Winnebago Studios is a rabbit hole to navigate. The warehouse turned artist facility is a seemingly impenetrable block, unmarked save one tarp listing its name. Inside, unlabelled personal studios stud concrete hallways littered with random work. The place is desolate. Tucked behind a corner sits Studio Z. From the outside, it’s the darkest, smallest unit in the complex. How could life thrive in this most ignored spot? Faint music begins to answer as the door opens to a bright space housing diatoms, quartz, seed pods, and conch shells in generous shades of teal, emerald, and scarlet. The room is an eden, and its gardener, Rachelle MilIer, a warm welcome.
Rachelle began as a dedicated vocal-performance student at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater. After she was diagnosed with vocal-chord nodules, the art classes she had interspersed throughout her schedule to fracture a demanding regimen of music classes grew more attractive. “I took a 2-D design class and it was really fun. I felt like I had found what I was missing in performance. It was filling that void by allowing me to be visually creative.”
In a union of the technicality of vocal performance and the freedom of visual art, Rachelle began devising her own glaze formulas. As she began progressively exploring art over other studies, it became apparent that not only was the discipline encouraging her creative passion, but it was supporting her love for community building.
“I liked the culture of the art department more than the music department because it was a lot less competitive. So I started taking more and more classes,” says Rachelle. She graduated with a major in art and a minor in music, and spent the following few years throwing for production potters throughout Wisconsin, including Rowe Pottery Works, Lakeside Pottery, and Rockdale Union Stoneware, where she trained as an apprentice. Despite her apprenticeship, she didn’t have the access or funds necessary to generate her own work. Rachelle was unphased.
“I began auditing classes from Whitewater. On the nights and weekends, I was throwing my own work there after throwing all week. I had been smitten with clay and wanted it to be a livelihood for me.”
After a few years, Rachelle moved to Milwaukee with her husband and began working as a second and third grade classroom teacher. “At the school where I worked, the [original art] teacher was less than part-time. She’d come in with a cart of supplies, and the kids would see her once a week if they were lucky.”
Rachelle wanted to be a reliable presence in the classroom for her students, so she enrolled at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee to earn a master’s degree in education. In an effort to stay committed to her craft while offering her best to her students, she pursued her master’s degree without leaving her teaching position and utilized the summers off to create art. With her master’s, she began crafting curriculum that both satisfied public requirements and enabled creative exploration in clay for her students and their homeroom teachers.
On the importance of exploring clay, Rachelle maintains, “I’m always amazed at the response people give when you give them clay. It’s not even about making stuff always. It’s that tactile interaction that I don’t think we have much. Things are these hard surfaces that are rigid, and you just have to live within those parameters. But all of a sudden you have this material that conforms to your hand. It’s therapeutic.”
Since moving back to Madison, Rachelle has made her livelihood through teaching and selling her work. Making art for its own sake fits in whenever she has time between work and caring for her family. Despite a thorough history in production pottery and throwing, Rachelle has branched out into hand molding. She shapes air plant carriers, decorative boxes, jewelry, stacked pieces, and mounted pieces to name a few. “I am smitten with all the beautiful design and order that nature creates,” she explains.
That infatuation is highly visible in Rachelle’s work; it centers natural phenomenon with a clear focus in small organic patterns and communities. Two of her series, the resin-filled rocks and the mounted diatoms, mimic microorganisms. Other pieces present larger natural motifs. The box series is a group of rigid objects whose compositions simulate soft, natural textures, including leaves, rose petals, and pea pods.
While the scale of her inspiration may shift, what remains constant throughout Rachelle’s oeuvre is the interaction between pieces. “They’re like little individuals to me. It’s fun to see the way that they interact. You’re playing with negative space as well as positive space, and depending on the way you arrange them, they can be totally different.”
While Rachelle is enthused to talk about any part of her work in clay as if its discovery is still new, she notably lights up when she tells me about the apprenticeship and how it enabled her learning of every fragment of the pottery process. Rachelle wants to be touching all facets of her discipline and wants those facets to interface within themselves. “It’s hard to focus on just one thing.”
It’s this insistence upon breadth, upon inclusion, that runs like a current through Rachelle’s story, her character, and her work. What’s miraculous and veritably special about her lack of emphasis is that it’s not only a strength, but one of her defining triumphs. Her pieces vary greatly in function and shape, and it’s their differences that unite them.
Even in Rachelle’s studio, the series are abundant but each has its own place, purposefully chosen and perfectly contributing to the harmony of the room. This knack for harnessing difference to generate success sets her apart as an exemplar teacher and as an artist who excels in any discipline.
Elissa Koppel is a freelance writer and a local artist.