Many young people struggle with what they want to be when they are older, but not Dimitra Milan. Since she was a teenager, Milan has created ethereal artworks featuring portraits of women and animals coupled with elements of the cosmos, beautiful blooms, and textural drips. Each layered piece by the gifted artist begs for a long and considered look as she has built so much into the compositions. They are abstract in their arrangement, leaving them open to interpretation from the viewer.
We last spoke with Milan when she was just 16 years old. Now in her early 20s, she’s continued to grow her portfolio and following on social media, which has allowed her to make a living as a full-time artist as well as an instructor with the school established by her and her family, the Milan Art Institute. Through it, she and her mom teach the fundamentals of fine art and instruct students on how to find their artistic voice. In their Mastery Program, students learn how to transform their passion into a viable profession.
Scroll down to read My Modern Met’s latest, exclusive interview with Milan. She shares discovering new meaning in her art and how being featured online—through My Modern Met—helped to shape her career in a significant way.
It's been many years since we last spoke to you. What's one of the most significant ways your art has grown since then?
As an artist, my work is always evolving. I think one of the biggest things that has happened to my art is actually the process in which I paint. At the time of my last interview (2015), I primarily worked in oil paint. Now, I’m using a variety of different mixed media materials and techniques, which adds several more layers to my painting. And I’m letting some parts of the underneath layers show through to the end. Sometimes I add collage from old books or love letters, or I’ll find phrases of words that make you think. I like to keep the collage kind of hidden so you can only read it up close. I also love using inks, pastels, and acrylics in the beginning stages of my paintings.
When you last interviewed me, I was working with a publishing company in Hawaii, primarily creating Hawaii-themed imagery. Since then, I’ve gone independent, which has allowed me to explore the themes that truly resonate within me, rather than painting what I was told would sell. In my freedom, I’ve found the theme of women and animals resonates most with my spirit.
Tell us more about your paintings. What kind of symbolism do you see the women and animals having?
Every once in a while I try painting other subject matter including abstracts—which I love—but I always come back to this story of a woman with an animal. The women I paint are symbols, they represent our truest self where we know deep down anything is possible. Everything in nature has a deeper meaning beyond our surface understanding of its function, especially animals. When I paint, I don’t set out to illustrate a concept; I try to find what it means after I finish. Out of all the animals I paint, wolves continue to be my favorite because there is a lot of nuance within their symbolism and they hold so much personal meaning for me.
It’s a long story so I won’t go into all the details, but my husband Jake used to share the same negative attributes with wolves in his past life. He was a completely different person, and when I fell in love with him (at age 16) I knew he still needed to find himself. We weren’t ready to be a couple because he had a lot of pain he needed to grow through. But I saw him as a leader, a strong independent person pioneering his own path. I saw him as someone who would eventually lead others to realize their greatness. Around this same point in time, I started painting wolves and I didn’t know why. It took me a couple of years to connect the dots and realize I was painting Jake, he was the wolf.
I believe that there are both negative and positive symbols associated with every animal. Even though Jake used to embody the negative connotations of a wolf, at the time, he also had the positive traits living within him, even if he didn’t realize it. When I painted women with wolves, I was unknowingly painting our love story. A story of growth, overcoming, persevering, and fulfilling destiny.
Interestingly, I’ve noticed that wolves happen to resonate with my viewers the most. And I think there’s a valuable lesson in there—when you paint your authentic story, what truly resonates deep within you, it will resonate with others as well. I hope viewers feel very inspired when looking at my work. I want my art to be uplifting, full of beauty, bring you peace and connection to your inner desires and give you the belief to step into your life’s dream.
How did having artistic parents help you as you began your journey into art?
My parents are a huge influence in my life. I look up to them in so many ways. One of the biggest things that has stuck with me is the idea of being a leader, not a follower. With this principle deeply ingrained in me, I’ve always felt comfortable doing the opposite of what the masses do. Whether that being dropping out of high school to pursue a career, foregoing a traditional art school education, or getting married at age 20.
I’m so grateful I was raised in a family where following your dreams is the only way to live. This is our belief system. I believe we all have a destiny when we are born, we have a purpose to fulfill here on Earth. We must follow our dreams and passions. My whole life I’ve watched both my parents pursue their passions and never give up. They have been making a living as professional artists for the last 26 years, it's the only career they’ve known. They both work hard at their dreams, and this inspires me.
What was one of the biggest lessons you learned from them?
