Ken Miller

interview bio website


The following is an interview that took place between Dec 2001 and November 2002 with Ken Miller. The interview was conducted via e-mail and the responses have been edited for content.

kiyotei: Why do you think any artist needs a web site?

Ken: Artists are driven by a need to communicate through non-standard means, otherwise they wouldn't bother to put up with all that it takes to be an artist. The web is a great medium for the artist to communicate visually, musically or verbally, but the sad thing is that there is so much great material out there that it all becomes like white noise and nobody really has the time to explore anything on the web on anything more than a superficial level. Conversely, lots of people make the mistake of spending so much time promoting themselves that they don't put enough material on their website, so there's nothing to see when you finally get there. It's tough to strike the right balance between the two.

kiyotei: When and why did you create your website ?

Ken: The first version of the website was constructed sometime around September, 1996 as a logical extension of my paper publication, Shouting at the Postman. It really was never meant to replace the paper version, and as time has gone on, it never has. In fact, having the paper edition allows me to publish things that I would never put on the web, honest stories about family members and such. The website is more of an archive of material I've already published.

kiyotei: What is your goal for the website?

Ken: In an ideal world, people would go to the website read my material at no cost to me, unlike the paper publication which costs me about 40 cents for a 24-page issue, plus postage. Unfortunately, it's difficult to get people to actually read any material online. People want short blurbs, not full articles, so most people only read the reviews. I can't really blame them, because it's difficult to read text on a screen for any length of time and not go bug-eyed. Aside from the articles, the website offers a real-time way to show the contributions to mail art projects, and the contributions can be reproduced in color, which are two great advantages over conventional documentation. Unfortunately, most mail artists don't like web-based documentation--having your art appear on a website is not nearly as cool as having it appear in a book.

kiyotei: It takes a lot of time to update web pages too! How many hours per week do you spend managing your excellent web site?

Ken: I don't have the time to work on my website now that we have a baby, but when it was being updated, I would update the "contacts" page about once a week, and I'd add articles and reviews about every 2 months, when a new zine came out. Oh, I didn't actually answer your question. I guess to add a new article to my site, I would spend about 2 hours, which doesn't sound like much, but I can't imagine spending that much time on anything non-baby-related now. Sometimes I get an hour, and I'm working first on answering my mail. Right now I'm about 5 months behind, and I'm a bit sad about that.

kiyotei: Well there are only so many hours in the day (and night). But a baby is a "creative venture" too. Just imagine what great artwork you can make out of discarded "Huggies?" I know you are into recycling (do you use cloth diapers)?

Ken: Of course. We had to use disposables when she first came home because she was too small for cloth, and it really sucked because we were always running out of them. Now we wash them once or twice a week, and there's a fresh supply for free. Disposable diapers are an environmental disaster. I guess it's like smoking- everyone knows it's not that healthy but the hard-core smokers will make up excuses like, "It helps me relax"...etc.

kiyotei: Well I know that red-meat is bad- but I just love the taste of a steak now and then. My wife tries to keep my healthy. but my three favorite food groups are popcorn, peanut butter sandwiches, and beer. Not exactly the Surgeon General's recommendation.

Ken: I was a big fan of steak too, but surprisingly there are excellent veggie steak "substitutes" that are pretty convincing. When we were in Prague, we were surprised at how many vegetarian restaurants there were. We found this cool hip place called Bona Vita which had a fantastic "fake steak" that had the right chewy texture and smoky flavor. There's a place near here that specializes in fake steak, but it's really expensive... in Prague, I think the whole meal was $8. The problem with vegetarian restaurants is that for some reason they're always pricey in America. It's sad that you have to pay extra to have healthy food... how can it cost more for vegetables then for a hunk of an animal that needs to be fed and given water for a year while it grows?

kiyotei: You have recipes on your site and you know a lot about different foods, could you share a secret about food with us?

Ken: "What's the origin of the name of Pumpernickel bread?" Pumpernickel, a coarse black bread, has a name that literally means "Farting Devil". "Pumpern" is a German verb meaning "to fart" and "Nickel" is a slang term for the devil ("Old Nick" is the closest English equivalent). So, pumpernickel is said to be so coarse that it would even make the devil fart.

kiyotei: Any other odd origins of food names?"

Ken: One of my favorite kinds of Italian sauce is something called "Puttanesca" sauce. "Puttana" means "Whore" in Italian (similar to "Puta" in Spanish), so perfectly respectible restaurants have something called "Whore Sauce" on their menus. Apparently, it was a kind of tangy, aromatic sauce used by prostitutes to lure men to their rooms in Italy.

kiyotei: What color gloves are you wearing right now?

