AN INTERVIEW WITH EMILY MILLER OF SEA STORIES & GHOSTNET LANDSCAPE
Recently I had the opportunity to participate in an amazing project called Sea Stories. I have crossed paths with the project founder, Emily Miller more than a few times now on a similar quest to create beauty out of waste, and to tell a story about it.
I wanted to interview Emily about Sea Stories and provide another showcase for some of the wonderful puppet shoes and stories that came from this meaningful collaboration:
Me: Please tell us a little bit about the Ghost Net Landscape traveling show.
Emily: Since 2019, my art practice has focused on “Ghost Net Landscape,” a community-interactive traveling installation transforming ocean plastic into art. Each exhibit begins with a massive supply of reclaimed fishing gear, from “ghost net” lost at sea to responsibly recycled material from commercial fisheries. This is the exhibit’s jumping-off point for imagining radical hope, creating positive transformation and engaging collaborative creativity. Ghost Net Landscape has transformed my art practice into a joy-centered mission of future-focused community engagement, re-imagining problem materials as potential.
I am present throughout each exhibit as artist-in-residence, stitching baskets on my sewing machine from 1,000+ pounds of reclaimed fishing rope. Participants are invited to envision and lead their own original projects within the installation, using the materials on hand and exhibiting their work in the space as shared inspiration. At closing, participants keep their creations or donate them for future public displays.
In 2019, Ghost Net Landscape included 3 beach cleanup crews, 3 commercial fisheries, 4,000 pounds of reclaimed fishing gear, and 300+ artistic collaborators who used the materials to create performances, wearable art, sculpture, functional objects, cultural celebrations, and more.
Every action I take in the Ghost Net Landscape asks: how can we use creative transformation to heal the deepest hurt, rise above blame and anger, and focus together on a joyful future? The struggle with hope, loss, and fear resonates far beyond the issue of ocean plastic. Ghost Net Landscape exists in response, as a healing space to create joy without denying grief.
Me: How did you get the idea to engage the community in a puppet making project?
Emily: I met stage and story expert Shere Coleman at my first exhibit of Ghost Net Landscape in spring 2019, and we worked together during the second exhibit that fall. I invited Shere to a meeting with Portland Textile Month in January 2020 to discuss possibilities for the next exhibit, and the puppetry idea took root as a possibility, based on her years of expertise. Over the next few months, the idea sustained growth as a unique way to continue collaborating during the pandemic.
As the year 2020 unfolded, storytelling became central to the puppet-making idea, as an opportunity for diverse people to have a voice during a time when they might be feeling isolated and silenced.
To learn more about the project, please visit: https://www.ghostnetart.com/2020-sea-stories
Me: How many people / community members / organizations participated?
Emily: I partnered with stage and story expert Shere Coleman , and weaving expert Shelby Silver , to bring the Sea Stories exhibit to life. Sea Stories was one of four Distributed Community Projects sponsored by Portland Textile Month (PTM). PTM volunteers helped coordinate the exhibit from beginning to end, including our exhibit venue at Crema café and other kit distribution locations around Portland. PTM and Pacific University coordinated a total of 7 volunteers to assemble 90 puppet kits, which were all distributed free in the Portland area. On Kauai, Monika Mira led a puppetmaking day with a group of about 10 local youth, in partnership with Surfrider Kauai, for International Coastal Cleanup day.
Out of these 100 people who tried their hand at puppetmaking, 27 finished puppets were submitted. The video production team included 10-15 people to bring these stories to life, including voice acting, translation, filming and editing, set design, puppeteering, and storyboarding. All entries were from Oregon and Kauaʻi. Nine videos were created in this first season.
Many organizations also contributed by sharing the project with their networks. After the exhibit at Crema café closed, PTM coordinated a showcase exhibit for all four Distributed Community Projects at Community Warehouse (https://www.communitywarehouse.org), along with a virtual panel discussion (https://youtu.be/jKk3HP3KuVM). I’ve also done virtual talks with Pacific University, Omni Open Studios (https://youtu.be/TPaL15eJV5E), and Tualatin Riverkeepers (https://youtu.be/dQ3A4neueSs). The project is included in Five Oaks Museum’s “DISplace” virtual exhibit (https://fiveoaksmuseum.org/displace-emily-miller/) examining the Hawaiian diaspora in the Pacific Northwest, along with a week-long takeover of the Five Oaks Museum Instagram account (https://fiveoaksmuseum.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Emily-Miller-Takeover.pdf), which generated the ninth Sea Story published in Season One.
Me: How long did the process take (collecting filming etc.)?
Emily: I worked on the Sea Stories exhibit for about four months, between planning and developing the puppet kits and logistics, a month of working and creating live during the physical exhibition, and continuing to film and edit stories after the physical exhibit closed.
Collecting and cleaning the materials is always ongoing! For Sea Stories, I mostly used material I already had on hand, from partnerships with Surfrider Kauai and Oregon State Parks, as well as responsibly retired gear from Pacific Northwest fisheries.
Me: What is the message that you are trying to share with regards to this project?
Emily: Ghost Net Landscape is about transformation.
The project’s mission is to create space where positive transformation is a natural and joyful response. Each exhibit is uniquely shaped into a space for healing and regeneration through abundance, collaboration, creativity, and play.
Ghost Net Landscape is a sanctuary, and a prayer. The materials themselves speak to the magnitude of harm caused. This sanctuary is not located outside the issue as a place to escape, but rather is completely created from it. Ghost Net Landscape uses the materials themselves to ask what each of us will create, how each of us will transform and grow in a shared and joyful collaboration towards a more sustainable future.
Me: What are some of the challenges in executing a project like this?
Emily: Coordinating a collaborative exhibit centered on physical and material problem-solving during a pandemic was a challenge. We learned and grew so much from the experience, and I’m excited to carry forward our solutions into future exhibits for better accessibility and inclusivity, especially subtitled video and storytelling.
Also, I’ve found that joy and transformation are not part of the standard conversation about ocean pollution. So it has been an ongoing challenge to maintain the clarity of my message in response to the problem-focused narrative that dominates our society’s thinking about the issue.
Finally, funding is an issue for an immersive project like Ghost Net Landscape. Each exhibit essentially becomes my full-time job for several months, and applying for grants and other funding is a significant part of that work!
If you are interested in helping fund projects like Ghost Net Landscape, please make sure to visit Emilyʻs website (https://www.ghostnetart.com/).
Me: Mahalo Emily for dedication and marvelous artwork!