Mother, Artist, Teacher: Ashley Sauder Miller’s Woven Roles

Ashley Sauder Miller is a mixed-media weaver and painter, constantly on the move. Just as she weaves her artwork, she weaves her roles as artist, mother, wife, teacher and art center director together to create the masterpiece she calls her life. To Miller, all these pursuits don’t take away from each other. On the contrary, they complement and fuel one another.

Fixer Chair, 2014, by Ashley Sauder Miller. Acrylic, oil pastel and woven mixed media paper on canvas, 36” x 36". Copyright © 2014 Ashley Sauder Miller. Used by permission of the artist.

Fixer Chair, 2014, by Ashley Sauder Miller. Acrylic, oil pastel and woven mixed media paper on canvas, 36” x 36″. Copyright © 2014 Ashley Sauder Miller. Used by permission of the artist.

Inspired by the Mundane

Miller graduated with a bachelor’s in art from Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where she now teaches, and James Madison University, earning a Master of Fine Arts. Her work focuses on themes of motherhood and home elements like kitchenware and chairs, which she said have inspired 250 of her pieces.

Chairs became an inspiration for Miller when she tried to teach herself how to fix the caning on her grandmother’s heirloom chair. This led her to experiment with more texture in her own work, whether that’s drips and chunks of paint, old fabric or scraps of her children’s artwork.

Cyndi Gusler, an EMU professor who has collaborated with Miller for the past year and a half, said she believes Miller is a designer at heart because of her ability to pattern and include elements of design in her compositions. Gusler said Miller’s style is “very playful and unexpected. Even though a lot … of her characters in her paintings tend to repeat and show up again in other pieces, she uses them in a way that is so lively that I always find something unexpected happening there.”

Chair with Checkered Seat, 2016, by Ashley Sauder Miller. Acrylic, oil, oil pastel and fabric on wood panel, 36” x 48". Copyright © 2016 Ashley Sauder Miller. Used by permission of the artist.

Chair with Checkered Seat, 2016, by Ashley Sauder Miller. Acrylic, oil, oil pastel and fabric on wood panel, 36” x 48″. Copyright © 2016 Ashley Sauder Miller. Used by permission of the artist.

Parenting and Art

Inspiring her children, as well as her students, to be creative and enjoy making art seems to come naturally to Miller. Her father, with his craftsmanship and influence, fostered these abilities in her at a young age. He was a residential home builder and cabinet maker who often had artwork and tools around the house. Miller said he played a major role in pushing her as an artist, and when he died seven years ago, she felt she had to pursue art as a career.

For Miller, her artistic process is reminiscent of her life as a mother. She often finds similarities between the experience of being an artist and a parent of four children. Her weaving techniques begin with boring, little strips that eventually turn into a work of art. To her, this repetitive task, which she said can be frustrating at times, reminds her of the chores that come with motherhood.

“[It’s] essentially like telling my child, ‘No, you may not have a cookie before dinner,’” Miller said. “That, to me — the consistency of what it takes to be a dedicated mom and the consistency that it takes to be a dedicated artist, and imagine a piece of artwork coming together — that feels very similar to me.”

Leading the Local Art Community

When Miller isn’t painting with her kids, working in her studio or teaching her painting class at EMU, she’s the director of the Spitzer Art Center, a small, nonprofit, community-based organization in Harrisburg. There, she oversees activities at the center and ensures shows happen every month. Miller finds her position at the art center to be fulfilling in both a professional and personal sense.

Miller said what she enjoys most about being director of SAC is meeting other artists. Being an artist cooped up in her studio and a mother busy around her home can be an isolating experience. “I think the most rewarding part is being able to feel like I connect with a community of other artists,” she said.

Looking Ahead

Right now, Miller is leading a collaborative project for EMU’s centennial celebration sponsored by the university. She chose five other artists to help her create an exhibition called 10x10x100, which will feature 100 10-by-10-inch pieces that visually summarize the university’s past, present and future endeavors. The exhibition is slated to be completed by the 2017 fall semester and will show from Oct. 13 to 15, 2017 in the school’s Margaret Martin Gehman Gallery.

Miller attributes the success of her art career to good time management, effort and discipline. “Some people believe somehow you achieve some level of success or notoriety by luck — and it’s just a lot of hard work.”