Great Stuff: Crystal Miller’s Afrofuturist Visions of Feminine Beauty
Crystal Miller describes herself as an “all-or-nothing” person, and that personality plays out in the bold, extravagance of her work. Her Afro-Futurist portraits of glamorous Black women figured prominently in her BFA show at the Cleveland Institute of Art, and landed her a show at Summit Artspace earlier this year. In September, she opens her first solo show in a commercial gallery, at Maria Neil Art Project. –Ed.
Crystal Miller is a multimedia artist born in Michigan and working in Cleveland. She earned her associate degree in graphic design with an emphasis in fine arts from Glen Oaks Community College in Michigan, and her BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA), where she double majored in painting and sculpture, and expanded media. Miller’s recent exhibitions include We Belong in the Future at the Ann and Norman Roulet Student + Alumni Gallery in Cleveland and Black Spaces: Defying Social Constructs at Summit Artspace in Akron. Earlier this summer, her work was featured in CIA’s 2023 Alumni Exhibition in the Reinberger Gallery.
Growing up, Miller always painted in acrylic. She planned to go into illustration in college until she took a painting class and used oils for the first time, inspiring her to incorporate mixed media into her work. Her first 3-dimensional material was molding paste, used to evoke the texture of hair. In her sophomore year of college, she experimented with materials that reminded her of her childhood, such as beads, glitter, and pearlescent paints. She also used insulation foam and grate (GREAT STUFF™) foam for creating cornrows.
Miller describes herself as an “all or nothing” type of person—she wouldn’t do maquettes or tests and would instead commit to trying a new technique to its fullest extent. In her junior year, she began to venture into sculptural work. Miller started using fake hair to braid hair bundles, creating giant faux locks. She also constructed borders for mirrors by spray painting over grate (GREAT STUFF™) foam, which led to her making borders for all her paintings, reminiscent of gilded Baroque frames. As a senior, she began using tulle. Subconsciously, she’d been gradually incorporating materials that reminded her of her childhood. She abstracted materials such as feather boas, metal mesh, and ribbon so they weren’t obviously hair.
Sparkly, shimmery materials elevate Miller’s pieces, creating what she calls a “fictional wealth.” She upgrades cheap materials that would otherwise be discarded. “Sitting there for hours and hours sticking on gems is an intimate act,” she said, which fosters a deeper connection with the piece.
During college, the common theme in Miller’s work was female empowerment. She chose to paint Black women in a more beautiful light because she wasn’t seeing a lot of portraiture of Black women, and Miller wanted to feel represented in the art community. She painted a lot about her experience getting her hair done, and even did a series about the intimacy of when a parent and child get their hair done together. She mentioned it can be a difficult experience because it hurts your head—beauty is pain, after all—so she glamourized the experience through art.
Over time, Miller turned her focus to Afro-Futurism, which she first discovered through movies and music. Much of Afro-Futurism focuses on technology and outer space, and while she briefly tried those themes, they didn’t feel authentic to her style. Instead, bringing back elements of her childhood was her version of Afro-Futurism. Miller’s research on Afro-Futurism was largely self-guided, though talking with Black professors and artists helped inspire her.
When she came to CIA, there weren’t a lot of other Black students. “It is hard to feel comfortable in predominantly white spaces,” Miller said. At first, she felt like she had to change herself to fit into those spaces, but later decided to flourish instead of holding herself back. Her experience of feeling uncomfortable as one of the only Black students in her cohort is why she strives to ensure her shows feel welcoming. At her BFA show, she painted the walls purple and mixed in glitter, and applied gems on one part of the wall. She sought to create a space that was for Black people, and in her work, she hopes to help Black people feel more comfortable in white spaces and focus on the idea of safe spaces for Black people.
Crystal Miller’ s exhibition, DRMWRLD, opens September 1 and will be on view through November 3 at Maria Neil Art Project. Her website is crymuseum.weebly.com and her Instagram handle is @crymuseum.