Lev Miller: artist and activist
In celebration of our relaunch, and because this year really needs more things to celebrate, we’ve decided to open the floor to you. We’re traveling near and far (…ok, mostly near right now) to spotlight transgender, gender-queer, gender-neutral, non-binary, and intersex artists, activists, performers, musicians, writers, and just people. It’s a showcase of our varied experiences, because marginalization starts with generalization–and we’re anything but interchangeable. We’re all distinct. Ironically, that’s what connects us. So let’s celebrate the variance and exquisiteness of each one of us–every thread that contributes to the fabric of our community.
I'm excited to kick it all off with Lev Miller. Lev (he/him/his), 22, is a female-to-male transgender artist and community leader and organizer from Wichita, Kansas. I drove out to meet Lev, who’s mellow voice and self-proclaimed awkwardness made me feel at home. He’s fiery though–a real go-getter. You may have seen him up around the site and our ads. I drove out to Wichita for our photoshoot. When he visited Kansas City the next week, we talked about life in Wichita, his work with the community there, and his art:
Can you talk a bit about growing up and how you came to understand that your were trans?
I grew up in a highly Christian, conservative household so I didn’t really learn about it until I was like 18. And one of my friends was transitioning and we did research together, and I’m like, “Wait… this is exactly what I’m supposed to do.” Because I remember being a five-year-old wearing my brother’s hand-me-downs and playing swords and stuff, with our lightsabers… censor lightsabers hahahaha
hahahaha [I think we’ll be fine… we’ll see]
Yeah and then once I actually found out what it was, everything sort of fell together–it’s like, my destiny.
Were you open with your family? How did they react?
At first I had to like, kind of ease it in because it was something that they were unfamiliar with. They were kinda… I don’t wanna say they were ignorant. Since that was right when it was becoming less taboo in society, they were kinda like, “We get it.” Then my aunt passed away, my dad’s sister, and he was just like, “Life’s too short to sweat the small things: you’re my son and I love you.” And after that moment…
I didn’t tell them, I had just changed my Facebook. And one of my relatives outed me. And they were like, “What’s this, you’re ‘trying to be a boy?’” and it was a struggle at first but I had hope. I was like, some day they’ll come around and they finally did. We have a good relationship now, and they’ve always been there to support me.
Can you tell me about your name, and how you came to "Lev," or how you came to "Taylor" before that?
When I first transitioned I needed a strong, empowering name and I went by "Magnus Leonardo," which was cool. But my parents were like, “That’s all fine and good, but that’s too crazy and we won’t call you that” which kind of sucked. So I wanted to involve my mom, because she came up with my name and was so…
[silence, as a large bee, that has been hovering ~4 inches above Lev’s legs begins to close that gap]
There is now… a bee… it could be a yellow jacket…
[it flies off]
At least it’s not a wasp
Wasps are assholes, yeah.
Fuck wasps hahaha
But I went by that, and my mom had picked out my birth-name before I was even born–when she was a little kid, so the process of losing that name messed with her. I was like, “Hey, what would you have named me had I been… born with everything.. correct?” and we both came up with ‘Taylor Levi’. But Taylor is such a cookie-cutter name, and I’m not a cookie-cutter person. I wanted something that would be memorable. And that could carry on. So I’m changing it to Lev Rockwell Miller. It’s a family name.
Hmm, who was the last member of your family to have that?
My grandfather that I never met, but he was like—I heard he was pretty cool.
So, you’re sort of a name in the community in Wichita. What have you been involved with and how did you step into that role?
I’ve done various artwork, or really city work with art for years and that work got me an interview with a local LGBT publication about my art. And then I met the person that founded Wichita Transgender and Community Network, which is this organization that helps the community with support groups. I facilitate a trans-masculine support group and we do activism. There was a clothing pantry for people in our community that had things that they couldn’t wear anymore [after transitioning] and whenever you first transition, finding the right clothes that make you feel non-dysphoric is very important, and we wanted to supply that for them. That’s pretty much it, but I’m starting my own art collective. It’s not necessarily trans-exclusive, but it’s getting people from all kinds of spectrums with art and music and anything, and letting people coexist and create.
Tell me about your art. What themes do you explore in your work?
