Christopher Miles

Christopher Miles is a Los Angeles-based artist. Since 1998, he has served on the faculty of the School of Art at California State University Long Beach where he is Program Head for Ceramic Arts Studies as well as Co-founder and Director of the Center for Contemporary Ceramics. Chris grew up in Southern California surrounded by a family-run ceramics manufacturing business and the ceramics industry that proliferated in the region in the 1970s and 80s.

Chris was born in Pomona, California in May of 1968, the seventh and youngest child of parents who grew up during the Great Depression and WWII years and met at the University of Arkansas where his father, Alan Miles, studied sculpture and architecture, and his mother, Gloria Curtis, studied art history. Weeks after his birth, his family moved from their home in Claremont to South Pasadena to be closer to his father’s work at Smith & Williams, a modernist architecture firm. In 1972, when his father left architecture behind to open a ceramics manufacturing company in the defunct Harlan Dramaware ceramics factory in San Clemente, California, the family moved to nearby Mission Viejo, then a small, recently launched, planned community of about 12,000 people surrounded by undeveloped hills and agricultural and ranch land in southern Orange County. 

The family business began under the name of Artisan Kilns and evolved into a more specialized glaze manufacturing company and ceramic manufacturing consultancy known as Miles Ceramic Color, later relocated to Santa Ana. Chris spent much of his youth working in his family’s small ceramics factory and riding along on supply runs and deliveries among the many hubs of ceramic industry that dotted the Southern California map: San Juan Capistrano, Alberhill, Corona, Santa Ana, Gardena, La Mirada, Santa Fe Springs, South LA, East LA, the City of Industry among others. He cites this early experience as formative in shaping how he approaches thinking, working, and making—having seen how materials were handled in industrial production settings and how ideas took form in product-development and prototyping phases concurrently with his own early experiences in working with material, tinkering, and making art.

Chris grew up in a crowded house, in a family steeped in arts and crafts—drawing and painting, ceramics, jewelry making, leatherworking, metalworking, printmaking, rock polishing, and woodworking among others. With older sisters versed in making and altering their own clothes, he learned to sew and work with fabric and patterns—something he considers utterly formative, underlying his ongoing inclination to work with flexible planar materials including fabric, paper, and slabs of clay, and to tailor such materials into sculptural volumes. From a young age, he was curious about fashion, and for some time aspired to become a costumer or clothing designer, fascinated by the ways clothes could sculpt the contours of the body and reshape appearance and identity. Meanwhile, household and business endeavors including constant DIY remodeling and construction projects, driveway automotive maintenance and repair, and fabrication projects ranging from boatbuilding to furniture making to refurbishing and creating machinery for the factory, along with wandering among construction sites that were ubiquitous as the region was subdivided and developed, exposed Chris to materials, tools, and trades, and developed his awareness of form, space, and structure.

Chris’ exposure to art and culture was fostered particularly by his mother, who on weekends and frequent weekday excursions when she would “spring” Chris from school with assorted made-up excuses of illnesses, appointments, and family emergencies, took him with her to bookstores and libraries, museums and galleries, antique and thrift stores, movies, model homes, and art history lectures at colleges and universities around Southern California. When not consumed with the business and other projects, his father enjoyed taking Chris on daytrips to mines and quarries, drives and walks through construction sites, architecture tours, and visits to the studios of artists and craftspersons, as well as industrial sites of all kinds. Having six older siblings in the 1970s and early 80s meant exposure from a very young age to the music, fashion, film, aesthetics, and ideas of the counterculture and the sexual revolution. Chris was drawn to the styles and expressions of psychedelic, glam, punk, and new-wave culture. Exposure to Southern California art of the period was very important to him. The ocean, the beach, and the related cultures were an indelible part of growing up where he did, and of spending break hours from work shifts at the family business at beaches within walking distance. The only affordable family vacations were camping trips in the region, and Chris grew up exploring the topography and geology of Yosemite and the Eastern Sierra, the White and Panamint Mountains, Death Valley, and the San Gabriel, San Bernardino, and San Jacinto mountains.

