Valerie Milo - celebrating the power of nature through ethereal figurative art
Austin, TX / United States
Valerie grew up in the large city of Houston, Texas, where she sat on the curb listening to grackles after the rain. She desperately longed to be closer to nature and wild spaces. Instead, Valerie wrote poetry and drew people, trying to convey her emotions through theirs. She studied Studio Art at the University of Houston, where she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts with a concentration in Painting and a Master's in Art Education. She taught art for several years to all ages. After getting married and having two very energetic sons, she found it difficult to find the energy and focus time to make art, so she took her sons to the park every day. There she remembered how important nature was to her and her children. How nature revived and inspired them, and her mind was flooded with ideas for art. Now she combines humans and nature in her drawings and paintings, the wild spaces around us and within us. She has since moved to Austin, Texas, with her family, where she finds endless wild spaces to explore. She also dreams of exploring the wild spaces in Italy, the home of her heritage and heart.
Valerie, you’ve always been fascinated by nature and love exploring wild spaces. Can you talk about your journey into the art world and your background?
I’ve always loved drawing and painting since I was a kid. I grew up in Houston, TX, where there weren’t a lot of wild spaces to explore. But I was always drawn to the little nature we had around us. The trees, the birds, the rain … I didn’t have a very healthy home environment. And I realize now that nature was my therapy. And it inspired me to draw and paint. I remember trying to make paint with plants and dirt in my backyard!
When you lacked time to make art after your sons were born, you sought nature again, which, in turn, inspired you to create art. It’s a beautiful circle that has reminded you of the importance of staying true to things that make us connected to our authentic selves. How would you describe that journey of self-discovery?
I’m very introverted. When I make art, I’m so hyper-focused. I guess that’s the flow state. You know with kids, there are constant interruptions! Being interrupted while trying to draw or paint truly gave me so much anxiety. And not making art made me depressed. I thought about it constantly. So I designed this interactive half-wall on the other side of my studio, with dry-erase boards, mirrors, locks, and all kinds of interactive things for my sons to play with. My husband built it. They played with it for maybe five minutes, then proceeded to climb the wall, and then me! Repeatedly! Especially my older son, who has ADHD. He’s very physically active.
So I ended up taking them to the park every day. I told them I loved moss balls, so they would collect them and bring them to me. Just being in nature, feeling the wind, collecting colorful leaves, digging holes. It made me feel alive again. And it calmed my sons too. Nature has been proven to help children with ADHD as well. To the point where their symptoms even disappear. So we moved to Austin, Texas, because I wanted more nature for them. And for me!
In your artist statement, you mentioned that you believe painting is the reason why you are here. What was it like for you to make that realization, and what steps did you have to take to set up your art practice?
It must be the reason I’m here because I think about drawings and paintings constantly. I take reference photos everywhere I go too. So that’s a big part of my creative process as well. I used to feel so down on myself for not having made much art when my kids were young, but then I realized I was making art. In my mind. And by the time they went to school, I knew precisely what I wanted to put on paper and canvas.
Have your children been involved in your art practice?
Yes, my sons both like to draw. My older son is an incredible illustrator! Since he was little, he would draw these characters with so much expression on their faces. I have always loved finding his little drawings around the house. Now I see his drawings on all his school middle school worksheets! My younger son is so much like my dad. He’s a carpenter, and my son takes after him. He likes to build things. They are always in my art studio at home, making a mess! I don’t want to pressure them to do what I do. I want them to do their own thing. My sister is an incredible artist and graphic designer. My grandparents also drew and painted. I really think it runs in my family! I also expose my sons to a lot of art. We spent last summer in Italy, and I was able to show them so much amazing art! Including the Sistine Chapel. It was really special.
My husband, my son and I are recently learning more about neurodiversity. And we really want our sons to understand that not fitting into the traditional education system is not a deficiency. That most incredible artists were blessed with neurodiverse brains!
We mentioned that you are inspired by nature, so what is the message behind your art?
