The Art of Us in Flux: An Interview with Nina Miller

Five separate works by Nina Miller for the Us In Flux series. From left to right; a quilt sewn with black thread, embroidered leaves, fabric resist and dye piece, a second quilt sewn with white thread, a woman embroidered with thread

When we started planning Us in Flux—our series on community, collaboration, and collective imagination in times of transformative change—we asked our design strategist Nina Miller to help us make sure the project had a unique look and feel. We’ve been blown away by the evocative pieces of art she has created to accompany each of our stories. To celebrate this work, and to learn a little more about how it’s made and what’s inspiring it, we invited Nina to join us for a Slack conversation.

In the discussion below, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, Us in Flux coeditor Joey Eschrich and Nina talk about what makes these artworks unique, the process behind creating them, creative expression in moments of crisis, and how visual art can enhance the experience of reading short fiction.

Joey Eschrich: The art you’ve created to go with each Us in Flux story is really distinctive, and we’ve seen a lot of our readers marveling at it. How would you describe the style?

Illustrationdone in fabric, quilted landscape with small person looking over vast hills covered in crops.
A quilt made for the story “The Parable of the Tares” by Christopher Rowe

Nina Miller: It is inspired by folk art. I am a big fan of fibers, I sew and quilt and embroider, and when this series started, I wanted to have some kind of personal, human touch. And I’m stuck at home, my sewing machine is right here, it made sense to do something completely different than I normally would. My three words to describe the pieces: rustic, improvisational and personal

Joey: How would you define folk art, if people aren’t familiar with that term?

Nina: I define it as something done by anyone, not just “trained” artists. Something that comes out of people, sometimes in utilitarian mediums like clothing, pottery, wood, and things like that. I am sure there is an academic definition, but that is what I think of as folk art. In this case, I was specifically looking at the art produced during the Depression Era, during a time of national crisis.

Joey: I was delighted to see that you’d come up with something unexpected—a lot of science fiction art is in a highly detailed mode, with a lot of clean lines, often in a limited or muted color palette. To see so much texture in the illustrations was incredibly fresh; it made me realize how often you see these vast expanses of textureless color in art that visualizes the future.

Nina: Yes, we have collaborated with amazing artists before with our stories, some that work in that hyper-realistic SF mode, but I definitely don’t work like that. Even in my digital art, it is often focused on faces of people and just…blobs of color and texture around it. So maybe I’m always working in fabric and just don’t realize it.

There is something about the stories we are getting that feels vulnerable, something about the short length, getting right to the heart of something perhaps. This is the best way I can reflect that for me. If it was another artist, and there may be some in the future, it might look really different. But I would want the handmade, tactile aspect of it to be the thread—I am aware of the pun here—through all of them.

A couch in front of a window, but it is pieced from multiple fabrics and quilted. It is fragmented and multicolored.
The quilt for the story “A Room of One’s Own” by Tochi Onyebuchi

Joey: Do you feel like creative folks are working in a different mindset at the moment, amidst the pandemic? I’m intrigued by the idea that there is a new kernel of vulnerability in Us in Flux that we may not have seen in other projects.

Nina: I really do. I know for me, the making of the art has had to be on such a tight deadline that I can’t really overthink it. And coming from stage improv, I know that the personal always bleeds through in situations that you don’t have time to overthink. So maybe that’s what is happening with the authors. And I do feel like we are all reflecting on what life was before this, what was important then and now. It doesn’t feel like there are many walls up in these stories—it is hard to explain. Even when there are vampires, it still feels really human and personal.

Joey: What is your process like, once you have a draft of the story in hand?

A drawing of a couch, pencil on paper, cut into many sections.
The foundation pieces for the quilt for the story “A Room of One’s Own.”

