member of the new African American Museum at the Smithsonian, I had to go see it. We're only 2% of Reno's population and I wanted to go and see more black people. That was number one. Number two was I had to go to the Renwick Gallery to see the Burning Man exhibit. I wanted to see Burning Man art in a gallery setting. I wanted to see how visitors in DC reacted to that art. It's one thing to go to a party and it's all Burning Man people and they're like, loving it. I wanted to sit there on a bench in that museum and just watch people and see their reactions to the art. And that's what I did. I got to see these every day DC people interacting with the art and enjoying it and just having a great time playing with this Burning Man art. That showed me that there will be people who will put down Burning Man art because it doesn't meet their level of expectation of gallery art – and to some extent they're correct. There were more than 300 pieces of art on the Playa this year and many of them deserved to be burned. But there are those exceptional pieces that work on the Playa and that worked in the Renwick Gallery.


I think that there is a place for Burning Man art. I'd love to see some of the up-and-coming artists from the western United States have their pieces here in Reno. I want us to diversify our collection of public art to have more men, women and people of color represented. I would love for us to have more art and variety expressed in our city.


Oliver X: I agree and I feel the Nevada Museum of Art is leading the way in that effort, with its focus on diversity, indigenous art and the art of the Great Basin and its people.


Geralda Miller: Yes! Their Aboriginal collection and exhibition was phenomenal.


I'll go back to a piece that was out on the Playa this year by Jeff Schomberg that inspired me. He fabricated a piece titled “All Power to All People” by an African American artist named Hank Willis Thomas from New York. He did an afro pic right there on the 6:00 o'clock. I remember my first night this year on the Playa. I'm out riding' around and checkin' everything out, and I hear this old school music, and it's Frankie Beverly being played—on the Playa!  I'm used to hearing EDM and everything else and here I am hearing this old school soul music. And I'm immediately drawn to it and it was this afro pic....There was an African American family there playing along with the music, and to top it off, they each had these little canvas bags that said, 'Wakanda.' I was home! I said, 'Yes!'


That was an unforgettable moment for me this year at Burning Man. The fact that there was this black family with this black piece by an African American artist, fabricated by one of our own Reno artists that's out here on the Playa was amazing to me. There were more people of color and black people on the Playa this year than I've ever seen before. That warmed my heart.

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