After entering the public eye as "Emily Doe," Chanel Miller tells her own story through art.
With a powerful victim’s statement, the name “Emily Doe” ignited the conversation surrounding sexual assault laws during one of the most publicized trials of 2016. Today, Chanel Miller's name is transcending trauma as she presents an exhibit for the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. I was, I am, I will be is a message of healing with its use of illustrated characters and unfinished sentences. Here, Miller opens up about the project, one of the few that can be seen through the currently closed museum’s large glass windows.
How did this exhibit come about?
You know, I’ve gotten so many interview requests about my case and being a survivor, and the museum approached me, offering a completely blank slate that was enormous. That, to me, is them stepping back to let me tell everyone who I am. Or at least gives me space to say what I need to say without having to fight so hard like I did before to have my voice heard.
The images have a simplicity and innocence to them. How did you reconcile that with the complicated context?
In the beginning, I did these really detailed drawings and filled all of the space they were giving me. Then I thought about how, for the past two years, so much of my life felt dominated by having to prove something, like in court prove that I was good, prove that I was deserving of safety. By doing all these intricate drawings, I thought, ‘Oh, I’m trying to prove that I’m good at drawing.’ I just felt tired of presenting myself to the public, hoping to be accepted. And so I thought the best thing for the space would be something simple that could be seen from far away and absorbed quickly while someone’s on their commute. It seems like such a difficult time to be releasing something new with people not being able to visit the museum in the same way.
How do you think that affects the work and your feelings about it?
I’m very grateful that you can still see it. It’s powerful to me that it managed to prevail and that it’s finding its way to people, even when the museum is closed down and everything is dark inside. These characters still are visible and can interact with people on the street. I can’t see them yet since I’m not in California, but I feel peaceful knowing that they’re doing their work over there.
You became famous as an anonymous figure at first. How does it feel to be in the spotlight now with your work so visible in your community?
Amazing. I’ve been reckoning with what home means for the last five years. Right after the assault, so many of my childhood memories were being threatened because they were being fogged out by what was happening with the case, and I also felt completely isolated at that time. All of these warm feelings of home were draining away for a long time. I was really scared that I would lose them. Now when I come home, instead of anxiety, I feel excitement. The community is welcoming me and embracing me in all my forms, and they’ve been able to bear witness to everything I’ve been through.
What do you hope people take away from your artwork?
As we hear more stories fromsurvivors, remember that survivors come with so many stories, and that it’s important to continue listening. Because your story doesn’t end with the closing of a case.
Photography by: Mariah Tiffany/courtesy of the artist