While in high school, Chris studied at the Laguna Beach School of Art (now the Laguna College of Art and Design), taking courses in painting, color theory, and design. Chris recalls the artist and designer Ray Jacob as a particularly impactful teacher at Laguna. As a young person drawn to metaphysical and spiritual thinking, and considering a future in the clergy, Chris began his undergraduate studies at Illinois Wesleyan University in 1986 as a double major in Religion/Philosophy and Art. Among his most impactful teachers at IWU, Chris counts artist-teachers Miles Bair, Kevin Strandberg, Ann Taulbee, and Rimas VisGirda; art historian Tim Garvey; religious studies professor Jerry Stone; and philosophy professor Karen Gervais. In 1988, Chris transferred to UC Santa Barbara, initially lured by the university’s renowned Religious Studies Department, but ultimately hooked by the curriculum and faculty of the College of Creative Studies. In 1991, he completed his BA with an emphasis in Art at CCS. Among his most impactful teachers at UCSB, Chris counts artist-teachers Karen Carson, Kathryn Clark, Dan Connally, Steven Cortright, Ann Hamilton, Constance Mallinson, Ann Page, Hank Pitcher, Lari Pittman, Harry Reese, and Buzz Spector. In 1994, Chris earned his MFA at the School of Fine Arts (now the Roski School) at the University of Southern California. Among his most impactful teachers at USC, Chris counts studio art faculty Bob Alderette, David Bunn, Michael Davis, Jud Fine, Margaret Lazzari, Karl Matson, Robin Mitchell, Ann Page, Ken Price, Ruth Weisberg, and Jay Willis; art history/theory faculty Glenn Harcourt and Amelia Jones; and his former undergraduate teacher Lari Pittman who served as an external member of Chris’ MFA thesis committee.

Chris continued to make work in diverse media after exiting graduate school but focused professionally on journalistic and critical writing about art, and on curatorial work. He received a 2004 Penny McCall Award for his work as a writer and curator, and received a 2005 award for “Best Thematic Exhibition Nationally” from AICA/USA, the United States chapter of the International Association of Art Critics, for the Hammer Museum's survey exhibition Thing: New Sculpture from Los Angeles, which Chris co-curated with James Elaine and Aimee Chang. Chris worked with co-curator Kris Kuramitsu to organize the Los Angeles participation in the 2010 ARCOmadrid International Contemporary Art Fair, and the concurrent exhibition L.A. Invisible Cities at the Instituto Cervantes in Madrid. Between 1995 and 2010, Chris published over 500 reviews, essays, and other writings in numerous journals and newspapers including Artforum, Art in America, Flash Art, LA Weekly, and the Los Angeles Times, as well as exhibition catalogs and anthologies. Chris credits this period of his life/career as an important further educational period for him as an artist. He continues to write about art occasionally, and is co-editor, with Karen Kleinfelder and Catha Paquette, of In and Out of View: Art and the Dynamics of Circulation, Suppression, and Censorship, an anthology published by Bloomsbury in 2021.

After undergraduate and graduate studies in art exploring a variety of 2D, 3D, and 4D media and genres, followed by years focused largely on art writing and curating, Chris refocused his activity on materials-based studio practice, frequently returning to the material and making languages familiar from his youth—producing with clay, papier-mâché, woodworking and carpentry, metalworking, painting and drawing, collage, and assemblage. 

Chris’ work has been featured in solo and group exhibitions at venues including ACME gallery, Actual Size gallery, Jason Jacques Gallery, L.A. Louver Gallery, the Pacific Design Center, the Pasadena Museum of California Art, Patricia Sweetow Gallery, the Pit, the Torrance Art Museum, and UC Santa Barbara. Chris’ work has been reviewed in ARTLURKER, Artillery, Artweek, Art in America, Ceramics Monthly, the L.A. Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, Notes on Looking, Square Cylinder, and Sculpture Magazine.

Chris cites as an additional and ongoing education and mission the years he has spent working in higher education. He has taught at the Art Center College of Design, the Claremont Graduate University, Los Angeles Mission College, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, and the University of Southern California. His longest engagement in teaching, at California State University Long Beach, has also been the most impactful upon him as both a teacher and artist. He considers it the most meaningful and rewarding job he’s ever worked at in his life. Cal State Long Beach, or Long Beach State as it is known locally was familiar to Chris in his youth. In tow with his father while growing up, and on his own later when he was able to drive, he sometimes visited exhibitions on the campus, which was reputed for its art department’s emphasis on material, craft, and making. As a teenager pondering a future in some kind of service-oriented field—clergy, counseling, teaching, government—he imagined that he might someday teach at Cal State Long Beach, and after finishing graduate school he found himself returning to such thoughts.

