Artist Colette Miller Spreads joy through Angel Wings

Colette in Perth with a pair of her wings. Photo: Justin Benson-Cooper

Artist Colette Miller has always embraced her creative energy, from making puppets and putting on plays as a kid, , to training as a painter in college, to writing poetry and songs as a musician in Virginia, New York, and South Africa. She was inspired to create her angel wing paintings while driving on the LA freeway, and thinking about what she would want to see from there.  Colette's wings now span the globe, sharing her message that "we can be the good of this earth and we can be the angels of this earth."


Where she’s from: all over and then Virginia
Grew up with: mom and dad, siblings
Education: Bachelor’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University
Where she lives now: Los Angeles, California
Growing up she wanted to be: an artist
Now she’s: an artist best known for the Global Angel Wings Project

Tell us about yourself growing up!

We moved around a lot as kids. I was born in North Carolina and then we moved to Hawaii then Massachusetts, then to Maryland, then to Virginia where we built our own house that my dad designed.

When I was growing up all over our family wasn’t like the average American family. I always thought: I wish we had been more like the all American average family. My mother was Dutch and she had an accent and my dad was this philosopher-type writer that always and still does philosophize the meaning of humanity. I always felt like we were an eccentric family. In fact we had a newspaper called The Grove Extension when we were kids when we lived in Maryland, my parents did. We were cartoonists and we interviewed the town residents but the town was only like 600 people so it wasn’t that big a town.

How did you feel about school?

Elementary actually was a refuge and I used to skip recess and go to the art room to do art, and my favorite teacher was Mrs. Gardner, my art teacher. Middle school and high school were where the awkwardness comes out. You're trying to find your sense of self because you're growing a lot. But it was a little difficult moving a lot during that period. We moved when I was in ninth grade.

I felt a little off from the average high school kids as a teenager. When I was a junior, I got kind of bullied and I was kind of alone. But I eventually rode that out and it made me stronger. By the time I was a senior I was back in my element. I had a really good sense of humor and I was really confident and creative, but my junior year was really painful.

When I went to college I just couldn’t deny that I was finding my most focus and Zen and peace through painting.

What did you like to do outside of school?

I was always pretty creative. We used to make sometimes like plays or I always painted or drew. I made these little puppets. In elementary I would enter these art contests and I would often place. I would often get a ribbon and that was really encouraging to me. In high school I went through a phase where the creativity came out more in costume day or when you dress up for school.  

When I went to college I just couldn’t deny that I was finding my most focus and Zen and peace through painting. Even though I’d started oceanography I kept ending up in the art rooms at night painting. That was a part of my personality that was eventually going to take over. I just couldn’t deny that this is the most natural fit for myself and it’s something that I just came to own. My parents encouraged it. They believed in me as an artist. As a kid they always encouraged me. They always took me to museums. We’d walk into a museum when we were three or four and could tell the difference between Pissarro and Seurat or Van Gogh and Degas.

Can you tell us about your musical side?

I’ve been in bands and that was a big focus of mine in Cape Town and in New York, and in Richmond, Virginia. In the formative years, I was actually in a band called Gwar, but I did my other music: DayGlo Aborigines and Blest in New York and South Africa. It was a real focus of mine and it’s still is. I hope I get back into the poetry and the lyrics and the music. In one band I played a little keyboard. In the other ones I wrote the lyrics and helped write the music and the concept. I was basically the singer, the lyricist. I’m not a great singer in the average way by any means. I’m more the spirit of rock and roll, you know, Patti Smith or Courtney Love.

After college in Richmond, Virginia, what did you do?

I traveled through the Middle East to Greece and Israel, and Egypt and Crete and Cyprus. I worked my way over there, picked oranges and olives a little, and I worked at bars and picked flowers in Crete, and then when I got into Egypt I got kind of stuck.

I came back to New York and I found my way. I lived in some gallery in the Lower East Side with a friend. That’s when the Lower East Side was still affordable to emerging artists. But so I moved into some gallery down there and then I found my way and started DayGlo Aborigines, and I’ve always painted throughout this period. I mean that was like a constant. Even in Crete and in the Middle East and things I was always painting. But then I ended up in New York and then I met somebody that was South African that joined the DayGlo Aborigines for a while and I ended up in South Africa through them and I end up living there for a couple years.

How did you end up in Los Angeles?

I left New York because it got really hard to find an apartment at one point and so I decided I’d try Los Angeles. I ended up driving out here to Los Angeles to pursue my art and then just ended up painting. I fell back fully more into working on movie sets, which I did for work and as a painter.

I dabbled in some film in New York but then when I came out here my friend knew some people in the set world. I worked as a painter/PA/everything on Kid Rock’s "Cowboy." That was my first set job on Vine and Hollywood. Some of the jobs are really hard, really long hours. You really work in these atmospheres where you're always under the gun. You're really kicking butt. It’s actually a pretty good labor job/art job. I could work and support myself and you get really great healthcare if you work certain hours during each year.

You’re best known for your angel wings. What inspired you to make them?

The angel wing idea came to me when I was driving around LA in around 2012. If I drove around what would I want to see as a human that would be good for humanity to see? I kept imagining big wings on buildings as I drove down the 101 in traffic, and so I just acted on it. The first two in the downtown community were illegal. They became popular right away and people just started tweeting them, et cetera. I started to get requests and then I started getting commissions, and then people like the mayor from LA took photos. Then corporate people like Brookfield asked. I think my first paid commission was Brookfield at Fig at 7th. I’m actually doing more paintings for them in Houston, Texas in April and I did for some of them in Australia.

Had you been done street art before painting the angel wings?  

