Seamless: Dutes Miller & Stan Shellabarger

Seamless: Dutes Miller and Stan Shellabarger

Discarding the division between artistic practice and rituals of the everyday has long been familiar territory for the textile arts. But the ways in which Chicago-based couple Dutes Miller and Stan Shellabarger break down this separation are increasingly unusual. Miller, a pastry chef, and Shellabarger, a carpenter,“make artwork in the three- or four-hour block after work.” Shellabarger explains that commuting time becomes a space to “wind down from [the day’s] work and think about [the evening’s] work.” The former pays the bills while the latter is a collaborative effort that takes the minutia of daily life and translates them into artistic output.

Miller and Shellabarger work across a range of media that includes artist books, installation, paper collage, print, and performance art to create pieces that act as a log of shared experience. The ongoing series Butter Book (initiated in 2001) involves collecting and cleaning the wax paper wrappers from every stick of butter they use each year. Bound together, the greasy sheets provide a calendar of consumption, which manages to both intrigue and repulse as each volume of the work ages.

Performance is often used as a tool to explore their own relationship and the intimacy, as well as distance, experienced as part of being a couple. For example, Untitled Performance (Sewing) involves Miller and Shellbarger literally stitching and later unstitching, from ankle to neck, the garments they are wearing while seated in a public space over an eight hour day. When the April 2008 performance of the piece finally ended at the Chicago-based NEXT Art Fair, the couple wrestled themselves free of their sewn-together garments, leaving the discarded shells of clothing draped over their chairs as a sculptural installation.

If Butter Book can be read as evidence of lives shared, Untitled Performance (Sewing) reflects not only a coming together of those lives, but the inevitable tension and compromise that often results. Untitled Performance (Pink Tube) (begun in 2003, ongoing) operates in a similar way. Staged most recently at the Volta Show, an international contemporary art fair in Basel, Switzerland, in June 2008, the two artists sat near each other and crocheted opposite ends of a giant pink tube of acrylic yarn. Scott Speh of Western Exhibitions, the Chicago-based gallery that represents their work, explains that this ever-increasing bulk of material represents “a metaphorically-loaded object (penis, umbilical cord, etc.) that both unites and separates them. As the tube grows in length, it accumulates between the artists, keeping them tethered as it pushes them apart.”

Shellabarger jokes that the couple “would not loose sleep over something that sold,” but admits that when artwork has been purchased, the capital tends to be used to realize further projects. Sales notwithstanding, recent years have seen the couple enjoy increasing critical attention. In 2007, they received a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award, and in 2008 a sizable Artadia Award. Last fall they were the first Artists in Residence at Spudnik Press, a cooperative artist studio dedicated to fine art printmaking in Chicago, Illinois. Miller and Shellabarger have carved a niche for their experimental practice that their busy professional and personal lives might not have comfortably allowed. Perhaps more importantly, the two artists provide us with inspiring evidence of a seamless relationship between life and art.

Western Exhibitions, Chicago, Illinois;

Spudnik Press, Chicago, Illinois;

FiberArts magazine (April/May 2009: 28-29)