Ken: Right now I'm wearing purple rubber gloves in an effort to help my chronically dry hands heal a bit from the painful cracking and peeling I'm experiencing today.

kiyotei: Tell me something about the neighborhood where you live.

Ken: We live in the middle of one of the most developed areas in the state, but we are lucky enough to have wildlife like foxes, wild turkeys, deer and heron in our back yard.

kiyotei: Where did you grow up at?

Ken: Not far from here, in a place called Fairless Hills. I lived next to my cousins, which was nice because I had built-in friends. Also, they had a pinball machine, which I thought was the coolest thing ever.

kiyotei: Which state do you live in? Pensylvania?

Ken: Yes. We're very close to the Delaware River and New Jersey... near where Washington Crossing is.

kiyotei: Were you always creative? Did you start to draw at a young age?

Ken: I don't remember drawing any more than anyone else, really. I was really into making things with Legos when I was a kid. I started making collages when I was about 16 or so, really because I thought it was fun. At the time I was heavily into computers, especially computer graphics, which was where I did most of my work until I learned how to paint in College. Now I combine everything into what I do.

kiyotei: Which computer applications did you use to do your graphics work?

Ken: Mainly Photoshop, Illustrator and Freehand. I layout my zine in Quark, and I use CorelDraw at work.

kiyotei: You’ve sent me some great mailart and I was wondering where we could see more of your paintings?

Ken: I've got many of my older ones on my "art website":
The whole site needs to be reformatted and updated, but I haven't had time for the intensive labor involved an overhaul... or even adding the new paintings... maybe someday!

kiyotei: One of my favorite places to visit on your Shouting at the Postman web site is the "Cult Figure of the Year" page. How did you come up with that theme?

Ken: The "cult figure" project grew out of a number of in-jokes I had in college in the late 80's. Of course, I didn't invent the idea - the subgenius movement has been using "Bob" for decades, but the funny thing is that I came up with the same thing on my own without knowing anything about the Church of the SubGenius, which leads me to think that there's something very elemental about the whole idea, perhaps going back to religious icons (or am I taking myself too seriously?). My first cult figure was a guy named Johnny Mann, who had a song-and-dance show that traveled around the country. My friend was working for the show and picked up a pile of programs, which had big pictures of Johnny on them. We were working with collage art at the time, and we started using his face on other people's bodies, and manipulating his picture in different ways. Later, I took this annoying guy in the college dorm and made him a cult figure just to bug him. Everyone got a big kick out of it, and we took it farther and farther, putting his picture everywhere, naming a month after him and really having a good laugh. He got pretty mad when people started to recognize him on campus, and he threatened to sue me. Eventually the jokes would get tired, so I started picking new cult figures every year. When I started doing the zine, I added them as a regular feature (except for this year, unfortunately). Opening it up to the mail art community has been incredibly rewarding--there are some brilliant people working out there, who come up with some really funny things. I've been very satisfied with the results. Again, the internet is far better for presenting the cult figures than the paper zine because I can continually update the website, and all the pictures appear in full color. I think that page is one of the most popular ones on my website.

kiyotei: Are there any published books about mailart that you recommend?

Ken: It's funny, but I've never read any published books about mailart. I really find discussions of mail art theory very boring, and pictures of individual pieces of mail art are not as interesting as getting something of your own. Mail art is best when it's extremely personal... Ray was a genius at that, he would send you something specifically for you, which gave it extra meaning.

kiyotei: Did you ever receive anything from Ray Johnson? What was it and why did it knock your socks off? How did you feel it was specifically for you?

Ken: He took the envelope I sent him and made a collage out of it, answering me with a pun. Of course, I was very lucky to have received an answer from him at all, as in his later years he apparently didn't answer everyone who sent him stuff unless they struck his fancy in some way. I was fairly new to mail art, and didn't really have a clue who he was (or, frankly, what I was doing), but I heard that he started mail art, so I asked him "Did you invent mail art?". His reply was to trace quarters and write "I invented 25¢, I invented change. Next Question" and a copy of a picture of him with Andy Warhol. Apparently he allowed me to ask three questions then he stopped replying. This was shortly before his suicide, so I was lucky to have contacted him at all. There was a conceptual genius to his work that I've only seen in a few other mail artists, so it was a pleasure to have known him.

kiyotei: So you got two more questions? What were they and what was the reply?

Ken: I was stupid and asked idiotic questions like "how many pieces of mail art have you sent out?" and "when did you start?". Ray changed my question to "how many pies have you sent out?" and answered "1", and "when did you start?" was answered "right now."

kiyotei: What other mailartists had a similar genuis?

