Ryan Miller is an artist from Chicago whose work and story captivated me from the moment I first came across his profile online. The piece I adopted and brought into my art family, Bohemian Moon, is breathtaking in its living beauty. He painted it while musician friends played Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody. How cool is that?
AMY: From the outside, it seems like you're one of the lucky few who's been pursuing your dreams your entire life. How did you avoid "getting a real job"?
RYAN: I joined the band program in 5th grade like a lot of other kids. I had a natural knack for the trombone and played all the way through high school. Once I got to college, I just kept studying music. Even though I had other interests (art among them), music was my strongest talent so I just went with it. Once I got out of college it became obvious how hard it was going to be to make a living as a freelance musician, so I started giving music lessons.
That became the backbone of my income for a long time, and took the pressure off of my performing life. I taught at dozens of schools, a few major Universities, and even started my own music lesson studio employing several other teachers. Thirty years later I had played all over the world, on numerous recordings and Broadway shows, and in countless performances in all styles of music. A dream career for a freelancer, no doubt.
When the pandemic hits in 2020, my teaching career continued online for a while, but performing was reduced to nothing. 100% Gone. But in reality I had already been searching for something else. I had been painting for one year at that point, and was having quick success selling work. Somehow, I had booked 2 solo shows within a week of selling my first artwork. I went from one artistic life to another just like that. Things have now expanded to include a job as a curator for a corporate art program, as well as various jobs for the gallery that started everything for me, The Fulton Street Collective in Chicago. I may soon start my own curating/art advisory business.
I was close to making this giant leap anyway, but the pandemic really pushed me. I’m not sure I would have had the guts to say “no” on my own to a music career that took 30 years to build, but I’m much happier now that I have.
AMY: Do you ever suffer from "imposter syndrome"? For those who don't know the term, it's the feeling the success you're experiencing can't possibly be sustainable, and soon it might all crash down around you. If you do, how do you get through it?
RYAN: I used to really struggle with this as a musician. I had a lot of “how did I get here?” moments - playing in Aretha Franklin’s band in Chicago, or playing in huge national Broadway productions like”Lion King” or “The Book of Mormon”. There HAD to be somebody more deserving of this than me! It made me overly hard on myself and impacted my performances for sure.
But I vowed NEVER to let it get to me as a visual artist. My work as a musician was not all that unique and I have been quickly replaced on the scene, but my work as an artist is mine alone. Nobody does what I do, the way that I do it and I’m fine with people not liking it. It took decades to build a scene as a musician. As an artist, it happened almost overnight. There’s a reason for both.
AMY: What's the most critical factor in connecting what you do with what you love?
RYAN: My artwork is most definitely influenced by music, and my musician life. I always paint to music, and some of my best work (and fastest selling) has been done to LIVE music. While I never got to the point of being a competent and fluid jazz improvisor, I have found a groove where improvising art to music makes total sense to me. The two art forms are more connected than I could ever explain to somebody who has only studied and lived in one of these worlds or the other. The same thing happened, by the way, in my performing life as a jazz musician and occasional orchestral musician. Folks from one musical world never quite understand how closely connected to the other musical world they really are.
AMY: How do to keep your passions from turning into "work"?
RYAN: Of course, that’s exactly what happened to me as a musician. I felt a lot of guilt over getting to the top of the ladder, and then not wanting to do it anymore. It really was just a job, and as a brass player I could never take a day off, ever. My mental health suffered terribly and I had a stress-related physical breakdown. Having learned the hard way, I vowed also to NEVER let this happen again.
Life balance is key. Burnout must be avoided at all costs.
AMY: What's the best life advice you could give anyone?
RYAN: Stop caring what other people think about you or what you do. I wasted so much time and mental energy on this. The reality is that nobody is thinking about you that much anyway. It seems harsh at first, but it is only human nature that humans are wrapped up, first and foremost, in our own lives.