An interview with Glastonbury artist Diana Milstein
I recently met up with Glastonbury artist Diana Milstein to talk about her art and her new book ‘The Almost Complete Works of Miss Smith’. This beautiful, large-format hardback is full of gloriously colourful reproductions of Diana’s prints, painting and mixed media work from the last 27 years, all featuring her adventurous alter-ego Miss Smith.
As soon as we sit down in Di’s artwork filled kitchen I realise this interview is going to be all about Miss Smith, it is clear her creator would rather Miss Smith was in the limelight. Di tells me “She’s a little old lady who is full of heart and humour”.
“She is all about the heart, about lightening life’s load, and the love of beauty. There is wisdom in her ways. She has helped me to seek out the positive, to look at life with a sense of humour and to believe in magic!”
You can meet Diana and Miss Smith at the forthcoming Book launch and exhibition of +100 portraits of friends and family on Saturday 23rd April 5pm to 7pm at the Red Brick Building in Glastonbury
My Interview with Diana Milstein
Miss Smith has taken on a life of her own hasn’t she?
Miss Smith started off as a silkscreen monoprint on paper. After painting her for years, I found a grey woollen coat in a charity shop and painted spots on it, then someone gave me a felt hat which I dyed orange. I started to hang them in exhibitions and one day, spontaneously, I put them on which lead to occasional appearances of Miss Smith and eventually to my one-woman show, ‘Stairway to the Stars’. She’s an endearing character, she’s mischievous and fun to perform. She’s a very mutable character. During lockdown, she appeared in the form of iPad drawings.
I studied drama at Uni, I was always into improvisation, it was not really that popular in the ’70s, so I was a bit before my time.! I love the idea of Miss Smith stepping out of the canvas, the boundaries between real life and the imagination becoming blurred. A few years ago I decided I’d have more fun at the Glastonbury festival if I was dressed so I did walkabout as Miss Smith.
Where do your ideas for Miss Smith come from?
Many of the images come from my own experiences. Miss Smith keeps me on my toes, she helps me to see things in a more positive light. It turns out she’s a familiar archetype. I’m not the only Miss Smith! You see them out and about. She might wear a drab coat and hat and wheel a shopping trolley, but she’s magical, The elderly get put in a box but they have tales to tell. There’s a prejudice against the elderly. Miss Smith is championing the spark of life.
Miss Smith is an advocate for the heart and for love, which is so sorely needed in this day and age and can heal everything.
“She’s an advocate for the elderly”
You are never too old for adventure Miss Smith
“She’s an advocate for women. Maybe women should be leading the way!”
Onwards said Miss Smith
“She’s an advocate for justice “People should be free to go wherever they want. To be free, to live in peace.”
No borders, no boundaries, oh to be free as a bird
“She’s an advocate for cheerfulness and humour. During the pandemic, I produced iPad images and shared them on Facebook daily to cheer people up. Afterwards, I made them into three postcard books”
Dancing the elbow bump
Death quite often features in your art and your show
I performed my one-woman show in 2019 as part of the Festival of Death and Dying at the Redbrick Building in Glastonbury. The festival was partly to make death less of a taboo subject. In my show, I explored the relationship between my parents, their deaths and the emergence of Miss Smith. I looked at the ageing process and death with a sense of humour.
Does she serve that purpose for you?
Death is one of the hardest things to make comedy about but it helps me to acknowledge that it’s going to happen one day! Right now I’m too busy living to prepare for death!
Miss Smith isn’t defined by her relationship to a man?
Definitely not! She’s her own person. She has her guardian angel who can be seen as the magical, positive aspect of Miss Smith herself.
You’ve featured other people’s work in the book too
I wanted to include everyone who had been inspired by Miss Smith, I loved the fact my friend Kiki did a Miss Smith I wanted to include work by artist friends inspired by Miss Smith. My friend Kiki made an embroidery of her, Ann Liddell painted her on a piece of firewood. My daughter made me a Miss Smith doll and Diana Griffiths made the angel in needlepoint.
What media do you work in?
