INTERVIEW: Regina Miele in conversation with Nicole Osborne
GW & Corcoran second-year MFA student, Nicole Osborne, recently sat down with DC-based artist and painter Regina Miele to discuss the history of her studios in DC, her relationship to the spaces in which she occupies, and the ways in which the city has become unsupportive of artists.
The interview took place at Nido Restaurant in Northeast DC and was originally published in the exhibition catalogue for Regina’s solo show at Gallery 102, which is on view from July 3 - July 28, 2017.
Nicole Osborne: How many studios have you had in the D.C. area, and where were they located?
Regina Miele: I have had three, no four. First was from 1998 -2012 at 1833 14th Street, the second from 2012-14 at 1830 14th street (Arts@1830). I don’t even know the dates after because I was so traumatized. I worked out of my fourth-floor apartment after being evicted out of the gallery Arts@1830. I made my living room a bedroom and I painted out of what was my bedroom. It was something crazy like I was doing art expo New York and I had New York shows and I had to get work done. That’s all in like this PTSD void and then I moved the frame shop and me to 411 New York Avenue in May 2014. The person who I signed a lease with in this large building turned out to not be paying. The guy who I am leasing from gets evicted, the building owner decides to lease most of my first-floor space to, I guess, a drug dealing furniture import company. I am not kidding. I come into work one day and I had framing work that was going to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. I had a Norman Lewis, a Harlem Renaissance Painter, called The Card Players that was valued at $860,000 dollars. Plus, I was working on a solo show for gallery Plan B. I walk in and I was next to where the bathrooms were and I had a closed locked door. They had a rave and were dealing heroine off the loading dock. So I walk in to go to work, and the toilets had overflowed, and all of the furniture was picked up. I called my landlord and sent her photos and just said “I’m leaving.” I found the place where I am now ‘Off the Beaten Track’ on Craigslist. They met me in the middle of a snowstorm and I was like “Ok I want to come. I need these promises from you: tenants will be vetted, screened, it’s not going to be a party space and it is actually going to contain working artists.” For my entire younger adult life I had my own building, and sharing is hard. But I mean especially when you have drug dealing “furniture importing people.”
Osborne: Which Studio was your most memorable? What was your favorite thing about it?
Miele: My first one (1833 14th Street). I loved it there. I was only 28 when I started in Wheaton, MD in 1995. I was able to grow my framing and art business enough in those three years that I could afford to move to downtown, live separately from my work, and really have my own space. Part of the framing that I was doing was a big contract for the Sibley Hospital. I have had amazing painting karma. It was really quiet at that time on 14th street. I think it’s probably, in my entire adult life up until now, the one place that I have been completely at home. It’s like a sacred space. The irony of that is that it’s not like it was safe in the late 90s. The criminal parts of it were big time dealers and if you weren’t involved then it actually was very safe. Probably safer than it is now. I mainly liked that it was a wide street and I was on a higher floor and I had no neighbors.
Osborne: How has gentrification directly impacted you as an artist?
Miele: Well losing the space on 14th street. I think it was inevitable regardless of whether or not it happened that year by combining a partnership and starting a new place. It would not have been sustainable. It made my life from 40 to 46 terribly unstable and I love stability.
Osborne: How do you cope with that instability especially with your art practice and moving around?
Miele: It was terrible. I get the dates of all that a little bit jumbled up. I did major solo shows somehow during moving my studios. So not only am I moving a framing business around, which you know everything that is involved with that and the setup of, I was also throwing down a couple of boxes and putting up canvas. I think my practice and the deadlines probably kept me sane in all honesty. As in working through it, not “working through it” in the Oprah sense, but working through it in the 40 hour a week get it done sense. I have lost time. It was really traumatic because I had been doing this self-employment thing at that time since I was 25. I had never missed a rent payment or missed a bill. I am an intensely responsible person. Then to be in a position of having a successful business and go through an eviction at 40 because of somebody else’s inability. I didn’t grow up in that world. I don’t know people like that. None of my clients were those kinds of people. These partners had ample opportunity to just buy me out of that space but I think what they were waiting for was for us not to succeed, but we were succeeding with Arts@1830, which was not working for them. The life lesson is that I don’t see money as being a finite resource. I have a great deal of confidence in my abilities as a framer and my talent as an artist. I see the world and the universe as a benevolent place. I think everything that they did kind of exemplifies the fact that they see themselves as valueless. You know it’s a real estate grab. I have to make this money in these five years or I am never going to make it again because I have nothing to offer. I mean just don’t do business with a bar.
Osborne: How has gentrification changed the landscape of your work?
Miele: Well, I used to paint a lot of roof top scenes and also kind of a figure-to-ground relationship where one was physically capable, in the city, of seeing two-thirds of the sky and now there is no horizon left. So, architecture and buildings almost become portraiture. There is no distance for your eye to go.
Osborne: Have you gone back to rework old pieces after the gentrification of that area in your previous work?