It really just varies, I take what I feel in my everyday and instead of bottling it up I push it out onto the paper or the canvas. Like whatever i’m feeling. Like, I kinda felt disassociated one day so I made a warped self-portrait and… I mess with my own appearance a lot. I always use very vibrant, bright colors and very eccentric imagery. And I play with the placement of anatomy. I did this one for TransKansas–it’s a transgender conference, that’s held in a different place every year–and they did an art auction, and it’s a guy that’s had top-surgery with a chest tattoo that says “dysphoria” and his head is kind of like a wave, and his head like a hand… and on the finger is a butterfly. And the stuff around it is pink and blue, kinda like wavy patterns? It’s really cool, I worked my butt off on it, hahaha.
How do you approach a piece? What’s your process?
I always sketch it out first. I would sketch it out on the canvas, but it’d make it too techincal. I like to draw a picture and get the exact, formulated idea out–I do various trials. And then if it’s something that pops out to me, I usually don’t buy premade materials, I stretch my own canvas and I build painting surfaces out of like masonite hardboard and wood. Just make the panel and gesso it and then I just have at it.
It usually takes a while depending on the size and whatnot. I’ve had one done in like 45 minutes
and one take like six months.
Jeez. Just the… the set up took six months?
The painting process. Like the painting itself, because you’ve gotta layer it, then the color theory-type stuff, and outline, if it needs an outline. And I love exploring different genres. I don’t wanna classify myself as one thing, but I do surrealism, cubism, kind of pop art-y stuff, and then like abstract, very visual unique structures.
Who would you say are your biggest influences?
I share a birthday with Pablo Picasso and I’ve always felt very connected to him, and Salvador Dali as well. And the first time I came to Kansas City, I was watching a bunch of documentaries on the bus to here, and a Kieth Haring thing and Frida Khalo and all these things, and… these artists… suffered. And they didn’t let what they were suffering from hold them back. And they used it to create even more. And that’s very inspiring to me. They always… people would always talk crap on their art: they’re like, “This is unique”! Like, I don’t know, ha.
What’s some of the feed back that you’ve gotten on your work? Do people… crap on it? Haha
“What the fuck is that?!”
or, at my first show–because it was my senior year of high school–we were all kinda like fly-on-the-wall types to hear what people were saying. And they were like, “It looks like a bunch of high schoolers did this” when the sign literally says “North High School Art Show.” Really? Does it look like high schoolers?
‘You don’t say…’
And then, also some of it was sloppy. Not mine, per se, but other people, so they were kind of judging it based on what else was around it.
After all the press stuff happened, when my art was starting to be seen as genuine and good, people would dig it. And some people just don’t get it though. Like, the more weird imagery–they’re like, one person who isn’t really prone to change. So they’d see it at face value: “Oh, a bunch of crap thrown together.” But if it’s the more philosophical people that I’ve seen, you can tell when someone walks by your painting how… impressed they are. Like, if they just walk by and don’t give a shit and walk away. My art teacher in high school always told us, “Always think about the ten and two.” Draw someone in from ten feet away, and give them something to blow their minds from two feet away.
Wow, I’ve never head that before; that’s awesome.
Yeah, that’s what I think; because I always try to hide intricate details that look like something else. That just float in the colors, and when you get close it’s an intricate pattern.
What would someone have to do or see before they left Wichita?
The Keeper of the Plains is one of my personal favorite spots.
It’s pretty cool
There’s this place called the Indian Center, and it was behind that and it was pretty much invisible. So they remastered this area and built this whole bridge, and made these rocks that shoot up fire at 9 o’clock [pm]. And it’s very… you feel very… grounded, when you’re there. And in the summer time, they have these things that mist stuff, to cool you off.
Oh that’s cool. I’ve gotta go back there.
Didn’t you say something about… it lining up with the stars… or
Oh yeah! There was this spot at Riverside Park-they have a solar calendar. I can show you next time you’re there.
Yeah, it’s a solar calendar, like these big rocks. And they have these things that can be filtered through the light when it’s the equinox or the summer solstice, or any of them. It lines up and there’s a stone with the date of what it is, and another stone at the top, and it pushes through… I’ve never seen it but a lot of people say it, and I’ve always wanted to go out there. They do like drumming circles and stuff.
They do a lot of native… things. Because a lot of that area was home to the Wichita Native Americans [the wind picks up] that were very prominent in that area.
They can hear me talkin’ about ‘em–it got windy.
