How Sweet It Is: Shelley Miller

Shelley Miller, "Cargo," sugar mural, 2009. Courtesy the artist.

Shelley Miller creates exquisite, intricate artworks out of sugar. In 2009, her mural installation, Cargo, won the People’s Choice award at Montreal’s Mois de la Photo (Montreal’s biennale for contemporary photography). A collaboration between the artist and the Darling Foundry (a factory turned art center), the mural captured the public’s imagination. Referencing the azulejo ceramic tile tradition of Spanish and Portuguese cultures (and their colonies), Miller painted a scene of ships in a harbor using edible blue paint on white sugar tiles, then affixing the tiles to the wall with icing (the process for which she shared on her project blog). The beauty and power of the precise work, beyond its historical references to colonialism, was seeing it evolve over time. The audience witnessed the colors fade and run, the tiles crack and disintegrate. Throughout Miller’s installations, time, both past and present, takes center stage.

Shelley Miller, "Cargo (detail)," sugar mural, 2009. Courtesy the artist.

Trained at the Alberta College of Art and Design and Concordia University, the Saskatchewan native has worked in multiple media ranging from sand to marble, but she always returns to sugar. The self-taught confectioner quickly left behind her early feminist days of wedding cakes at art school, continued her playful, tongue-in-cheek jab at Kant’s Critique of Taste, and began exploring ideas of decoration, covering objects and furniture with delicately-patterned sugar before moving out of domestic spaces into more public realms.

Shelley Miller, "Pipe Dreams," cake icing applied to exterior wall, 2001. Courtesy the artist.

Ultimately, Miller’s longing for, and curiosity about, history led her to move to Montreal and to travel to India and Brazil. Traveling to India on a 6-month Commonwealth Arts & Craft Award in 2001, the Montreal-based sculptor found herself totally immersed in the local arts communities and she mainly worked with local materials during her multiple residencies. While she had worked with sugar before her travels, Miller’s work shifted as multiple Indian artists commented on the waste, since she used an edible material that they considered a luxury item. Upon her return, Miller shifted her focus from saccharine decoration to commentary on consumption, waste, desire, and cycles of guilt, culminating in the project Sumptuous Still Lives (2003), a series of decadent cake installations modeled in the style of Dutch still-life paintings.

Shelley Miller, "Le Rêve (1/3)," cake and icing, 2003. Courtesy the artist.

In 2004, the Sacatar Fellowship brought Miller to Brazil where she continued to explore the logistics of desire, masterfully sculpting designer handbags out of sand (in a series entitled Summer Collection [2004-2006]) and letting them weather with the elements. She also further explored her oeuvre involving sugar. The sculptor immersed herself in the history of Brazil, so steeped in the history of sugar, itself intertwined with colonial narratives. In covering weathered exterior surfaces with meticulous, decorative sugar tiles, Miller created a poignant contrast and tapped into the long history of Brazil’s first economy. It is at this moment that her work with azulejos first began. Ships, symbols of patriotic pride and conquest, and decorated crumbling walls hinted at a darker side of the colonial past.

Shelley Miller, "Summer Collection Triptych," sand sculpture, 2004-2006.

Shelley Miller, "Summer Collection," sand sculpture, 2004-2006.

While the Montreal-based artist possesses a very considered and delicate process, for her, the art begins after the installation has been mounted. It is the unpredictable ephemerality and erosion of the installations that is the work itself. In a way, her art’s relationship with current time echoes the medium’s reference to history. The multiplicity of temporalities, combined with a fragile time- and weather-based aesthetic, make for poignantly captivating work.

While Shelley continues to work with sugar, her artwork always deepening in meaning and complexity, she is currently conceiving a number of public art projects (created as part of Quebec’s law proscribing that 1% of budgets for publicly funded buildings be allocated to public art). Although the more permanent nature of these installations may seem to belie the sculptor’s history of ephemeral works, the works of art are stimulating Miller to continue to engage ideas of time, history, and context.

Local boys picking at and tasting sugar tiles. Shelley Miller, "Sugar Coating: Brazil," documenting photo, 2006. Courtesy the artist.