Nina: I read it as many times as I can. Most of the time I can see something in my head, or I think of some kind of stitch that I connect with the ideas in the story. There are stories that I need more guidance with, and then I turn to you and Bob, knowing you have already spent all the time understanding it. I normally give myself a day or two to sit with the story in my head. I might sketch stuff out, but most of the time I am diving in with whatever I felt the strongest about. Like I said, I don’t have time to take a different direction really, because I also still have to work on all the other parts of my job. So it tends to be me just playing with the materials.

Like the illustration for Tochi Onyebuchi’s story, after talking it over with you and thinking about the multiple realities interacting, I knew that I would piece a quilt. And that it was going to be an undertaking to finish in two days, but it was the only thing I was excited about. That one is a method that uses a paper foundation to help sew the pieces together, and it was a lot of pieces. My scanner is only 9 by 11 inches, so this one is less than 11 inches wide, and I think 5 inches tall. So a lot of very small pieces as well.

So, some come together fast and easy and some are a big undertaking, but it’s always the idea I am most excited about.

I also scan the art at certain points, when I’m unsure about the next idea and how it will turn out, so I have images saved to go back to. For Tochi’s story, the image you see with the piece isn’t the final version, because I thought one of the earlier versions I scanned worked better.

Green linen embroidered with the white outline of a squirrel, and five leaf shapes cut from multiple colors of fabric secured to the linen with cross stitches in various colors.
Embroidered squirrel and leaves for the story “An Attempt at Exhausting My Deck” by Kij Johnson

Joey: How do you decide whether to start with a specific image from the story, or go in a more abstract direction? Several of your pieces are pretty abstract at first glance, but when you look at them closely, they contain more concrete references.

Nina: Our workflow for this project means that some details of the story could change while I’m working on the art. So I know I need to keep it at least one level of abstraction away from visualizing a moment from the story.

In Kij Johnson’s story, I knew that given the amount of times a squirrel was mentioned, that wasn’t going to change, and I was excited about including a squirrel. Who wouldn’t be? But there was also a tallying theme, and that made me think of cross stitch, little lines of X’s on leaves. There is an amazing artist, Hillary Waters Fayle, who embroiders directly on leaves, and her work popped into my head.

With Christopher Rowe’s story, I just saw endless rolling hills of grain, amber waves, but so many that it completely fills the view. So not a particular moment in the story, more like part of the world he had built.

For Chinelo Onwualu’s story, I took a completely different approach. Regions of Africa do this amazing wax resist fabric that is my favorite art in the world, and I wanted to do an homage to that. One of my rules for these works is that I have to have the materials on hand, but I didn’t have a wax pen and a thing to keep the wax melted and fabric dye and mordant and all the things you would need. After a lot of digging through Pinterest and other craft blogs, I was able to use a hot glue gun to replace the wax resist, and Sharpie ink to replace the fabric dye. I experimented with that over the weekend and really liked what was happening, the way I couldn’t completely control what the Sharpie ink did and how I would be surprised by the outcome every time. So that story gave me a whole new technique that I will definitely be using in the future.

Step by step process showing hot glue on fabric in the shape of an orange, a had applying orange colored Sharpie marker inside the orange, a hand dripping rubbing alcohol on the places where the sharpie marker was drawn and then a small pile of hardened hot glue that has been removed.
A test run for the hot glue and Sharpie resist method.

Joey: We put a lot of thought into the art that accompanies our fiction—we certainly think it’s important. But precisely what role do you think an effective illustration can play in the experience of a story?

Nina: I think it is the way in to a story. It is a reflection on the story by someone else besides the author that can sometimes give context clues, sometimes emphasize the theme. It’s like a dialogue starter between the reader and the author. I think it’s so helpful to have multiple ways into a story, and the art is one path in. After all, no one would have said yes to Star Wars without Ralph McQuarrie’s art.

Visit the Us in Flux homepage to read all of our stories, register for upcoming events, watch videos of past events, and see more of Nina’s art.

Fabric resist and dye for the story “When We Call a Place Home” by Chinelo Onwualu