“Don't pursue a career in the Arts unless you love the Arts truly, madly, deeply. And do not have any delusions about what awaits you both in educational settings, and in the job market. …If you think you're gonna get a break because you have a disability, think again. …You better be the best you can be at what you do, and do not allow yourself to use your disability as an excuse NOT to work continually and consistently towards total professionalism and high standards of quality.”
-- Jaehn Clare, professional theatre artist, from "A Career as an Artist Ain't an Easy Row to Hoe," keynote address for The Art of Employment: Careers in the Arts for People with Disabilities on March 25 & 26, 2002 at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis MN.
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Pelicans sell. That’s one of the many things Kendal R. Miller has learned since she launched her business, Photography by Kendal. People love her prints of a barn emblazoned with the University of Kentucky insignia, as well as her nostalgic shot of a rusting Coca-Cola sign. She aims to evoke a positive emotional response in viewers, perhaps a peaceful feeling, “something that strikes a good chord in them.” A fellow artist told Miller her work is soulful. “I like to look at things a little bit differently,” she says. “We had an ice storm a few months ago. I kept looking at the clothespins on my clothesline and ice was dripping from them. I just thought that was so interesting, the lines in it.”
By day, Miller uses her marketing skills as Public Relations/Grant Administrator for Switzerland County Tourism. She can be found blogging, Twittering and Facebooking the merits of Vevay, Indiana (pronounced “VEE-vee” and a recently awarded fourth place in Budget Travel's "America's Coolest Small Towns" competition) and its surroundings. She maintains the agency’s Flickr photo site and takes pictures of their events. “I’m kind of the official photographer.”
Not surprising, as Miller has been intrigued by photography since she was a teenager. Working for her Pennsylvania high school’s newspaper as a student typist, she was drawn to what the paper’s photographer was doing. Then someone gave her a camera they’d found. “I was kind of hooked.”
When she bought her first 35 mm camera some years later, she was intimidated by all the settings, the need for aperture adjustments and selection of film speeds. She set it aside. Miller is not one to refuse a challenge, however. After a time she took it upon herself to learn exactly what her camera could do. The costs of film and processing were considerable, so she happily embraced the new challenge of digital photo technology when it came along.
After obtaining an Associate’s degree in Specialized Business, Miller ran a custom frame shop with her former husband in Florida. She started her photography venture there, with the profits going back into the frame shop. Her photo subjects were “sand and sea and sunsets” (and pelicans).
Melissa Jackson Brister was one of her first supporters. Brister was working with The Visual Arts Center of Northwest Florida. “She basically told me ‘Kendal, you need to be doing something with this.’ It was kind of the nudge that I needed, that somebody thought I was good enough to try to make some money and further my career in photography.” Mary Ola Reynolds Miller at The Gallery of Art in Panama City was the first person to handle her work. She did so for many years until the Gallery closed due to Miller’s (no relation) retirement.
“Everywhere I turned around there were people there that encouraged me.” Mary Darrah (also of Panama City) is a licensed interior designer who has purchased Miller’s prints for her clients’ offices and homes. Miller can’t forget Darrah and her husband’s personal support. “When I got divorced, they took me under their wing.”
Miller left Florida a couple years after her marriage ended. She sought out places that held the Southern hospitality she so missed. “I fell in love with Kentucky. I loved the LaGrange area.” She did office temp work in the area until she got a job with a newspaper.
Soon enough a new love took her across the river to Dillsboro, Indiana where she lives today. She and her husband are looking forward to their third anniversary.
She has no formal study of her craft in her background. “I got a library card, read anything to do with photography, and I’d go and practice the things I read.” She has taken occasional classes on the business aspects of art in Rising Sun, Indiana. “They have awesome arts programs and classes. [Videos of some of the classes are posted online at no charge.] In preparing her work for exhibition, Miller’s framing expertise is an advantage. She doesn’t have a lot of fancy equipment, but “I still have all the skills from having my own frame shop.”