You know sometimes I look at my paintings, and I don’t really remember painting them! It really feels like the ideas come through me and I’m just the transmitter! I’m very curious, and I love observing things, so I think my illustrations and paintings are more like questions. In college, I took a poetry class, and I was so moved by how similar poetry is to visual art. In that, poetry is delivered in an abstract way, it’s not always clear what it’s about. So the reader has to bring their own experience to it. Their own history and ideas. And in that way, they become part of the creative process. I feel it’s the same with visual art. It’s a conversation.
My art is about our relationship with nature. It’s beauty and complexity. It’s strength and vulnerability. Nature can also be destructive! I know this because we lost our home to a flood in 2015. So nature is a powerful force. And with climate change, I think these are important conversations to have.
What does your art do for you?
I used to think I just needed to make art and couldn’t explain it. But then one day, I was listening to a song in my car, and I felt so free. And I realized that’s what art is for me. It’s freedom. There are so many things that constrain us in life. So many of us are responsible for other humans, whether as parents or caretakers of some kind. It’s uplifting in many ways, but it also can be draining. Sometimes we have to put off our own needs and desires because of our responsibilities. So art is a way to live out our longing, our deeper nature.
When I was growing up, my brother was mentally ill. He was also addicted to drugs. He was very abusive. I had no escape from him then. Art was my escape. He recently died. He was only two years older than me. So I have so many complicated emotions surrounding his death. But art and nature are my way of staying healthy, in my mind and heart.
Can you talk about your process a little? Do you have any rituals before you start creating?
Yes, I’m a planner! I have a hard time focusing, so I have to create long-term plans and rituals. I do a lot of brainstorming. I look through my reference photos. I come up with a series, and then work on it until it’s done. Sometimes it’s painful. And I cry. Because all I want to do is paint. But being a parent, it’s a constant battle to find time to make art. And for me painting for an hour or two isn’t enough! I could really paint 12 hours a day! But I can’t. So carving a few hours a week is essential.
What has been the most exciting experience in your art practice so far?
Because it has been such a battle to make art as a mom, really just looking back having completed a few paintings. I don’t like all of my paintings, but I’m proud of myself for having done them. For having a website. It feels good.
What are your dreams, goals and plans?
My dream is to have a virtual art education business where I create art lessons based on explorations of nature. I’m currently working on those lessons and videos, and my goal is to put them on an app. I really want to give other women what I needed. A structured prompt to go out every day, especially with kids, reconnect with nature, and make art. I also want to do it in a community with other women. It’s not about making impressive art. It’s about expression and healing through nature and art.
Another aspect of nature that I am recently embracing in my mid-forties is nature as sensuality. When we are so busy and always giving and doing, our lives become so concrete, and we just feel so blah. Our bodies are changing, our energy levels are changing. Getting back in touch with our senses is so essential. Listening to the wind through the trees, feeling the cold air on our faces, walking in water, digging our hands into the soul …we are nature. So getting back in touch with nature is getting back in touch with our true selves.
What is the number one piece of advice to artist mothers who might be struggling
with finding time for their creativity?
I would say - try to set up a space to which you can come back. Even if it’s just a corner of your house. I used to have a desk in my kitchen! I know it’s really really hard when your kids are young, especially if they are physically active like mine were. But I think stressing to the people in our lives that we need that time. And then doing things with our children that help spark our creativity, like going on hikes on the weekend, botanical gardens, gardening, visiting museums, art festivals, and even listening to music, all of that helps to fill me up when I can’t make art.
And most importantly, even when you’re not physically making art but thinking about it, that counts too. It really does. Art usually happens in our minds first. So even if you just think about it for a few years. Even if you just make notes on your phone. Like I have a list of Art Ideas which are things I can make a series about.
It took me five years to paint my Mother Earth series! Those paintings were very detailed, so they took me a long time. But now I actually want to move more towards simple abstraction and smaller paintings. So I could produce more in a shorter amount of time. So, also think about ways that you could maybe do a drawing a day or a painting a week. As moms know, the years go by fast, and all of that will add up!
And if you still can’t seem to get organized or feel too overwhelmed and drained to make art, just know you are not alone. I’ve definitely been there. For years! I think we all have. It will come back to you. Even if you don’t make any art, if you can just go for a walk that can help.