Alumnae Spotlight: Toby Millman

April 9, 2014 by

In 2011, Artist Book Resident Toby Millman came to WSW to produce Facts on the Ground, a 52-page hardbound book consisting of printed and cut paper maps, oral testimonies, and personal accounts, from and about occupied Palestine. Palestine was the geographic center of Toby’s work for several years after her first trip to the region in 2006.

Since her residency Toby has been teaching at various institutions around Michigan, and in 2013 she was awarded the prestigious Pollock-Krasner grantNow living in Hamtramck, a two-square-mile city surrounded by Detroit, Toby turns her work–which includes printmaking, photography, sound, and books–toward the community she’s immersed in every day. Her number one artmaking goal? “To start a conversation.”

Let’s start with a little about the project that brought you WSW. Facts on the Ground brings together so much visual & textual information; how did you wrangle a project of this scope into such a refined piece?  

Facts on the Ground was a project that had been on my mind for years before I was awarded the residency, because I wanted to make a book to accompany [earlier book project about Palestine] Access & Closure; one that could focus on the changing landscape of Palestine through the various maps coming out of the region. I wanted to bring in Palestinian voices and connect them to the otherwise abstract forms of maps.

The greatest challenge was accepting that I had to impose limitations on the project in order to get it done on time (or at all). Initially I wanted to have maps that folded out and do more of my own drawings in response to the maps, but in the end, I decided to follow a similar structure to Access & Closure–pairing image and text–to keep it from getting overwhelming. I also realized that I couldn’t say everything in one project and so I decided that I would hold off on some of my ideas and save them as seeds for future projects.

We recently interviewed Dani Leventhal, whose book Skim Milk & Soft Wax relates her experience visiting Israel as an adult and trying to reconcile what she experienced with the narratives of her Jewish heritage. Speaking on whether the work was political, and she said, “I think the personal is political.” Agree? Disagree?

Rather than agree or disagree, I’ll say that people seem to think that any work about a divisive issue is about politics. I accept that once my work is out in the world, people will define it however they wish. If they ask about my personal background or personal history, that’s fine with me, but it’s not how I prefer to begin the conversation.

I think it’s funny when people ask me–despite knowing I’m an artist and an American–to share my point of view on politics. I see no relationship between myself and the so-called “Israeli Palestinian conflict”. I see myself as a person who has witnessed human rights violations that have been directly supported through financial and political means on the part of my elected government and implicitly supported through the omission of a Palestinian narrative when I was a kid learning about the history of Israel in my weekend religious school. As an artist, I use the tools that I know to communicate this outrage and this story, the best way I know how.

Touché! Does that frustration motivate your work in general?

It certainly did after my first visit to Palestine in 2006. Now I find that it’s too depressing to use that as a motivator long-term and it can lead to didactic work. I’m still figuring out all my motivations, but in general, it just makes me happy to be working.

I haven’t embarked on another big project connected to Palestine because after Facts on the Ground, I needed to take a break and remember that as an artist, I shouldn’t be constantly saying the same thing with every project. So I’m working around this by focusing my attention on the place I live now, which is Detroit.

Your recent work about Detroit, where you’ve lived for five years, notes similarities between life in that city and life in Palestine. Can you describe where your work is going right now?

I recently put together the project From Here On Out, which consisted of prints, photographs, and writings based on my experiences living in Detroit, or more specifically, the two-square-mile city-within-a-city of Hamtramck. I showed with work with Andrew Thompson, another Detroit-based artist, in 2012 and it was great to get feedback from the community in which the work was created.

Right now I’m working on etchings that reference a current, but longstanding, local crisis: the massive mismanagement and under-funding of the city’s Public Lighting Department. There are large swaths of Detroit that are literally in the dark due to non-functioning lampposts. This lack of public lighting affects public safety in a city that already experiences high rates of crime and poverty.

The project that’s on the back burner is to create another artist’s book that combines imagery and stories that I’ve collected around Detroit and Palestine, to bridge the two distinct but rich communities I’ve immersed myself in over the past eight years. Right now, I’m just responding to the images I’ve collected around Detroit and making discoveries about those linkages as I go through my routines both in and out of the studio.

Three years later, can you see ways that your WSW residency impacted your work or career?

The experience of being in the intense environment of WSW–where you’re working around the clock with only (forced) breaks to eat and an occasional walk–is one that sets that standard for what you can do when you have the time and support to do it. The experience alone makes me crave more like it, so I’m always thinking of dream projects I’d like to work on should another opportunity arise.

Having evidence that I can complete a project like Facts on the Ground has led to other opportunities that have impacted my career. Still, I’m most proud of the fact that when I showed a proof copy to friends in Palestine I got such positive feedback. I’m always aware that Facts on the Ground shares a narrative that’s not my own, so that was really gratifying. I left two copies behind and just knowing that they’re sitting on shelves somewhere in Ramallah makes me happy.

That’s awesome. What is success for you?

Success is staying true to myself and constantly making–having the resources to do my work and being surrounded by great people.

What advice would you give to emerging women artists?

Your community of friends, family, mentors and fellow artists is one of your greatest assets. Be ambitious in your practice, share yourself and what you know with your community, and remember that having good people in your life is part of growing as an artist and as a person.

Toby will discuss her recent work and demo basic intaglio techniques this Sunday, April 13 at the Detroit Institute of Art.  See more of here work at www.tobymillman.comFacts on the Ground is available for purchase in our bookstore.