Nearly all the Miss Smith images are silkscreen monoprints. It’s the most painterly and simplistic form of printmaking, I moved on to include elements of photographic screen printing.
Apart from Miss Smith I also paint abstracts and landscapes, sometimes in acrylics but I prefer working in oils. I’m a self-taught artist and a qualified art therapist.
From 2018 to 19 I painted 100 portraits almost all in oils. It was meant to be 70 portraits in celebration of my 70th birthday but I got carried away and it became 100! Friends sat for two hours.it was a great experience in suspending the inner critic and trusting the process!
I’ve also created what I call some ‘moving paintings’, you can see them on YouTube, I paint in layers on the same canvas over months taking photos as I go. I have a painting on my landing which has about 600 images underneath it. I put my own music to them. They are spontaneous explorations of the content of my unconscious mind. Things get created then turn into other things almost like animation. After years of creating still images, I wanted to make them move! The’ moving paintings’ express another aspect of me, my quieter, more meditational side.
In lockdown, I made a series of iPad drawings of Miss Smith that became postcard books. When during the American election, the public turned Bernie Sanders into a meme, I realised that Miss Smith could be a meme too!
Your art covers a lot of subject matter
The subjects I choose come from things that inspire me, nature, beauty, magical adventures. My Miss Smith paintings work on different levels, sometimes I see a deeper meaning to them than what I originally intended. They do leave room for people to interpret them how they want.
Do you think your work makes a difference?
I would love to think my individual contribution makes a difference. When Miss Smith touches a heart, maybe that’s a small contribution. Miss Smith is a big part of my life. Because my dad was a heart surgeon, I’ve often wondered what I ‘do’. I like to think that in a completely different way I am also working with the heart.
What’s your relationship to Glastonbury?
I first came in the 1980s as part of the original team of Childrens’ World with my theatre troupe Natural Magic, working with Arabella Churchill. I knew nothing about Glastonbury when I first came here. I left for a while then moved back in 1997.
In 1984 I gave birth to my daughter here, in a community of artists and musicians, they became my extended family and still are. They are the people with whom I play music and do arty things. That’s what brought me here and what has made me stay. I’ve done B&B here for years and met some lovely people. Glastonbury is a very magical place, I think I’d find it difficult to live in an ordinary town now.
Glastonbury is a heart centre, it’s appropriate for Miss Smith to come from here. The first Miss Smith postcard book (published by Wooden Books) was very much about Glastonbury, she’s travelled the world since, but she’s based here. She found her magic in Glastonbury. She found her well-being at Chalice Well.
What comes next?
I’ve done a whole bunch of square abstract paintings in acrylics, I want to do more, I’d love to see them exhibited in Glastonbury. I’d like to do some more large square abstract paintings in my search to create balance and beauty in a painting and explore the relationship between colours. It would be great to have a whole exhibition of my abstracts. There may be some more performance ideas to explore with Miss Smith. Also, I really enjoyed my portrait project, I may well do some more portraits.
You can meet Miss Smith, along with her creator Di Milstein, at Di’s forthcoming show. The exhibition will also feature the series of 100 oil portrait paintings she did of her family and friends to celebrate her 70th birthday, In the final image of her book, Miss Smith is looking at a collage of the portraits checking she’s in there. I was very happy to see that I’m in the exhibition too!
Book Launch and Exhibition ‘The Almost Complete Works of Miss Smith’
by Diana Milstein
Saturday 23rd April 5pm to 7pm
The portraits will be available to view in the events space at the Redbrick building, daytimes when the space is not in use till May 6th
Red Brick Building, Morland Road, Glastonbury BA6 9FT
The Almost Complete Works of Miss Smith
“The wonder of this collection is surely Miss Smith herself, her unbridled joy, her perceptive intelligence and her unbridled honesty”.John Martineau of Wooden Books
Di’s postcard books are also available from her website:
All artwork copyright of Diana Milstein, except for the photograph of Di and Rik which is by Venetia Dearden from her book ‘Glastonbury: Another Stage‘
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