By Aryn Henning Nichols
Originally published in the Oct/Nov issue of Inspire(d) Magazine, updated Aug. 2014
Have you spotted the new cow mural on the Oneota Cow-op? (The puns have been udderly ridiculous here in Decorah…) Her name is Irene and she was painted by Waukon artist Valerie Miller. We got to interview her back in 2010, so here’s a little #tbt!
“How now?” probably wouldn’t be the question artist Valerie Miller asks the Brown Cow, if given the chance. More likely it would be, “Could you please hold still?”
You see, Valerie paints cows – brown and every kind in between. She carefully captures their expressive eyes, subtle body language, and sometimes not-so-subtle attitudes and pairs them with bright, barren backgrounds in a pop-art-meets-the-farm sort of style.
So, of course, it makes perfect sense that she and her husband, artist and furniture designer Josh Miller (J.L.Miller Company), would call Waukon home. For Valerie, home again.
Although it was Josh’s idea to move back to the area to start their gallery, (Steel Cow), in Northeast Iowa, Valerie was equally excited – and not just for of the abundance of cows.
“It is nice here – it is a beautiful, quaint, small, Midwestern area that has more subjects than I can ever paint – plus it’s home,” she says. “It feels good to be surrounded by friends and family.”
After pondering various locales to plant roots, and a 3-day trial run in Montana, coming back to Waukon was – to quote Goldilocks – just right.
“There isn’t the quantity or variety of the big cultural activities here you find in larger cities such as museums, art galleries, theater, etc. but on the other hand we are in the middle of the country and it is easy to go anywhere from here. People like to talk about others, but at the same time if something important is being spread, it spreads quickly and we are proven time and time again we have an enormous support system here in Northeast Iowa. It is cold, but we get to wear our favorite sweaters and scarves,” she says, going on. “For me, a huge pro is being able to see my family on a daily and weekly basis – oh and there are a lot of cows.”
(Have we mentioned she likes cows?)
Valerie’s history in Northeast Iowa is long – she and Josh even set up their studio and business in the building Valerie’s great-great-grandfather built as a furniture store way back in 1925. Plus, it is where her passions were first fostered.
“I have always been interested in art and painting,” she says. “Ever since I was a little girl I was enamored with animals and I dreamed of being a painter.”
It’s safe to say Valerie Miller is officially a painter. Through talent, hard work, and business savvy, the little girl’s dream has become a grown-up reality.
“I am very fortunate that I am able to share my artwork with others and I hope it can help them lighten their day and bring smiles to their faces through the images I paint.”
Many of those images are of Queenie, Valerie’s favorite cow. So what makes her so special?
“First of all, she is beautiful! I have painted her over and over again – so many times in fact that I keep having to give my paintings of her different names of so I don’t have 20 paintings named Queenie,” Valerie says. “I also like what she represents – she is –was –from a small local family farm and was the matriarch of their herd. She kept her head high – for a cow anyway – and did a fantastic job leading all the cows in her herd in their daily activities.”
Despite branching out in animal varieties (dogs and other pets in the past, plus a horse may have been spotted on a wet studio canvas recently), Valerie doesn’t paint people. And no matter what, cows will continue to hold top billing.
“I feel like I still have thousands of cows left in me to paint,” she says.
The upcoming Northeast Iowa Studio Tour running from October 3–5 (2014) is a great chance to check out Valerie and Josh’s work and gallery at 15 Allamakee Street in Downtown Waukon.
“If any of you readers do get a chance to go on the Studio Tour – you should. We would love to see you in Waukon, of course, but all the artists have been working very hard throughout the year and this is an important weekend for the participants,” Valerie says. “A must-see stop is Nate and Hallie Evans from Allamakee Wood-Fired Pottery. They make amazing pottery, Nate is now offering glass pieces – which are brand-new and pretty cool – and their place has a special feeling all it’s own.”
The Millers are grateful to have friends like the Evans right here in the region, and that activities like the Northeast Iowa Studio Tour happen, along with many other arts initiatives.
“When I was a kid, there wasn’t as many art things as there are now and this is great for everyone,” Valerie says. “The more art, the better our lives.”
Aryn Henning Nichols used to be a bit afraid of cows when she was little, but she’s since recovered. I mean…who’s ever heard of a human-eating cow? That’s right: No one.
Did you know? Supporting other artists is important to the Miller duo, as well as supporting the environment. They are part of an alliance of businesses that collectively give 1% of their annual sales to support a fitting natural environment organization, such as Seed Savers Exchange, which received support this year. And YOU can support their endeavors by “Having a Cow.” Learn more at steelcow.com