Jami Milne (Artist-in-Residence with Ballet Des Moines)

 all photography by Jami Milne

all photography by Jami Milne

Last winter, Jami Milne was the inaugural "artist in residence" with Ballet Des Moines. Jami was given space within the ballet studio, as well as access to staff and dancers. Over a six week period she documented their virtuosity in a series of stunning, sometimes ethereal portraits. Read about her experience with the residency below.

Before we discuss the residency, I'd liked to know a bit about how you became an artist. Can you tell me about that?

I assume in womb that there was this spark of DNA that said you will be an artist. (Laughing) But more officially, I studied advertising in college. I have this innate desire to research and to write, but there's also a part of me that wants to create and I felt that advertising was the right blending of passions for me.

Fast forward twelve years and I felt this unrest within my corporate job - I wanted to create and add value to something outside of that arena. So last fall I decided to take the jump: end my corporate career and dedicate myself to producing art for one full year. I'm aware not everyone can take that jump, but we sat down as a family and we all decided this venture was something worth supporting.

Since you're now a full-time artist, do you feel external pressure to create things more consistently?

I don't know if this is unique to me, but I certainly feel that when I don't have the time to create, there's a millions things that I wish I could create. As an artist, you will often hear the phrase if I just had the time? bouncing around your head. So when I finally gave myself a full year to create, I had to ask myself: I have the time, what am I going to do with it?

Being given a amount of time can be slightly debilitating until you take that first step, but once you take that step, it's a snowball. I've found that when I create one thing, I create dozens of things. But if I create nothing, it's like crickets. I've always been pleasantly surprised by that part of creating.

Tell me about how you became the first artist-in-residence. Did you reach out to them or did they reach out to you?

Six months into my career as an artist, I started to panic because there wasn't money coming in. Being a veteran of the corporate world, I was used to climbing that ladder and knowing what was coming up next; the paycheck was always on its way. So not having that next rung on the ladder felt somewhat terrifying, 

So I sat down and began to think if I could manifest this paycheck, what work would I want to be producing? Over the last few years, I've grown increasingly fascinated by the art of ballet and that sparked the initial idea. I don't have much history being graceful or wearing tutus, but I was always enchanted by the athleticism of those beautiful dancers.

What if the ballet had an artist-in-residence? And what if I was able to live in the studio and was paid to document their art? Those are questions I began to ask myself. I grew curious about what body of work I could produce with that sort of access.

How did you approach Ballet Des Moines about this project? 

I put together a proposal for them, detailing what I wanted to do and how it would benefit the ballet and community-at-large. It wasn't just give me this thing because I want it. I offered to help them manage it throughout the entire season if I was able to be the first artist. I really wanted to help give them a context for what it would all look like.

As with many non-profits, after I presented to them expressed their interest, but made it clear they had no additional funds to allocate towards this kind of project. Obviously, hearing that was difficult, but not unexpected. But it was equally as difficult to not just stop and say oh, you can't pay me? I'll just do this anyway! I know what I can create, just let me.

So I sat down with them again, told them how much I would need for six months of work, and then we began to talk through how I could help raise funds or apply for grants. The fundraising process took about a month and half and we were able to gather enough funds (and receive a serendipitous grant) that the residency was fully-funded within that time. It was this beautiful combination: luck of the universe and plain hard work. 

How was the residency once it started? I can't imagine how stimulating that would be as an artist.

The beauty of it all is that I had my own office in their studio. My office was a desk, filing cabinet, and a garbage can but I'd never felt so proud to walk into a space! I'd worked so hard to get there. There was this sense of you're doing it. Holy hell, you're actually getting paid to be an artist!

Everyday there would be nine individuals that I was able to watch while they danced their hearts out. As I watched, I would tear up almost every time because I was very aware that I'd been given this wonderful opportunity to surround myself with these particular  artists.

I will never be a ballerina, but I could witness this company create their art and I think being so entrenched in it made it feel like an out-of-body experience. It was almost like I felt that I could jump that high because I'm watching the dancers jump that high. In a career, that's an amazing thing to experience. It moved me greatly.

Did you face any challenges or difficulties during the residency? 

As with any job, there was some aspects that sucked. (Laughing)

One thing that was tough was learning how to honor the vision of the artistic director.  Often, I felt there was this dissonance that could occur if the director thought I was attempting to impede on his work or perhaps, infringe on the dancer's space. 

That dissonance was something you have to learn to work through and I definitely understood fairly quickly that my role was to capture the images I saw and then quietly back away. I learned to value and respect his perspective and find a way to work within the perimeters so that he felt I was an asset, adding value to his artistry.

You were the first artist and there has already been a second. Next week, applications open for the spring semester and third residency. Was the artist following you a photographer as well? And do you hope to see this residency continue in Fall 2017?

The artist after me was a mixed-media artist named Christine Hilbert. She would take these ornate pieces of antique jewelry and creates watercolors with them. Her work was for the Nutcracker and I think her style complimented that production very well. Christine's work was very rich and dramatic, it felt so right for such a magical production. 

As for continuing into next year...that's my hope! After the third residency concludes, it'll be up to the ballet to decide if it's worth the effort. It's an additional thing they have to organize, you know? It's a lot of work. But I truly believe it's so beneficial to the ballet and the artists trying to make it within the city. 

I'm hopeful about it, though. I think people in Des Moines are owning their artistry and understanding that success may not mean the quintessential "get a degree, get married, and have child." People are beginning to understand that success means living a life that's authentic to who you are as a person.

Do you feel supported by the creative community in Des Moines?

I do! But it's important to note that I feel that continued support because I keep putting myself out there. It's easy to sit back and say people don't understand me or people don't understand my work. But every time I create, it creates an offshoot of two or three things other things and I feel that continued work creates opportunity for people to take interest in what I'm doing. 

I still feel insecure sometimes, but I try to minimize the self-criticism going on in the back of my mind. One of the things that helps me is to create on a daily basis. I think that making something every day has held me accountable and has made me more comfortable with the act of creating consistently. Over the last year, I've committed myself to the 100 Day Project. I did it once before, but didn't get past day fifty-three. It's so easy to let the rest of life get in the way. This time, instead of photography, I made collages. 

It's been both rewarding for me and even surprising - realizing what I'm capable of creating. It's exciting to think about what else my mind will come up with. 

If you want to learn more about Ballet Des Moines, you can visit their website here. Also, if you haven't checked out aol's documentary series city.ballet, I suggest you do. It's an enchanting glimpse into New York's ballet scene and very engaging (also episodes are tne minutes long, so easy-to-watch, too!)