Miller’s disability-related challenges began when she was 18. She experienced some contractions of her neck muscles for which doctors had no coherent explanation. 15 years later she got the real diagnosis: a progressive neurological disorder affecting her head, neck and one shoulder that is called cervical dystonia. “My brain doesn’t function like others’. It sends the wrong signals to my neck.” “My head’s either shaking up and down or side to side. It’s painful and very distracting.”
A low dose of muscle relaxers helps a little. Miller tried Botox injections in 2007, after they became available for treatment of her condition. “It was miraculous. It was unbelievable. A coworker said ‘Kendal, your head hardly shakes at all’.” Unfortunately, the injections must be repeated periodically, and the insurance co-pay is so steep that Miller cannot afford to maintain the treatment. “It’s kind of bittersweet. I know what it was like to have that, and now it’s back the way it was.”
Miller is also experiencing some hearing loss. In her case it’s an inherited condition, as is her dystonia. Although she’s had the dystonia for 30 years, she didn’t think of herself as someone with a disability until recently. “Funny, how things just are what they are and you just deal with what life puts on your plate without thinking anything else of it.”
Miller says people ask her how she can take photos with her condition. “I can’t even explain how I can do it. I guess the shutter speed is faster than my head is shaking. I can brace my face up against the camera lens, which will help the shaking some. I don’t even use a tripod usually.”
Miller enters her photographs in a number of juried shows each year, including Madison Chautauqua Festival of Art and Arts on the Green in LaGrange, Kentucky. She has ongoing representation at two galleries in Switzerland county, Signatures, where she was a Featured Artist in January 2009, and The Mercantile, as well as at The Art Gallery in LaGrange Kentucky, and Newbill Collection by the Sea in Seaside, Florida.
Miller has learned it’s important to have a relationship with a number of art dealers; inevitably some will go out of business. She posts her work on online galleries as well.
Miller makes it a habit to ask about opportunities to show and sell her work. Her recent show at Madison Coffee and Tea was the outcome of such an inquiry. Showing at these kinds of venues doesn’t require entrance or booth fees, but it takes a lot of work. And “nobody’s going to be there to talk for you, so you have to have all your marketing materials there.” She does demonstrations, such as hand coloring of prints, too.
Could her photography provide enough income to forgo her “day job”? After 21 years in Florida, “It was getting so close,” and moving “was like starting my business over again.” Then there’s the current tough economy. “Things are a whole lot different. I might need to go ahead and have a line of smaller, less expensive images to sell. Hopefully though, people are still remodeling homes and want art they enjoy.”
Miller intends to apply for an Individual Artist grant from the Indiana Arts Commission next year. She was just awarded a $500 Business Development Grant from the Indiana Artisan Program. The grant, which she will use for promotional materials, was available to any artist who applied for inclusion in the statewide program, even if they were not accepted. The jurying process is very competitive. “I hate to admit this but I’ve been rejected twice. I’m trying for the third time.”
She advises people pursuing art careers to get used to being rejected. “You’ve got to remember not to take it personally. Just keep trying, move on to the next thing.”
Other plans? Miller would like to upgrade her internet website. She says she’s disappointed with her online sales there, and thinks a more professional look and more aggressive promotion for her site would help. She plans to approach companies about licensing her photography. “I would love to see my work on posters and greeting cards.” She also has her sights set on representation by a gallery in Cincinnati and beyond.
Miller urges those beginning their arts ventures to be curious about what’s out there and keep their options open. “Ask a lot of questions and just talk to people and network. When I first started, I started with nothing, so I had to see what was available for nothing.”
With her enthusiastic personality and professional marketing experience, promoting her own photography comes naturally. But she says she’d rather do what she was doing on a recent weekend, crouching with her camera in an Indiana field, looking towards a barn across an expanse of gorgeous purple wildflowers.
(photo by Curtis McCormick)
(Belmont County, Ohio)
(St. Andrews, Florida)
(Ripley County, Indiana)
(Ohio County, Indiana)