Art has been used as a form of therapy since the 1940s. It’s used as a vehicle to tap into a patient’s mind to help express their innermost thoughts and experiences. Combining creativity, work ethic, and talent, you get 24-year-old Joey Miller. He channels those thoughts to reimagine the surreal, conceptual art of his own mind. With each piece, he adds a personal, poetic description.
ONE37pm sat down with Miller, to talk about his deeply thorough and exhaustive artistic process, the concepts behind his work, and his use of art as a form of therapy.
Joey Miller was born and raised in Bristol, Indiana, where he cultivated an early love and talent for art.
His kindergarten even called his parents and encouraged him to pursue art, after drawing a leaf.
“I don’t know how that’s possible to this day, there’s no way that I was actually good at art, but they called my parents,” Miller said. “They said, ‘We think that he should pursue art because he seems to really be passionate about it.’”
From that moment on, he assigned himself the title of artist. He started off as an oil painter and transitioned to murals and graffiti. But, a pivotal moment in his career was when he got a six-month museum internship as a 15-year-old at the University of Notre Dame.
“I went to learn about curation and how to put on a show,” Miller said. “That’s really where my spark of art history and some of the things in my work ethic as an artist revolves around.”
However, as life went on, Joey began to develop a substance abuse problem. Coupled with his dissociative personality disorder, he says he became incredibly aggressive and an absolute bully to the people around him.
“I was this soft, hard to be around artist,” Miller said. “Just very emotional, very vulnerable and wore my heart on my sleeve from a very young age. And that causes problems as a teenager.”
However, he was able to channel this emotion and expressed it through his artwork.
Miller says his disorders inherently provided some benefit for his inspirational process.
“I used all of those problems as a superpower. I never lacked anything to say. It’s like, ‘I don’t know which one of these ideas I’m going to do. I’m self-isolating in a way that I’m expressing this through writing pages at a time about pieces of art I wanted to make.”
Through all of his problems and addictions, Joey’s drive and passion for photography never wavered.
He lived in a converted maintenance closet, but would wake up at 6 a.m. every morning and edit photos for four and a half hours,
“I would make $150 a day just shooting the most boring stuff I could,” Miller said. “And then in between I’d be grinding out concepts, writing stuff down, going to the Art Institute and trying to learn from people who were better than I am and accepting that there are better artists than me. If I ever believe that I’m the best artist I know, I need to really re-evaluate my ego and see where I’m going.”
Joey Miller says his creative and healing process is similar to military training. “I got no sleep for four or five days at a time, not eating, and it’s not because I am trying to torture myself, but I’ve found that I am able to work out my problems in life in a healthy way by doing similar to what they do in military training. I would break myself down into this vulnerable mass of a person. And that person to me was going to scream what I wanted to say with art.”
Starting off as an oil painter, Joey didn’t understand photography, “I thought it was dumb.” “I got home and my mom just handed me her camera and she’s like, ‘Let’s drive around.’ I went and I shot photos and I hated it. I was like, ‘This is stupid and I’m bad at it.’ But then I realized I loved that I was bad at it and that I got to start over and pick and choose the kind of artist I was rather than letting other artists around me choose for me.”
Traveling with friends, Joey became the designated photographer of the group and started posting a photo a day on Twitter, where his photos quickly gained popularity in the photography community. “From then on, I hit the ground running, trying to share my art with people in the most meaningful way you can on social media. It’s not something I expected to do.
Joey became mutual followers with notable artist, FEWOCiOUS that originally made him aware of NFTs. Like many artists, Joey was initially apprehensive about NFTs. “When it first reached the photography community [the sentiment] was, ‘Oh, don’t do this.’” Milled said. “They’re stealing the licensing of your photos.’ And I didn’t really understand it.”
Down on his luck, about to lose his apartment, and with his personality disorder becoming more and more severe, Joey finally decided to list his first NFT. “Screw it. I’m going to list this photo that’s somehow gotten very popular and see what happens.”
