Art, in the traditional sense, can be a strange experience. On one hand you have the result, whether an oil-painted canvas, a ceramic bowl, or a fashion garment. Then you have the artist, who has poured his or her soul into the work, has invested their life story and commentary, and channels this catharsis into the piece before letting go.
But beyond the visual, cursory understanding of the artwork, most of the narrative can be lost in a disconnect. How often do you take the time to explore an artistic document, engage with the artisan, and hear their side of the story? How much more profound could that appreciation be if you did?
As important as it is to enjoy art, I believe it is just as necessary to bridge a relationship with the artist. It could be through a personal discourse or simple research (like reading an interview with the artist on a website like this). But you’ve got to grasp the artist. The artist is inextricable from the art.
Brandi Milne (pronounced “mill-knee“) is an artist and painter out of Huntington Beach, California. I was first turned onto her work through her comrade artists at the Corey Helford Gallery (Lola and Natalia Fabia specifically). I followed her progress on social media and became a fan – as we often do – through the screen.
It wasn’t until Wednesday that I finally got to meet Brandi in person and hear her story. And it wasn’t until Wednesday that I got the big picture – pun intended. First, I don’t think I appreciated the size of her paintings and the scale she worked. Duh, of course everything looks smaller on a phone.
Most importantly, I took to Brandi and the pure emotional light she was injecting into her paint. With the piece she’s currently working on, she admits to breaking her way through tears as she dabs and smears the bristles to wood. This means that much to her.
You see, I had it all backwards. From the outside, Brandi’s paintings always spoke light and whimsical to me: a sugar-coated dreamscape of cotton-candy reverie and honey-spun fantasy. Lithe, airdancer-esque figures in fabled environments, chimerical creatures grinning, like a Strawberry Shortcake acid trip. But on closer look, Brandi’s world opened up – the figure is bleeding, the animal’s heart is exposed, the trees are naked and scarred. Maybe things aren’t as perfect as they purport to be.
“Most of these pieces ended up being self-portraits. You know, obviously, they don’t look like me… So this girl right here,” Brandi points to the painting she’s currently working on, “she’s kind of broken. Her body is broken, she’s giving up and hitting bottom. And then myself – I feel like the way that I grew up was in kind of a religious bubble. So in that aspect, I feel like I’m really innocent, you know? As a lamb, being slaughtered. That’s me.”
Brandi Milne has lived and worked here for years, kneading away in an intimate-enough corner studio by her kitchen, surrounded by all sorts of amazing artwork by herself, friends, and those whom she admires. We’re sharing our love of John Baizley’s “Serpents Unleashed” album art, which hangs front and center on the wall, as I was just wearing the Skeletonwitch T-shirt yesterday. I’ve gotta admit, it’s not exactly the family room mantlepiece fodder I’d expect to find in the artist’s home.
She studies her recent paintings, in preparation for a big solo show at the Corey Helford on June 14th. “Uhh, my head is in a really oddly dark… –er place,” she smiles behind blonde wisps dip-dyed with bubblegum-pink ends, “It looks cheery, but it’s bloody. She’s broken (referring to the subject in the painting) and I’ve been going through a lot – trying to help myself. So it’s all coming out in the work.”
Brandi’s talking about her journey as the product of a devoutly religious household. She’s the Orange County standard with an ultra Christian upbringing, to the point where her mom conditioned her that the rapture was to take place before she reached adolescence. But of course the ’90s came and went and the world didn’t cave into itself and Brandi continued to draw and illustrate without a clue as to where it was all headed. It wasn’t until her college years when she met her now-husband, that she honed in on her talent.
Her portfolio is an unraveling of that religious miseducation and her soul bared across fantasia. As a wife, as a mother, as a woman, these aren’t just beautifully emotional paintings, they are chapters of a person making sense of her life.
“It’s hard, because there’s connotation to [the] time I was working on stuff. I try to appreciate what I used to do, but there are definitely pieces that I’m like – I can’t look at [it]. I am always striving to do better. Not going to school, it’s just what I pick up here and there. I talk to other artists. So this is primarily mostly self-taught? It’s been hard. And I still struggle. I will probably struggle forever, but it’s fun. Without that struggle, I’m not interested.”
In this piece, the story begins in the top left corner. What appears to be a dark past eventually transpires into something that can be seen as constructive and positive. This is the timeline of what Brandi and her husband have experienced in their lives. The fawn is her, bleeding and scared. The bumblebee is crawling, a reference to Brandi’s husband. At the end of their lives, they are the whales in the bottom right, looking back on how it all played out.