Paintings by local artist Sheila Miles will be on display at Artists & Makers Studio throughout January and February. (Sheila Miles/Submitted)

When Sheila Miles and her husband decided it was time to sell their Santa Fe house and downsize, she knew she wanted to move to a place where she felt joy.

They looked in several areas but moved to Oracle during some of the worst days of the pandemic.

She first visited Oracle years ago, where she had a brief residency at an artists’ ranch. She found the place gave her work a joyful vibe, infusing it with new color and life. It helped her to shift her focus.

“I make a living at art,” Miles said. “I do it every day (and have) for 50 years. I’ve been selling and showing for 50 years, but when you have galleries and you’re selling, it can get too serious. You can get too heavy. It can be a lot of pressure on the product — it can for some people be product oriented, which I reject anyway…I noticed that when I came over here, and we’ve come over every year because we had friends, that there was just this feeling of joy and joyfulness, and I didn’t want to lose that.”

An internationally recognized artist and teacher of art, Miles reached out to Artists & Makers Studios in Oro Valley after moving to Oracle. She asked if she could teach there. While the lessons had to be outside, it started the relationship that will blossom into an exhibition from Jan. 7 to Feb. 24.

“Forgotten Beauty — Hidden in Plain Sight” will feature 15 to 20 of Miles’ paintings, figurative works that capture everything from buildings to flowers to rocks to landscapes. It serves as her work’s introduction to the people of Tucson.

Friends said she still uses Santa Fe colors but, she pointed out, there are similarities because of the sun and the intense lighting in both locales.

Each place has strong shapes and shadows. In Oracle, she soaks in the beauty of the landscape, with its rocks and shapes that are new to her. She also appreciates the diversity of Arizona landscape with its desert gardens, cactuses and flowers.

“There is a personification in my art of what I experience in the environment,” Miles said. “I think it’s a little richer here in Arizona just because there is a lot of variety and color. It also seems like it’s a little harsher environment. It’s do or die. Everything here has some sort of protective thorn, cactus or pokey thing on it.”

Hailing from Indiana, she points out that the plants and weeds in the Midwest don’t have that protective layering, that self-defense built into their biology.

“It doesn’t have that kind of brutality or whatever is in the environment that is here,” Miles said. “That is a real contrast, and I don’t think I’ve fully figured out how to express the life and death here.”

She said when she looks out her window each day, she sees a pair of coyotes and wild pigs. They’ll feed themselves with the fruit of trees.

“Maybe they influenced me in some abstract way,” Miles said. “I’m still finding that. I’m still finding the palette and the colors in that palette.”

In her upcoming show, she expects to have a mix of cactus and landscape pieces. Her work has evolved over the years, but generally returns to familiar themes. She said she has been doing versions of houses and domestic structures for nearly 40 years, though they’ve changed from imaginary to realistic.

From 2015 until she moved to Arizona, she was creating pieces that were about light and shadow. She’s experimented with what she calls architectural landscapes, contrasting time and place and manmade and nature, the structures of man in nature.

Since she moved to the desert, however, she has started creating water pieces, seeking inspiration in any form of water, whether a puddle or a river.

“I think that’s compensation,” Miles said. “I don’t know how else to put it. ‘Why are you painting water? You’re in Arizona now.’ And I’m like, yeah, because there’s no water.”

Many travels

She and her husband explore Arizona backroads and all over Montana, Wyoming, California, Nevada and Utah. She said she has more than 80,000 photos in her cloud storage and shoots upward of 3,000 pictures a day. She uses these photos as inspiration for her painting.

Miles was looking for a place to teach when she found Artists & Makers. Before the pandemic, she was a guest artist in Florence, Italy, for about five years and was supposed to go to Tuscany to teach, but that appointment was canceled when COVID-19 arrived.

She said she is passionate about teaching. When she lived in Santa Fe, people would fly in and do workshops or study with her, and she wanted to continue that in Arizona. She did an outdoor class for Artists & Makers and then applied to do a show there.

Because she loves teaching so much, she’s going to do two demonstrations during the exhibition. One of them is 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, Jan. 21.

She’s going to use watercolor to talk about making a painting. However, she also plans to adapt her demonstration based on who shows up. If there are artists, she may talk about the life of an artist and how to be successful at the business end of it.

The second workshop is 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, Feb. 11, during which time she will talk about oil painting and cold wax. She’ll talk about her brushes, composition and how she paints in oil painting. She may also address how she uses photographs and the ways to transfer a photograph using the grid method.

She said she’s very willing to talk in these sessions about how to make a living as an artist and what kind of expenses are involved in it. Last year, she said she sold 75 paintings and is willing to share how she navigates that. She points out that artists can’t afford to ignore the business end if they want to keep painting, especially if they are as prolific as she is. She said last year alone she spent $10,000 on shipping costs and $10,000 on supplies.

Gallery manager Devi Hobot came up with the name for the show. Miles said she was impressed with it and thought it showed insight into her work.

“I do paintings that focus on the beauty of something,” Miles said. “I have a file in my photos called ‘wowzers’ because they’re so beautiful and then I make them pop even more, so I do make a lot of paintings that are about understated places that are just about the shadow on the wall. It’s about seeing things that might go unnoticed.”

In her travels, she once went by an old RV trailer that had people living in it and it was bright yellow with palm trees planted around it.

“It captured my imagination,” Miles said. “A lot of people, it’s not what they aspire to, they’d go, 'Oh my god, it’s just an ugly trailer all by itself.' I’m looking at it like it’s a nice escape. I have a painting of that. It will maybe capture someone’s imagination about what it might be.”

It’s important for her to notice things that other people might walk past, whether it is a shadow or a different look at a landscape.

“A lot of people comment on my paintings saying ‘oh, I want to be there,’” Miles said. “It’s about taking something that’s kind of plain, or a modest sort of existence and making it remarkable in some way.”

“Forgotten Beauty” will be the first of seven shows Miles has booked for this year. She hopes it will serve as an introduction to people in Tucson of her work and her point of view. She says she tries to have a fresh take on her work and hopes that those who see it will be able to have a different perspective on familiar things.

“I hope people go, ‘Oh, I haven’t looked at a tree that way’ or ‘I haven’t seen the sunset that way.’ Maybe it will take them to a new place.”

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.