Kaia Miller

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Kaia Miller, who lives in New York, is a 13-year-old a self-portrait artist. A few weeks ago I found Kaia’s Instagram: ethereal, beautiful, innovative, mystical and inventive. It acts as a portal to a wonderland, Kaia’s wonderland. She transforms her selfies into surreal dreamlands. Using only an iPhone, eyelashes become heart shape feathers, mermaid tails grow, vampire fangs drip with blood and she shrinks to the size of Thumbelina. Meanwhile, I struggle to decide the right contrast balance on Afterlight.

Kaia’s art is imaginative and bold; she takes risks and allows her mind to run free; and she still at the tender beginnings of her journey.

Last year, Kaia’s photographs were shown as part of the Me exhibition at the Ricco Maresca gallery. In the space, Kaia’s hyper-fantasy and digitally manipulated works sat next to iconic pieces by Andy Warhol and Vivian Maier – pretty impressive. It seems age really is just a number. We have fallen in love with Kaia’s work, and we have talked to her about it.

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There have been so many discussions around selfies and what they mean: narcissism, therapy, art, fad. What do they mean to you?

What I have noticed is that many selfies are taken as proof that the person was somewhere – an exciting moment – like a festival, with a celebrity, eating a delicious treat, etc. But, if you go back in history to when photography was just beginning during the U.S. Civil War, it was used as a documenting tool. It’s easier to look back at a photograph taken of you and have a surge of emotions. Today, selfies can be transformed into something completely different from the original picture. To me, they can be very meaningful if they capture an emotion or represent something when you can’t quite use words to describe it. I decided to translate selfies into my art because it’s quite satisfying to create a brief summary of a dream, idea, event, or emotion through a photograph.

How do you physically create your art? What processes do you use?

I actually started off just using my phone, a few softwares on my phone and computer, and nothing has really changed. I mostly use PicsArt, Pixlr and Superimpose. They’re simple applications on your phone and somewhat mimic Photoshop. I have always worked alone on the editing process. However, sometimes I will ask a friend or family member to help take a picture. I usually make a few drafts of an image and get an opinion from friends on which one to post on social media.

Tell us a bit more about your journey so far.

For as long as I can remember, I was enthusiastic about any type of art. From making a mess on a canvas to fashion design, I have always been obsessed with art and creating something. All of my techniques were self taught. I am going to the Maine Photographic Workshop Program this summer for two weeks, and that will change a lot, because I will use Photoshop and l may start incorporating more into the pictures. Although I am going to stick to photography.

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How do you balance the expectations of your age with being a young artist?

I am still at school and I’m pretty happy about it. I have barely found it difficult to balance being a young artist and being my age. Everyone seems to understand; my art teacher at school is very encouraging and I don’t know if I would have gone through with the show or any of this if she hadn’t been so enthusiastic about it.

Do you think social media and the digital world opens new opportunities for people your age?

I think social media is an amazing way to put your work out into the world. It is accessible to everyone and there has never been anything like it before. There are some aspects that get in the way of trying to share art like followers and likes. That’s why I have a lot of respect for Tumblr, as you can’t see the amount of followers a person has. Social media has increased accessibility for artists, which can only be a positive thing.

How did you get involved in the Me exhibition?

I was having dinner last Spring with Frank Maresca (an owner of the Ricco/Maresca gallery). He is friends with my Grandma; I have seen him here and there ever since I moved to New York four years ago. He wanted to see what I had been doing lately, so I showed him a small collection of my selfies. In July, he called and said that he couldn’t get the pictures out of his head, and he wanted me to be in his self-portrait show, Me. I was at Sleepaway Camp when this happened, so it was very exciting!

You showed among artists whose perception of selfies are fundamentally different to yours.

All of the selfies from the other artists were more similar to mine than I thought they would be. They’re all trying to send a message, instead of making the images ‘pretty’. My pictures are usually from dreams, things that I see walking down the street, or when I’m supposed to be focusing on a class but I happen to be thinking about random things. It also depends on what I’m feeling the day I create it. I believe that it is important to look beyond what is “pretty” and use selfies as reflective tool of what you are feeling or thinking.

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Has anything happened since the exhibition?

Right after the show ended, there was an article posted in the New Yorker by Adam Gopnik. I have also stayed in contact with Frank and always send him what I’m working on. I had a great time being a part of setting up the show, promoting it and having a meeting at the Tumblr office. I learned that art means something different to everyone, that is what makes it so special.

What are some of lessons, struggles, triumphs and joys you have experienced so far?

A lesson I have learned is that a self-portrait is definitely not about vanity. I’ve also learned that making art that is true to you and your style will be more interesting to viewers, than incorporating trends that have no meaning to you. I have had a lot of fun getting to know some of my supportive followers on Instagram; and I had a wonderful time getting to know everyone who works at the Ricco/Maresca gallery. It has been a really great year.

What are your plans for the future?

My plans for the future are to possibly do some collaborations with other artists. I may switch styles along the way, but art and creating will always be in my life.

Words by Mollie Pyne.

All images by Kaia Miller.