Miele: I did one painting. Often when I am working a show or body of work I give myself one kind of punching bag of a painting. It has nothing to do with aggression. It is my place to make mistakes in a sense. I decided to paint over my least favorite painting that was left over from a body of work that was in a show in New York in 2001. I painted a scene at 14th street that I had always meant to paint, and I put my former business partners in it along with rats. The painting was called Rats and Viking Raiders. It was in a show in Charlottesville at Second Street Gallery and I had an interested buyer and I was like “I am gonna say collection of artist” because I wanted to bring it home and paint over it. Like the physicality of wiping it away and making something new felt important. That was therapy. It wasn’t a great pursuit of art. That was it and I think I have moved on. But then I painted over it again and I think one of the paintings in the show is painted over it.
Osborne: Do you think that local grants help artists in D.C.?
Miele: I’ve never had the opportunity to apply for one because I own and run a business. I deal with the responsibilities of that and also for my art which is already a full-time job. One difficulty for me in doing grants is I have to be very careful with how much I allow my left brain to take over my paintings before they are done. I don’t necessarily want to write out everything about them because I’m dispossessed that way. Like very mechanical, I can go from being painterly and expressive, and so while probably it would be a good idea, with the system that is set up, it is not something I would participate in.
Osborne: Do you know of anybody who has been getting grants to help them with housing and does it seem like it is helping them?
Miele: Yes, I know someone. No, it doesn’t seem to be helping much. It’s like an accolade and a bit of doe. $5,000 is only two months’ rent here. I mean it’s nothing.
Osborne: How stable is your currently location/studio? Any plans to move again?
Miele: Only because the people who bought my building built it out of a passion for sustaining the arts is it stable. So, they were fortunate enough to be able to retire in their late 40s (financially) and my understanding is that this is their kind of retirement and will have it for at least 10 years. However, I don’t think anything is stable that one doesn’t own. Because of serious life circumstances, what if one of them becomes ill or a child? It’s equity and if you need the money you need the money. I certainly don’t feel like it is 100%. I wish it was just my commercial lease because whenever I have done that it has been super stable.
Osborne: Is there a possibility of leaving D.C.?
Miele: If Trump wins a second term, I am going to leave the country, I am fairly sure. Otherwise, I really like it here. Not in the immediate future. My family is in New York City, but I don’t really plan on it.
Osborne: Is there anything that attracts you visually to an area that has been gentrified?
Miele: The sky always. I think the natural aspects are sort of what predominate for me anyway and then the humanity is just superfluous decoration to the whole thing. I love the way that Rock Creek Park looks from the Connecticut Avenue bridge. Washington, DC is one of the most beautiful cities especially when you can get to a higher vantage point.
Osborne: Do you think artists will be able to get to a higher vantage point within the city now?
Miele: At a certain point, new housing that was going up had to have affordable “housing” for artists but it appeared that none of the documentation applied to how artists actually make money. Like 15 years ago, I think the low income that would have been accepted would have been $60,000 dollars, which is hilarious, as you know. So here is the other part about the gentrification. I am not talking about just in terms of artists. When I first got to 14th street, I loved my neighbors. The whiter it got the less I liked living there. There is something special about people who are willing to move to a place where they are a minority or people who have lived in a place that are in multigenerational homes that are willing to accept new people of a different race in a very open and welcoming way where nobody is paranoid yet. That is a beautiful sweet spot. So once my neighbors especially on T street started being displaced by higher property taxes, I stopped liking that neighborhood. It lost all character, and not character in like a “boogie day at the zoo let me see the people” kind of way. I didn’t know anybody’s name anymore. We all used to spend time together. You have these globs of people now who don’t interact whatsoever. One thing that you guys are going to miss out on in a “whitified” DC is stoopin’, like in the summer. Very few of the old row houses have HVAC. You would have to break down plaster and lath walls. You’re not going to have air conditioning. Everybody sits out on their porch and you all wind up sitting out on the porches together. Maybe you didn’t have a plan. You know it used to be by the end of the August night like 40 people are in the same place and people would go home and get food. It is nostalgia, it’s not just geography. It’s the experience of a time period. Having varied ages, which used to be a thing within a neighborhood. This whole thing where you are in a demographic of people where you are all exactly within the same age group and within the same income, it’s boring and it’s kind of dead.
Osborne: What do you think D.C. (including government and cultural organizations) programs should do/need to do in order to ensure the success of artists?
Miele: I would say to first of all stop viewing individuals and their skill set, which is possessed by a minority of the population, as novelty and actually recognize it as the source of revenue that it is. Provide it the same professional support that you do any other industry and actually more given the fact that it’s never been there. I think DC should make an effort to promote individual artists and the Smithsonian. I love the National Gallery; I don’t want to live without it. It is still my once-a-week destination, but we need to educate people in the city that because you can see a Monet for free doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t live without a piece of work that you love and that you have to pay for it. There is an exchange of actual currency that needs to happen. Like in order that I can then pay my rent, my landlord buys another car; we all keep the economy going. The whole idea that I am going to do work for exposure as equivalent exchange is a joke. Well do I get to take that can of exposure to whole foods and be like “Hey I have some exposure could you trade me $40 in groceries?”
