Creative Grind: Theresa Miles Started Making Clothes When She Was 10 Years Old

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What does it mean to be an artist? Do you, as a creative, have to claim some type of ownership within the realm of your medium in order for it to really count? Do you get paid to create? To what extent does that matter when it comes to establishing an identity? These are questions that artists grapple with, especially in an age when ~personal branding~ is sold to us as absolutely essential and visibility is all but inescapable. So, how do we deal with these quandaries in our day-to-day lives?

Creative Grind, Manqué’s Q&A column, takes those questions directly to artists.

Meet: Theresa Miles. She’s originally from Orange County, California, and attended Smith College, where she studied Anthropology and Costume Design. She moved to NYC a year ago to pursue work in costumes, and is currently working freelance as both a costume designer for theatre, and a costume PA for TV. 

1. What medium(s) do you work in and are there any others you’d like to explore?

I make and design costumes, and I’ve been doing this for now nine years (I started in high school), and I’ve always felt that any art that I create helps my practice in some way. In making costumes, I dye and manipulate fabrics, which is a skill I’d love to explore more. Painting and sketching is often a necessary part of designing, and I definitely want to improve that skill. I recently got to play around with a 3D printer, and really enjoyed creating objects digitally and seeing them physically rendered, so I hope to continue making art digitally. 

2. Does your art pay your bills? If no, what does?

Currently, yes! When I graduated, I knew I needed to get a full time job that paid well to make the move to NYC. I took a job teaching history and art at a charter middle school, which had a good salary, and included summer pay (even though I’m not returning for another year of teaching). This work allowed me to save a ton of money so that when I do eventually have gaps in employment, I can still sustain myself. As of right now, I’m bouncing between a few freelance jobs, I work a few days a week as a Costume PA on a TV show, I do some electrics work for theatre, and I have a couple design projects coming up.

3. At what age did you start working within each medium and what attracted you to it?

I started making clothes at around 10 years old, and then started designing costumes in high school. I thought I wanted to be a fashion designer initially, but grew to love the collaboration between the director, actors, other designers, and working with the boundaries of a script. I’ve always loved to express myself through clothing, and had a hard time finding clothing I liked in stores, so sewing provided a lot of freedom for me to look the way I wanted. When I was in high school and deciding what I wanted to do for a career, I saw how costuming would allow me to be creative, lead a team, solve problems, be a storyteller. 

4. How did your family first respond to these interests, and has their support changed over time?

My parents have always found my interest in sewing to be cool, and brought me fabric shopping, got me a sewing machine from a friend, supported me in seeing the shows I designed. I stuck with sewing consistently for many years; it wasn’t something (like other childhood activities) that I stopped doing after a few months. For college, I do think my parents were nervous about me just pursuing costumes, so I did avoid applying to art schools. They never said that I shouldn’t go to art school, but they didn’t encourage me to really look at schools like FIT, FIDM, or Parsons, so I didn’t make it an option. They’re now very encouraging and proud of my work, since they are seeing that I’m consistently getting work and making money from my art.

5. What was your dream career as a freshman in college? What is it now? What changed for you, if anything?

I wanted to be a costume designer and I still am! I wanted to be designing on Broadway or doing big films, but now I’m not sure if I want to work on huge productions. The bigger the show, the further removed the designer is from the actually fun part of shopping, and choosing fabrics, and being in fittings because assistants take over a lot of that work. So the job itself didn’t change, but the jobs that I would take/what I am to do in the future as refined a bit.

6. During an average week, how much time do you devote to your work? How much time do you *wish* you devoted to it?

I usually work about 30-40 hours a week, sometimes more (60 if I PA the whole week). For designing, I always wish I was more motivated to do it, like actually sit down and paint or research or people watch or shop… but since I leave my design work for my days off, I often feel lazy and just want a break. Ideally I’d PA for 3-4 days, and (productively!) design the other days

7. What creative/professional (if they overlap) guilt do you wrestle with the most?

I put a lot of pressure on myself to always be doing work, and hate when I’m lazy. I know it’s not reasonable to be working hard all the time, and I don’t want to get burnt out. But I do feel guilty lying around watching tv when I know I should be working on my website, or applying to jobs, or doing the pre-work for a design. 

8. What creators do you turn to when you want to feel motivated or inspired?

I look up to a lot of people that I work with. When I’m PAing, I’m constantly interacting with people who have the job I’d like to have in the future. I can see very clearly the path for moving up in my career, and that is really inspiring. I’ve been following a lot of costume designers and artists on instagram as well, people who create the work that I aspire to do one day, and learning more about their career trajectory helps me feel less alone or unaccomplished. Most of my friends are also artists, so just hearing about the work that they’re doing, or making art with them, helps me feel more capable. 

9. Do you believe in forcing yourself to create on a regular schedule or only when you feel particularly inspired? Why?

I only really create when I’m inspired! I think I separate creating for myself/the work I’m the lead designer on versus the work that I do to create for someone else. The work I do for myself only happens when I feel so inclined, but I obviously have to go to work in the mornings and grind for other people on a set schedule. If I was only creating on my terms, nothing would get made probably! I think I need someone to structure my time so I actually feel pressure to get things done by a deadline.

10. Make a case for your favorite television show?

Jane the Virgin is the best show hands down. It tackles so many political and social issues within the frivolity of a telenovela, and puts Latinx’s voices front and center. Gina Rodriguez is an unbelievable actress and whenever she cries on the show (which is often), I cry. The show has wild twists and turns, but overall ends perfectly. For a show about something as nutty as accidental artificial insemination, it’s heart-warming and relatable and exactly the kind of TV that should be made right now.

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