I dabbled in painting walls and street art in Richmond, New York and Cape Town, the places I’ve lived here and there. I’ve painted animals a lot. When I came out to LA I knew a street artist named Becca a teeny bit, and I did some street art with her. Then I didn’t do much street art for a while and I came back into it around 2012. I thought as a painter what would I like to give around the world.

How do you create your wings?

I actually paint them at home and the original reason for that was more detail. The first work wasn’t authorized. They had to be put up really fast in order to get the effect I wanted to present. You had to do a lot of the work at home where you had more time to do it. I wanted to really represent myself as a painter who went to art school that studied fine art my whole life. I didn’t want to tag really fast at night with my hoodie on. I wanted to transcend the image a little and take it to another level.

After you wheat paste it I go back in and I paint it and I finish it and I shape it. [Colette uses wheat paste to affix her wings to their site.] 80% of the time is the actual application and shaping, and sealing and fixing, and if they’re outdoors you seal it with like marine high-tech varnishes. I was just in Taipei, and Taichung, and Pau, France, and all of those were legit and commissioned. Each situation is different and each wall is different. In Taipei I worked on this rough brick wall. Then in Pau, France, I was on this beautiful door in this totally modern mansion and we sealed it with marine varnish. We went to the French Home Depot and got this really good marine varnish for boats, because the door was going to be on the exterior of their house. I use UV varnishes for the sun especially out in California. The elements are tough.

The wings have a life of their own. You leave the wings and you let them fly away into their own story.

A boy in boxing gloves in front of the Koyale angel wings in Nairobi, Kenya

How does it feel to have created work that resonates with people across the world and across every kind of person?

It feels really fulfilling and grateful. The wings in a way have more of a life of their own. You leave the wings and you let them fly away into their own story. I did wings in the slums in Nairobi, Kenya for the street kids, to kind of play with them and go, “Hey, look. You can have hope in your life. Let’s play with these wings,” and all the kids were helping.

And then they named their boxing club, Kayole Wings Miller Boxing Club. I just sent them a whole bunch of boxing equipment with City of Angels Boxing here. I actually sent them a wing kit and they put up some more wings down there. And that was all a story of its own. The one in Juarez was after the drug cartel violence when the community was trying to heal. There is this really great photo with the soldier walking by that somebody took that when it got best photo of the day or week in all the international publications like CNN, Telegraph, BBC. That was a life of its own.

The wings are interactive and the people do what they want with it. I’m starting to get comments like “trendy,” “basic,” and I’m like, “when did I go from nice idea, wings for the whole world, now it’s basic?” I’m not insulted at all. I think it’s funny.     

What is it like being more of a public figure because of the angel wings?

When I did the first one I was going to do them anonymously, and then I decided to sign them. Somebody told me to sign them. Because the brand became global, and I started putting the feather which says Global Angel Wings Project on it on all the pieces, that’s become my brand. It became important especially because the Global Angels Project has become the statement: we can be the good of this earth and we can be the angels of this earth. It’s to encourage our higher nature, which we all have and we all have lower natures, granted. It was for a meditation on our divine selves, our true selves, and I just decided it was probably better to brand it.

And the public figure part, I’d rather do the work quietly and have people take photos of with themselves in the work. I mean I don’t mind it. I’m actually grateful for anybody that even cares. And most people just ignore me working anyway or they get bored so it’s okay.

A soldier in front of Colette's angel wings in Juarez, Mexico. This photo appeared in Reuters, the New York Times, and other news services.

Are there other projects that you're working on in addition to Global Angel Wings Project?

I have a show on Thursday for a lot of my other paintings that I’ve done in the past and a couple new ones. I just did this one of these bats hanging. A lot of it’s more oil and some of it’s older. I’ve always dabbled in filmmaking like in editing and camera work and documentaries and that’s on the periphery. The music and the poetry: all of that is in the corner of my eye but now the painting has taken primary focus at this time for sure. It takes a lot of energy.

What else fills your time?

I just bought a little house in Virginia by the river. It’s closer to my parents because they’re getting up there. The people on this planet that mean a lot to you, you want to be there for them in the end. I mean, don’t those things matter? I’m keeping the studio out here. I’ll probably spend some time on the East Coast again and some time here.

It’s about having the courage to accept your own voice no matter what it will be.

What advice would you give somebody who’s interested in being an artist or having a creative life in some form?

You have to find your own voice because if you imitate people then you're just an imitation. It’s about having the courage to accept your own voice no matter what it will be. Sometimes that’s really hard to find, and you probably won't make any money from it as an artist or musician. I mean probably 90% of people that go into the arts do have another job, probably higher than that, and that’s fine because you end up doing your art for inner peace.

A lot of people look to art to find that kind of peace. I think that’s why some people need to do that. Some yogis do yoga. Some artists do art. Some athletes do physical and they find that kind of inner peace. That can only be good for the world. The most important thing is honesty in your work. Like sometimes that’s hard to find and you lose it and you become a caricature of yourself.

How did you picture adult life when you were a teenager and how does your life compare to that?

I wasn’t quite sure. I always was attracted to Africa. I was always attracted to California and the arts, but I wasn’t quite sure. That’s a hard question. I don’t know. because a teenager I think is so locked into your immediate society. You're growing up, your body is changing, you're like how do I fit in?

When I was a little kid I wanted to be an artist, that’s for sure. That I knew. It was when I became a teenager I got more into the confusion of the world around you. But when I was little I was clearer about who I was. Teenage years were a little maybe confusing because I didn’t know where I fit in. I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know if my clothes were good enough, if they weren’t.

I think, too, teenage years are like the years of the peers. That’s so important, your peers. That’s how you're measuring yourself. You go outside yourself in your teenage years when you should probably go inside yourself more. I think you go back inside yourself when you're an adult. You go back inside to find your peace.

This interview has been edited and condensed.