Osborne: Conversations around gentrification also raise questions of race, class, and gender. What are your thoughts on the intersectional ways in which gentrification targets and displaces particular communities? How in your work do you come to terms with that?
Miele: Well I think that in my personal life, I have always lived in intensely diverse communities before they become gentrified. I am an artist, I am also a gay woman, and for somebody my age certainly I wouldn’t have come screaming out of the closet in my early twenties. It would have been terrifying. I think there is an inherent empathy with other, and I don’t even want to use the word minority, you know the neighborhood where you are visiting me now most of my neighbors are retired African American former civil servants. I, as a human being, would prefer interacting with them because it is sincere, down to earth, interesting, and devoid of pretense. I would have preferred those interactions in my twenties. I think the only way I confront it in my work, in the words of Picasso, is “all art is self-portraiture.” I tend to paint the world around me, which is now my new cusp of gentrification neighborhood. I am terrified of white people with their ergonomic strollers and their little dogs. I mean I don’t know if there’s like a PTSD phobia for that but it scares me to death. It’s like right behind a Starbucks, Whole Foods and moving again. I think what people outside of the arts don’t understand is that it’s not for lack of any financial responsibility that this happens. I own a corporation which is my art business. I make a decent living. But there is just so much money that could be earned at this, you know, without doing solos at the MoMA. I think my life with just rent and health insurance, phone, materials, like everything you would get with a job, is probably around $40,000 a year before I can earn anything to pay myself. It’s not like you are a starving artist who isn’t earning anything. It’s just you know health insurances is $4,800 a year. As a business, you have to have a mandatory million-dollar liability policy. I mean just in insurance, I pay $12,000 a year. So, think about how many paintings that is. It’s not that you’re here slacking off. It’s everything you have to provide for yourself being self-employed.
Osborne: Do you think helping with small business will also help artists?
Miele: I do. I mean small business is under 15 employees. Actually, the latest job numbers that came out today is that the businesses that have the most hiring are under 500 employees. This is a country of small businesses. You want to affect the economy, then help small business. DC is very onerous tax wise and compliance wise, so that kind of support would be very helpful. I also think if small businesses could coalesce to form groups to buy things like liability and health insurance that would be the most helpful thing that the DC Commission of Arts and Humanities could do.
Osborne: Has there been any positive effects of gentrification on your work or artistic career? What sort of efforts have you witnessed that are working to resist such aggressive gentrification?
Miele: I would say a positive effect for me as a result of the changes is that I learned to live with less and as a result have more time for creating better paintings, which was the main idea all along. I think we need to accept the world class status that this city should have always had and deserved. We need to realize that comes on the back of a lot of pain; historical pain and suffering, starting in the colonial period, including slavery, and that world class can remain diverse, economically and racially. There is nothing wrong with poor people, they just make much less money than you. There has to be a way where for people where this has been home for generations, it continues to remain home. Especially the historically black churches. I don’t even, honestly with the whole arts thing I am not having a giant woe is me first world problem about it. I have a deeper sense of sadness about the racial and the long-term resident aspect. I wish the white people who are moving into the city were more like those people 20 years ago who were like “I don’t care about being the only white person on the block.” We are few and far between. Like my generation of white residents, I think we’re really incredibly bright, smart, and open-minded people, so all of this work has been done. African-American families that have been here, have been supportive of family forever. The crack pipe epidemic sucked, but that wasn’t everybody. I mean simply now that it’s safe and there are grocery stores, the people who were there for the “shit show” why do they have to move? To me, it seems like a basic issue of fairness. Not that you have to move, but like property taxes should have some kind of cap on it. I don’t want to live in an all affluent millennial white DC. I would rather go to Brooklyn. Somebody was talking to me about how there could be more bike lanes on Capitol Hill if the historically black churches moved out to Maryland where all of their people are. Let me explain this to you like you are seven-years-old. The 80-year-olds grew up in that church probably from 1937 until present-day. The first 30 years of it was Jim Crow laws and a segregated south. Talk about taking someone’s home away from them. That’s more than a home, that is probably the safe place for Wednesday dinners. How do you live somewhere and not want to know anything about the culture around you? You live next to a historic church, it doesn’t occur to you to ask “I wonder when or why that was built?” The curiosity factors that are outside of one’s own life, one’s own screen? Stop being so narcissistic.
Nicole “Ozzy” Osborne is currently a DC-based artist, arts writer, and currently enrolled in the GW MFA program. Their work currently centers around the designation of the “other” and has shown in various galleries in the DMV. They are currently the graphic designer for Gallery 102 and the Center for Career Services at GW.