Fast forward a few weeks later, popular NFT creator and collector, Loopify, bought it for full price. “I just know I was at my parents’ house. I had just gotten out of a psych ward treatment center, and I came home literally wearing the same clothes as I was wearing when I left the psych ward I just looked at my phone and didn’t say anything. I just started to zoom out. And my mom was like, ‘What?’ And I was like, ‘I just sold a piece of art for, like, $1,200 dollars.’ And she was like, ‘No, you didn’t.’ And showed her and then showed my dad.” “I never had money before. I never had money in my account to really do anything.”
“And then the next one came. I just sat on the kitchen floor and kind of stared and cried with my mom.”
The money from the sales meant that Joey was going to be able to afford better treatment, but the validation of people enjoying his art meant so much more.
“You spend your whole life working on something and someone finally looks at you and says, ‘Hey, I value what you did here.’ Because being an artist, no one’s going to tell you that you’re good, other than other artists. So to hear someone who views it as a luxury and something that they would love to have because they appreciate the effort and the meaning, it was amazing to me. It changed my life and the journey after that was so exciting. Getting sober and being able to afford the really nice treatment and getting my life on track, it felt like a dream.”
Fast-forward over a year into his NFT journey, Joey still believes that patience and putting out what you love is far more important than the stream of “more, more, more,” that we see in the current NFT market.
I learned to be patient and I learned to be in for the long haul. Like how NFT people talk all the time, it’s about ‘building, building, building.’ It’s so much more important than putting out a collection of 500 photos that I didn’t put that much in each photo. I would rather sell higher-priced photos, four or five of them at a time.
“That to me just felt like a very rewarding way to live because you put all this time and effort into something and then six months later, it pays off. That’s the good thing about being an artist, that’s why I’m still doing it. This idea that I get to wake up every day and make something and I’m going to pay my bills with it, that’s a pretty privileged lifestyle right there.
The NFT space just opened those doors for me because it gave me liquidity. It gave me things to invest into my art and hire people, hire subjects, hire assistants to help me make these images come true. And that’s been what my path in the NFT space has been. Rolling with the punches, but always having a plan, if that makes any sense. It’s a contradiction.”
Currently, Joey is in a much better place in his life.
“I’m at this stage in my life where I’m settling down and I’m in treatment and I have accountability. And that’s the thing that people with these disorders lack is that we tend to be able to shut off that switch of feeling that we did anything wrong. And especially with my writing, I am able to hold myself accountable, you know? Life is like sailing and so is art. It’s a constant battle of micro-adjustments to get more wind. What can you do to make this a smoother ride for everybody involved? I apply that mindset to both art and like how I am living my life. A lot of it is also to help me work out these problems. I have a hard time being honest with myself about the things that are going wrong in my life. I tend to compartmentalize and get rid of them. When you’re working on a piece of art, it’s in front of you, you’re looking at a mirror. You’re looking at yourself, your problems, and you put them on the page and spend 10 hours making them perfect. And then it’s done.”
Using his most recent piece, We Were Never Here, released during VeeCon 2022, Joey describes how he uses his art and writing to help find solace within himself.
When you live in a house fire of mental instability people tend to only be able to bear the heat for a short time, then they have to leave. So many people have tried to put me out, and I’ve burned every single one of them. I don’t blame them for leaving, sometimes I think they forget that I get licked by these flames too and that brings an unavoidable sense of accountability. My mom would always tell me “hurt people tend to hurt people.” But I seemed to always be the one doing the hurting, especially to myself. I sat on the floor of my now empty apartment, I didn’t realize how a person’s toothbrush no longer next to the sink could make the room feel empty. I was glad she left, I loved her enough to endorse her staying away from me. She was not my soulmate or some romanticized figure, but she loved me and I had taken that for granted. I did not want to forget but I did, I figured letting go was the last chance I had to do one thing right for her. I promised myself if it took years that one day I’m going to find the partner of my dreams and this mental illness will not be an excuse for me, and that I would not be a tool for it to ruin that. That was 7 years ago, I now live on the same block as that tiny apartment and it’s a humbling reminder every time I look out the window that I never want to have to forget someone I love again.