Chris joined the faculty at CSULB in 1998 as a part-time lecturer. He was subsequently hired on as a full-time lecturer in 2000, appointed as an Assistant Professor in 2003, tenured and promoted to Associate Professor in 2006, and promoted to the rank of Professor in 2011. As a practitioner active across multiple studio disciplines connected to different areas within the School of Art, as well as engaged in writing and curatorial work, he was one of few tenure-track faculty in the history of the School of Art with an appointment spanning multiple areas. Throughout his years at CSULB, his teaching activities have included a broad portfolio of studio classes, seminars, critiques, lecture courses, and consultation with graduate students in multiple studio areas as well as art education and art history. He created the school’s first interdisciplinary graduate critique course, which became the basis of restructuring the school’s MFA curriculum. Over the years, while Chris has continued to teach in other areas and across areas within the School of Art, the balance of his teaching assignments has shifted to the Ceramics Area.

Between 2005 and 2014, Chris served in multiple administrative posts within the university. As chair of what was then called the Art Department, he launched the effort to redesignate the department as the School of Art and served as the school’s first director. He created and staffed the School of Art Student Services and Advising Center and was instrumental in restructuring the MFA curriculum and expanding the MFA studios. As interim dean of the College of the Arts, he oversaw planning, fundraising, and construction for the first University Art Museum expansion and the Museum Plaza; worked with colleagues to develop the college’s first college-wide articulation of mission, vision, and core values; launched the first initiative to proactively incorporate equity, diversity, and inclusion considerations directly into faculty search processes; and served on the CSULB Labor-Management Council. In 2014, wanting to get out from behind a desk and back into the studio and classroom, Chris returned to teaching full-time, and since 2016, he has served as Program Head for Ceramic Arts Studies.

In 2016, Chris and his colleague Professor Tony Marsh began talking about finding a way to institutionalize a long tradition established by Professor Marsh, who first began hosting guest artists and scholars from around the world at CSULB in the 1980s. Having served many years on the CSULB Academic Senate, involved deeply in campus governance including the development of guidelines for CSULB Academic Centers and Institutes (ACIs), Chris, working in consultation with Professor Marsh as well as Professor Jay Kvapil, served as the primary author of a proposal for a new campus entity and guided the proposal through the multiple levels of campus review culminating in the CSULB President’s approval in 2017 and the subsequent launch of the CSULB Center for Contemporary Ceramics (CCC). The CCC is an endowed ancillary entity dedicated to bringing visiting artists and scholars to CSULB to create innovative work that expands the field of contemporary ceramic art, to present their research and creative activity, and to work alongside students in the CSULB Ceramics learning/making community.

In 2019, Chris was honored with a CSULB President’s Award for Outstanding Faculty Achievement. Though he prefers the life of a professor and citizen of the campus community to an administrative role, Chris remains committed to doing what he can from the position he holds to participate in shared governance and advocacy in areas to which he is particularly devoted: serving on multiple School of Art governance committees, serving on the CSULB Academic Senate, serving on the College of the Arts Faculty Council, serving as a founding and ongoing member of the School of Art Inclusive Excellence Committee, and focusing on matters of anti-racism, equity, diversity, inclusion, and access.

In the spring of 2020, after most colleges and universities across the US had closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and long before there would be vaccines, Chris began developing a detailed plan for getting the CSULB Ceramics Area reopened for instruction by fall 2020, and advocated for this plan at higher levels within CSULB, the CSU system, and in CSULB planning with the Long Beach Department of Health and Human Services. The plan involved top-to-bottom changes to facilities layout, occupancy, navigation, instruction, protocols, and operations, all addressed in light of maintaining the highest level possible under the circumstances of student access, community, and learning experience. The plan was approved, and the Ceramics Area reopened in August 2020 while 95% of CSULB instruction and nearly all instruction in the School of Art remained remote. With the exception of two brief closures when the entire CSULB campus was closed due to small exposure/transmission incidents elsewhere on campus, the Ceramics Area remained open through the fall 2020 semester while every other ceramics program in the state of California remained closed, and through the spring of 2021 as just a few programs in the state reopened. Throughout the pandemic, the CSULB Ceramics Area had zero known COVID transmission incidents.

Chris considers his work in higher education—teaching in the classroom, working with students and artists in support of their aspirations and amplifying their voices, participating in and facilitating dialogue with students and colleagues, keeping the day-to-day operations of a working communal studio environment nimble and flexible, serving in shared governance and visioning within the institution, advocating for the needs of students and staff as well as faculty, taking care in communications and considerations, seeking empathy and collaboration amidst challenges and discord, and doing all he can to build a thriving inclusive creative community—to be aspects of a personal calling and a spiritual practice.