Ken: Well, that's tough to answer because nobody is a genius in the same way as Ray... I'll have to pass on that one.

kiyotei: I just checked out your paintings on your web site and I really liked "The Farmers Wife" and "Still Life with Recipes"

Ken: Thanks! I still haven't posted any of my new stuff... it's kind of a more realistic approach to the same kind of art.

kiyotei: Can you describe the process you use to create one of these works? What is the collage composed of?

Ken: The collage is a mixture of photographs which have been digitally enlarged and printed with my photo printer, plus I incorporate pages from books, pieces of newspaper, maps, foreign language text...I've got a table full of all kinds of printed matter I collect for collage material.

kiyotei: You sent me some artwork created using cereal boxes? Are all the paintings you make created using cereal boxes?

Ken: These are usually painted on canvas or masonite. Cereal boxes are nice for art to send out to people, but they are far from the ideal surface to work on.

kiyotei: Who are your favorite artists, styles or works and why?

Ken: My favorite artist is Salvador Dali. Aside from his PT Barnum showmanship, he was the best artist of the 20th century, both technically and thematically. The more you learn about his work, the more is revealed in the psychological depths of the symbols he used... a private dictionary of fears and desires. I'd have to say that I like surrealism, also. My favorite Dali painting of all time is "The Hallucinogenic Torreador", which is Dali's tour de force. I had the pleasure of seeing it in person recently, and it's truly a great masterpiece. Other artists I like... J.G. Posada, the great Mexican woodcut artist, David Hockney, whose photocollages had a profound impact on my art, Heironymous Bosch, the first surrealist, Bernini, who can make stone seem more like flesh then real flesh does, and Joel Peter Witken, the photographer of nightmares.

kiyotei: What is it that you like so well about it (Dali's "Hallucinogenic Torreador")? I find the melting clocks (The Persistence of Memory - 1931 ) much more interesting than this painting.

Ken: Well, it's sort of like comparing a Mozart opera to a Mozart concerto... both are brilliant on different scales. Whereas "The Persistance of Memory" is a small meditation on the essence of time and decay, "The Hallucinogenic Torreador" is a grand and profound statement on the nature of mortality and death. "Torreador" is based on a double image Dali saw in a box of Venus pencils. In the photograph of the Venus de Milo, Dali saw the face of his dead friend Garcia Lorca as a bullfighter, facing his inevitable death in the bullring (the Spanish civil war). It's both a meditation on mortality and destiny, as well as an encyclopedia of Dali's painting styles (Cubism, Pop-Art, Op-Art, Surrealism and Classicism are all represented, as well as several stunning double-images). Death for Dali was the driving force in his work, the inevitable result of his having an older brother of the same name who had died before his birth, so that, in effect, Dali was able to see a tombstone with his own name on it for his whole childhood, and hear his parents talk of the "dead Salvador Dali". Dali himself felt that this was his most significant painting.

kiyotei: What do you think of ATC's (artist trading cards)?

Ken: I'm a big fan of them. I produced a set of them from medical photographs, where two of my cards together made a funny face. I think they're a great form of small expression.

kiyotei: How many mindless Xeroxed "add and pass" projects have you received in the past year?

Ken: I know they're mindless, but I still kind of have a weakness for them... they were the first kinds of mail art I was exposed to, so I keep doing them, and I keep getting them by the envelope-full, probably about 60 in the past year. They can be innovative and interesting, but many of them are pointless and boring... I never copy them, just add and pass them along. I get too many of them to make copying them an option.

kiyotei: Have you made any artistamps?

Ken: I made a few different sets of them. One was "Rest In Post" in 1995 with recently deceased people, Henry Mancini, Ray Johnson, Burl Ives, Raymond Scott, Charles Bukowski & Cab Calloway. I also did a "Post Post" sheet with puns on the word "post" like "compost" and "scratching post" and "lamp post". One sheet I did was Beluga Post, a random assortment of 42 images which I asked people to alter and pass along. I get new versions of that sheet from time to time, and I have a nice collection of them. Some people do some really neat things to them. I've been making stamp sheets out of 1x3 labels recently, and usually I make one for each cult figure. I also made some sheets for Ivan Preissler, a Czech mail artist who died recently.

kiyotei: Well Ken, I guess that's enough questions for now. Thanks for taking the time to correspond with me and share your thoughts, ideas and stories. I'm sure that you will continue to provide excellent content on your websites and I'll see you in the mail!

Ken: Kiyotei! It was fun to be interviewed and I can't wait to see it on your website. I hope people can learn something useful from it or at least be entertained for a little while.

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