We had the good fortune of connecting with Marlena Miller and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Marlena, why did you pursue a creative career?
I’ve gravitated towards photography and art for most of my life and that expression has been one of the many layers of who I am, so the pursuit of a creative career seemed to happen naturally. I moved to California from the West Texas border-town of El Paso, to further my education at California College of the Arts in Oakland. I was fortunate to have been mentored by compelling the iconic artists Chris Johnson, Tammy Rae Carland, Jim Goldberg, Todd Hido and the late greats Larry Sultan and Sue Ciriclio. To this day I still carry their messages of creating truthful, candid and visceral work.
In 2007, after receiving my BFA in photography I was compelled to relocate to Los Angeles, and immediately felt at home. Over the last 14 years I have had a successful commercial photography career at a Los Angeles based product studio, as an independent freelance photographer and a multimedia artist. I’ve spent years honing in on my craft and learning the best way to set up lights, style an array of people and products for local LA as well as national brands.
I wholeheartedly believe that now more than ever, art has the ability to heal. Six years ago I was faced with a life-changing breast cancer diagnosis, which turned my world upside-down. I lost my job, divorced, and moved back to my childhood home of El Paso for a moment, to catch my breath. I felt completely lost and I didn’t have a next step so I turned back to my art and came back to my true home, Los Angeles. As difficult and traumatic as the cancer journey was, I feel grateful for the incredible people that were brought into my life and for the opportunity to re-evaluate my life and refocus my creative energy towards real healing power of art. Los Angeles can be a complex environment to navigate as an artist but the challenge ultimately inspires me.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I am an observer and storyteller at the core of who I am. Photography is the creative tool for me to express what and how I see, and has been since 1992, when my dad gave me a Nikon FG for my 15th birthday. My introductory lessons on how to use my camera were mostly under- and over-exposed rolls of film, though I experienced the most useful lessons looking through the viewfinder. While learning how to see as a photographer, I first identified my ongoing fascination with capturing enigmatic moments.
I have several artistic endeavors in the works at the moment, one of which is the open-ended Honor Her Project which is a photographic series that offers the subject a moment to freely move in front of the camera to create an unconventional portrait. Through the use of wardrobe, color and light exposure experimentation, I create a meditative space to allow the participants to reach a state of openness and escape they may not be privy to in their lives. My initial inspiration was to create a way for women experiencing cancer to let go of self-consciousness as my camera documented, but after the complex year of collective isolation, vulnerability and pushes toward assimilation, I decided the the client roster should be more inclusive, wherein the Honor concept opens to a wider audience in need of catharsis.
It’s funny, while I was attending art school I explored sculpture and began making wire sculptures of hands, but as much as I loved the material and the process, that act of making fell away through the years. I rediscovered the interest of bending and twisting metal into shapes and from one particular pair of hands emerged an arm, torso, legs and feet! I had wound a 4-1/2ft tall figure with 1,190 ft of wire. The forms moved to bird structures and I soon devised the story the of becoming. The human-based figure forms and aviary became the central characters in a story of finding love in your heart and overcoming times of darkness and letting it all go. I am in the process of, with the help of my partner, embarking on designing/producing a printed book as the vehicle for the story.
I’ve had my share of ups and downs but I realize now that the biggest challenge that I’ve had to overcome has been self-doubt. I now recognize that there have been so many instances I myself have stood in the way of my own steps toward the most natural and effective form of creative communication as an artist and over the years I’ve learned not to take my failures or rejections so seriously. Another key that I have found in my art: in career and life, ALWAYS listen to your intuition. The best advice I ever got was “Lighten up and go for it!”￼
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Los Angeles has some of the most wonderfully diverse people, delicious variety of cuisine, so when friends visit, there’s a handful of must tastes and to-dos on my list. Navigating Los Angeles obviously felt daunting when I initially moved to Los Angeles in 2007, so I always had a copy of the LA Weekly, which was the lifeline to everything delicious and cool in city. Over the years, I find most of my favorite places are spread all over the city.
Spending the afternoon in Los Feliz is definitely top of the list. Perfect for casual eat-and-go, drop by Best Fish Tacos in Ensenada, Yuca’s Taqueria stand (and head for a picnic at Griffith Park). For some formal ambiance Little Doms, Pallermo’s or Loupiotte Kitchen. Griffith Park Observatory, which sits on the hill above Los Feliz has some of the best vantage points of the entire city and the Hollywood sign in LA, while the Planetarium attractions are engaging and enlightening.
For some much needed retail therapy, shops along Magnolia Blvd in the Magnolia Park neighborhood in Burbank offer an eclectic tidal wave of locally-owned boutiques, vintage and antique stores, strange oddities/curiosities. After lengthy scours of The Valley I’ve discovered has not only the best laid-back (and affordable) shopping in Los Angeles. I happily found it is also home to L.A.’s best slices of pizza, of which eating happens to be my second favorite pastime. I often satisfy my pizza craving by picking up a pie at either Pizza Wagon of Brooklyn, Prime Pizza, Pinoccio’s or the iconic mainstay Barone’s.
Downtown Los Angeles holds an enticing energy — as it is does its poignance — and in that sharp contrast it is one of the most eye-opening environments aesthetically, socially and culturally, to explore and respond to. In an afternoon, sushi at Oomasa and art at the The Broad Contemporary Art Museum and MOCA easily satisfy. There is a fascinating dichotomy of this great city’s harsh extremes: from fine dining, avant grade art exhibitions and rooftop-projected movies, to the harshest realities of Skid Row, the largest concentrated population of homeless in the country. Though it is of course a pleasure to soak up the sun and endless disarming surface distractions of Los Angeles, it is a necessity to experience what’s under its surface. That could take a bit…
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I believe we all mirror each other, and individuals come and go from our lives to teach us lessons about what we need for our own growth. I am truly thankful for all the people that got me to where I am today, whether we are in touch or not. I have the utmost gratitude for the tight-knit circle I have around me now, including my loving family and a small handful of close friends that have stuck by me through all messy phases of my life that I can turn to for support, and who in turn can call on me.
My mom and big brother have been pillars of strength and have supported me through daily worries and cataclysmic disasters alike. With their love and guidance they have helped me become the kind-hearted person I am. Although, it took decades to find him, my partner Ryan Ward has been my rock and has become part of my family, and I thank God every day for helping us find each other. He is strongest person I know he has persevered through tremendous adversity while keeping his heart soft and open. He inspires me to keep exploring and honoring my art. With him I feel unstoppable and I know I can climb any mountain with him by my side.
There are a couple Los Angeles based organizations that I feel I need to put a spotlight on. The Foundation for Living Beauty, created by Amie Satchu, is a loving, safe and supportive space for women who have been affected by a cancer diagnosis, to interact with one another and learn different methods of physical and emotional wellbeing. Over the last couple years I had the privilege to be a mentor to young female photographers at Las Fotos Project based in Boyle Heights. Interacting the girls has been an amazing experience. I initially thought that I would be able to impart some of the knowledge I’ve accumulated throughout my life & career but I was happily surprised how much the teen girls taught me about the importance of staying curious and open to new experiences. Growing up fast in the city!
Last but definitely not least I’m grateful for my two dogs, Jesse and Zozo. They have shown me that with so much extra love and compassion, what I once thought an impossible transformation of harmony is possible. I have learned so much in my life through every obstacle along the way, to listen with compassion, acceptance, trust and to nurture your ideas — even at their/your most vulnerable.