Hahaha. Describe your perfect average day:
Wakin’ up. Feedin’ mah dogs. I like to do some meditation in the morning, because it’s good to find your inner focus and relax. And it’s really good for creative types because your mind can go in a million different directions, and if you take ten minutes to just ground yourself, it’s kind of a good jumping point. When I started doing that, a lot of things cleared up. I draw or paint every day, even if it’s just like, random doodles. Or I do something with my hands. I wire-wrap jewelry sometimes and… I don’t even know. I just want to make it all…haha
Haha that’s awesome though. I should probably start doing that… grounding thing. Like, I was having that issue this morning.
Yeah, you just take ten minutes and put in earbuds, and calm music, close your eyes, and just. Feel. It takes a while to actually… Well, at first you will definitely feel calmer, but if you get more into it you can play with it.
Like, get yourself more energized
You’ve mentioned your anxiety a few times, in our time together. How do you tend to cope with that?
Meditation and I do flow art stuff with LED lights and it’s very relaxing. You just play music or just have your way with it. It’s really cool, actually. I self-medicate.
What are you bumpin’ nowadays? What are you noddin’ to?
It really just depends on the day. Like some days, I’m lame and I listen to early 2000’s pop punk music haha.
That’s not bad
‘Cause people hear it and they’re like, “Oh, you’re stuck in old ways.”
I’m like, “Just chill!”
And it’s like… kind of reminiscent.
It’s nostalgic, yeah.
Well, a lot of those bands helped me from ending my life. So it’s important to me.
Well, Black Veil Brides or My Chemical Romance?
Black Veil Brides can suck my…
Okay, okay, Greenday or My Chemical Romance?
Yeah, I like My Chemical Rom–I like ‘em all. It’s like picking your favorite child. But I like that more heavy, like, “DURN-na-NURN-da-DURN-na-NURN-na.” But I love Fallout Boy. I’ve seen them twice, and I got to high-five the bassist as he ran through the crowd. I screamed so loud that my voice un-dropped, and then re-dropped. I was like, “EEEAAAAHHHHHauoooooooo”
It was fucking bad. Like, “That didn’t happen. You didn’t hear that girlish-squeal, that erupted from my nether-region.”
2017 has been… such… a year…. and we’re hardly even half-way through! What’s your biggest hope or wish for the rest of the year?
I just have hope that humanity will get it’s head back to where it should be, and not put us in the Dark Ages again. Fund science, fund art. If I was ever a millionaire, I would just donate all of my money to everything to make the world better. And that’s what I hope people will kind of start… paying their lives forward. Because everyone tends to hold on to everything. This is the year of the Fire Rooster in the Chinese New Year, and it’s a time of great change, but it’s to set you up for the best life you could have. That’s why last year sucked, and this year is like, crazy. But you’ve gotta see the linings in everything and… make it your bitch.
You can edit out my swearing. I’m just a… a swearer.
I might edit it out that part.
Or you can sensor it, just put a, “this f$#@ f*$&#~%!”
I’ll just put a black bar over it
So, what’s next for you?
I’m going to continue growing my organization Stimulate Create
That’s the art collective?
Yes. It’s just finding talent that doesn’t believe in themselves, and showing them that anything is possible. And putting materials in artists hands. And construction…. and… ha I’m going to try and do more.. modeling stuff.
People seem to be receiving it, so... Has anyone commented on it yet?
Not yet! We really haven’t told them… who it is.
Well, people say it looks great, so
Well, you can link to my Instagram
So you can get me likes, ‘cause I just made the account.
You need more posts!
I knooow, haha. I should probably post while I don’t have followers it’s not like a [Lev motions with his hands, cutting the air into small, vertical compartments] “dooh-dooh-dooh-dooh-dooh”
It’s cubist underscore priest.
I know. I’m following you. But I need more posts. We all need–we only have one post. Same.
Oh, and I wanna try to get into like acting. Making film and stuff.
Would you be interested in like, comedy? Intense drama? What are y—
I wanna be one of those versatile actors that you think, “Oh they’re not gonna be able to,” you know, “do somethin’ funny” or “do somethin’ dramatic.” I wanna do stupid… funny stuff, and then just kill it with dramatic readings. Because I’ve always been able to do both… “Like a bah-sexual.”
Ha-Have you seen?
They’re like, making fun of some politician. And they go, “Goes both ways,” and the politician goes, “Like a bah-sexual”
I’m just like… haha what the fuck.
I’m gonna look that up
I’m trying to remember what his name was. Just look up “Like a bah-sexual”
and you’ll find it.
I will do that.
Thanks Lev. Thanks for this interview.
Thank you very much.
It’s been a pleasure as always.
I’m going to end it now.
(xxiv iv mmxvii)