“The idea is that I was ruining my relationships with people I really loved, treating them badly because I was hurting. And that’s not okay. You don’t deal with pain by evening the playing field for the people that are trying to help you. And that’s like the way I was living. I was tired of making the people I love upset, crying, and fighting them over them trying to help me. So I used art as the catalyst to get that ball rolling.”
Using his genesis piece, Tensions Print, Joey describes the thought process behind this work. “My Genesis piece is about forcing myself to think about what happens to my family and friends when I go on drug benders because I’m disassociated, I’m not there. But they’re still there thinking about where I am, why they can’t contact me. I thought about the vulnerability of someone getting out of the shower. I wanted the character to be wrapped in a towel in this comfortable place, they should feel at home. But I wanted to express the dread that hangs over people when they have someone in their life with a problem like that.”
“That piece took 13, 14 hours to build the set for that alone. But that 13 or 14 hours of being alone and nailing wood together and putting lights up, that was my time to really beat the shit out of myself about how to fix this. How do I get to the root of what is causing this and hold myself accountable and get past it? That’s one of the things that really helped me get sober. Using my art to talk about the things that I hated talking about to have a conversation with my subconscious.”
“I just consistently self-audit, trying to hold myself accountable and figure out what I can do with my career, that I have this ability to express what I’m feeling, to bring myself back down, to humble myself, to get my ego to a normal state. And that’s what art has been to me for, especially for the last four years.”
“I knew that I wanted to have pages of my artwork from my sketchbook flowing through this area to talk about the discourse I was having with the entire world, but also addressing the delusions of grandeur that anyone is going to see your artwork for more than a split second as it flows by. So the idea of pages flowing through the wind was my vulnerability, that’s very physically visible, but no one’s seeing specifics. And so I started to workshop things. We set up a background, bought a bunch of atmosphere spray, and started throwing pieces of paper to see if we could photograph how we wanted it to, we’re doing math to see how zoomed in we were and how big the pieces of paper were in the frame to match the ISO with the background of the ISO on that. So that was the preliminary stuff, seeing if we can do this right so we had proof of concept.”
I think art is 90% problem solving after the initial idea. You come in with a plan and you get punched in the face and things go sideways, but you come out with something.
“I sat down and was like, ‘I don’t know that we can create an accurate representation of what paper looks like blowing through the wind and how it would react with each other and things without doing some like hardcore research of what paper looks like.’
It’s a weird thing to say, but like if you look at paper flowing through the wind, it’s not just interacting with the wind, it’s interacting with each other. So what I did is I locked myself in my office and I was like, ‘I’m not leaving till I’m done with this.’
For 20 straight hours, Joey looked through thousands of photos of papers blowing in the wind, carefully selected 20 images, and then separated each into Photoshop files, and meticulously perspective warped them to the angle he anticipated it would be.
“And then you work in the next ten feet and now there’s papers that are kind of getting blown by other forces that are up in the wind and things are starting to hit like the water in the first photo. And of course, they’re going to get wet, so they’re not going to blow anymore. So we’re like, “Oh, we got to shoot photos in water.” So we bought a giant pan and my first thought was that there’s no way that we’re going to be able to shoot 200 photos of pieces of paper and cut them all out if we’re shooting in a silver pan with one piece of paper, so we got a Dr. Pepper and milk out in water and made it brown. We got as close to the raw file of what the water looks like as we could, and then we shot another 400 photos of pieces of paper from every angle.”
“We decided early on that I didn’t want to do any stock images, I didn’t want to use any synthetic grain. I wanted everything to be done in-camera. So we had to be incredibly thorough because when I sat down at my computer, I didn’t want to have to get up and lose that track to go look for another photo. I wanted to create folders on Lightroom to have everything that I need. So I sat down and I really started planning it in Photoshop and putting it together and it was, I think, 38 hours straight staring at my computer. I stared at my computer so long that my contacts fell out.”
“I have this mentality that it’s incredibly unhealthy, but that if I stop a project, I won’t have the same inspiration, so I just push and push and push and once again, doing things right when no one’s looking. I want to get the grain right, I want it to be able to be printed huge one day. I want it to be big. I love big art, I don’t know why.”
