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Vol 19, no. 6
December 2016/ January 2017


The Alchemist 
Story By: Alan McNarie
Photo By: Andrew Richard Hara

‘‘Every time I start a new piece, it’s like casting a net,” says Elizabeth Miller. “I never know what I’m going to find.” The Hawai‘i Island artist casts quite a broad net. Miller is almost as much a scientist as an artist, as knowledgeable about biology as mythology. Her mixed media work—featuring varnish, ink, paper and intricately worked metal over cores of wood—reflects both those sensibilities.

Take, for instance, her renderings of the ‘alala, or Hawaiian raven. ‘Alala currently live only in captivity at Hawai‘i Island’s Keauhou Bird Conservation Center, though some were reintroduced into the wild last fall. A piece entitled “‘Alala Hovers on the Event Horizon” refers to the event horizon of a black hole, the point beyond which light can’t escape the black hole’s gravity. In Miller’s piece, this is a metaphor for extinction; the ‘alala’s outstretched wings beat against the void even as the bird’s eyes stare into it.

Miller discovered her love for science and nature while growing up in Iowa. “My backyard was nature and my front yard was town,” she says. She graduated valedictorian from high school and was set to study quantum physics with a grant from the National Science Foundation. But the summer before college, her mother took her to Europe. Visiting museums such as the Uffizi and the Louvre, Miller encountered for the first time “the best art in the Western world.” She majored in physics at Iowa State University but took an art course and discovered that, for her, art was “a more natural language than mathematics.” She’s been casting nets into the void ever since.

One of her ‘alala pieces, “Ao Calls and Coaxes Becca Awake,” is based on an account by avian biologist Rebecca Espinoza, who dreamed that Ao, one of the ‘alala she cares for, cawed in her face and told her to pay attention. “The dream changed her life,” Miller says. “She’s been more present, and not just in her head.” In the crescent-shaped sculpture, Becca and Ao face each other, but the bird’s plumage—drawn feather-by-feather on aluminum, then stretched into bas-relief with wooden tools—merges with Becca’s hair, a representation of one being confronting two aspects of itself. The piece, which won the sculpture category in a recent Volcano Art Center exhibition, serves as an epitome for a recurring theme in Miller’s work: Everything is connected.