Incredibly meticulous with his work ethic, Joey spends “20 to 30 hours” on each piece. “It’s not that it takes 10 hours to edit a normal photograph, it’s that I’m writing for hours and doing the art nerd stuff, you know, getting into the nitty-gritty because the fun part about art is you get to challenge yourself.”
Joey’s upcoming drop will be a 3 piece collection of (1) ranked auction, (1) one-of-one auction, and (1) edition, dropping May 27th, 2022 on Nifty Gateway. This drop will also be the start of a fine art photography book called St. Anthony’s Fire. “It’s about being a teenager going through Catholic school while having dissociative illness and how St. Anthony was someone I identified with.”
St. Anthony’s Fire is set to release in mid-September with pre-orders beginning in early July.
Sitting over 30 hours at his computer, Joey was still not accepting his piece was finished. Joey then asked the “best ten and meanest artists” he knew to critique his work.
And they did it. And then I sat at the computer for ten more hours, and then I did it again with a different set of artists and basically just choosing people that were going to say what was already in my head, but I didn’t want to accept, you know. Working out all the kinks, I want to get as close to 100% in my idea of what the work is going to be as I can. I went through this incredibly extensive vetting process and critique process and sat down, sent it to a few people and got a huge offer on it. I looked at it and I was like, “I’m going to wait. I’m done, I’m going to wait for the auction.” And even if this person doesn’t bid, I am committed to finishing the first piece for the auction and I’m going to see that project through.”
“And I was like, ‘Okay, I’ve set the bar incredibly high with the amount of work we’ve put in. So the next one has to be better.’ I took everything I did the first time that I found unproductive and wrote it up into a list of things. And then I made another list of things I could do instead of that, just creating structure for myself to form accountability for my work ethic and not cutting corners. Then the second piece came out and people were really, really excited about it and I was like, “Okay, I have to kill the third piece.” And I’m shooting it at this engagement and it’s pretty cool. I like it a lot. I get excited about it just because I feel like I’m in my right artistic state of mind right now than I have been in the past. I’m sober, I’m in treatment, I really have the willpower and mental capacity to to push myself like I wanted to in the past, and that feels great. Just refusing to accept anything but the best that I could do and also accepting that I am still going to make mistakes when I do my best and willing to go back and laugh at my mistakes and do it again. But yeah, that’s kind of the process.”
For Joey, his thoroughness and almost painstaking process of conceptualizing, planning, executing, and editing his photographs is the most enjoyable for him. “The amount of redundancy I have in the checks and balances in my whole work process is something I really enjoy.”
I look stressed, I’m pulling my hair back and I’m not sleeping and people are like, ‘Dude, why are you doing this? You look miserable.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m having the most fun I’ve had in the last ten years. This is just what it looks like.’
This rigorous process not only created better fine art photography but also encouraged a better lifestyle for himself. “Just like with art, in life, I am constantly trying to self-audit myself. I want to be like my dad. It sounds so stupid, but the way he loves my mom, the way he treats people, the way he works in his career is amazing to me and I didn’t appreciate it as a kid, but that guy’s a superstar. He loves his family and he works hard to make sure the people around him are okay and that he’s okay. And I admire that. And it’s those life skills I didn’t get with drug addiction and mental illness that I’m finding now is a time when I need to step up and hold myself accountable and fix these things.”
With all of his recent successes and improvements in his daily life and health, Joey is not satisfied with where he’s at.
“I think I’m successful in what I set out to do. I don’t think you can consider me successful as an artist. The way I see it, from 22 to 28, you’re kind of in the draft of the NFL. You’re being drafted, and that itself is very cool and a huge accomplishment, but you’re not on a team yet, you’re not in the pros. You still have a lot more work to do, but everybody recognizes that you’ve already done a lot to get here. So I feel like I’ve come a long way, but I have a lot more goals and things that I could do better as it goes forward. I think being an artist is a never ending process. I think that I probably won’t even consider myself a success on my deathbed. I’ll still have 20 things I could think of that I wanted to do better. But that’s the beautiful thing about art, is that you’re never done.”