Growing up with professional artists as parents, art was always encouraged. From age five, I would ask to paint with my parents in their studio. My sisters, brother, and I spent hours drawing together every day. But as I grew a little older, there was a time when I didn’t want to be an artist when I grew up. I wanted to be anything else, something different from my parents. I wanted to be a scientist and have a zoo. Then my parents opened up our school Milan Art Institute. They encouraged me to take some classes and I couldn’t escape the love I had for painting. After selling a few pieces, I was so motivated and never wanted to stop. It taught me that you really can make a living from selling art. I was fortunate enough to have this belief instilled in me from a young age. I feel like so many people have this idea that you can’t make a living as an artist, but now anyone can do it if they’re passionate enough.
Anything can be achieved as long as you believe in yourself, put in the effort, and dedicate yourself wholeheartedly. These are the values my parents ingrained in me.
You've said that the exposure of being on My Modern Met helped you in becoming an independent professional artist. Can you talk more about that?
I clearly remember the day my first story with My Modern Met was published. It was the middle of the afternoon, I was eating lunch and all of a sudden my phone started to blow up with notifications. It was vibrating so much that I had to turn off notifications because it was overwhelming. Within a couple of hours, I went from having 300 followers to over 4,000 followers on Instagram.
When I woke up the next morning, I couldn’t believe it. 10,000 followers. But it didn’t just stop there, several more online magazines approached me for more interviews as a result of my exposure with My Modern Met. Within just a few weeks, I gained over 30,000 followers.
(continued) This made me realize how powerful of a tool social media could be. I was making so many connections with people and sales online, it was difficult to keep up with. My publishers couldn’t answer all of the emails and messages pouring in, they were doing a pretty poor job at it. Over time, I realized how important online presence is for having success and having my art reach the most people. As the internet grows and evolves, art galleries and publishing companies are becoming less and less important.
Fast forward to a year and a half after My Modern Met published that destined article: there’s such a high demand for my art that I couldn’t keep up with it. I’ve never shared this before, but my publishing company even approached my parents and asked if they could paint in my style and pass it off as my work to keep up with the demand. My parents were shocked that the publisher would ask something so unethical of them, not to mention they already had thriving careers of their own to keep up with. They obviously said no.
The publisher never took the time to satisfy the inquiries that I had online. They went so far as to not ALLOW me to answer my own inquiries for my art. If anyone wanted to buy a painting online, I had to refer them to my publishers. I wasn’t allowed to deal with it. And I kept getting more messages from upset people because the publisher wouldn’t deal with people online. They only wanted to send my paintings to galleries because the galleries were selling consistently. I felt like I was on this hamster wheel, constantly painting to satisfy the galleries. But my audience online was being neglected and I knew art sales were heading online, so I had to make a change.
The month I decided to leave my publisher was my highest selling month of all time.
What is your advice for artists who are looking to get written about in online publications?
Artists are in a very powerful position as the CEO of their own businesses, we have access to so many tools and ever-expanding opportunities. Online art sales and businesses are flourishing. It’s easier than ever these days to make a living as a full-time professional artist.
So to anyone reading this right now whose lifelong dream is to be a full-time artist: just know it's more than possible. Right now is the BEST time to be alive as an artist! If you want to get exposure, my advice is to create your art every day. Everyone has a unique story to tell, stay authentic to yours and you’ll attract the right audience to your art. The more personal your story is, the more resonant it will be. If you paint consistently, your skills will grow and your voice will be honed. I think that’s what publications look for.
You've established an online school with your mom, the Milan Art Institute. What kind of classes do you offer?
Milan Art Institute specializes in helping people become professional artists. Most people don’t believe they can do it, that they aren’t talented or have anything interesting to say with their art. We teach artists the truth. They do have a unique voice and it doesn’t require talent to be successful. We don’t believe in talent as the determining factor. All you need is a passion to thrive and be successful. We take students from all levels and equip them with the right tools and skills so they can become successful and sell their own art.
What can students expect from your classes?
What makes our school really unique is our one-year Mastery Program. In this program, you can come in as a complete beginner, and after only one year be a professional artist selling your work. There are thousands of students all over the world taking this course, and they say it's changed their life forever. We teach a variety of classes in drawing, oil painting, and mixed media. Most artists start with acrylics because it’s easier, but we actually begin the Mastery Program with classical oil painting and drawing. This is because it lays down the proper foundation for success with mixed media materials. Through trial and error, we’ve found that students find the most success when beginning with oils. The best part of this program is that we help you find your own unique style and voice as an artist. That’s the hardest part for anybody looking to stand out and sell their work, they need to be recognized for their style. And we help you do that.
My mom and I teach everything from our own personal experiences, we live what we teach and so our school is very unique in this way.
What's on the horizon for you? Anything exciting you can tell us about?
For my own art business, I am thrilled to announce that I’ll be launching a line of sweaters this fall. This project is super special to me because I’m actually creating a line of couple’s sweaters designed by Jake and myself. One of the designs features a girl with wolves and the other features a flower with wolves. We designed this line to be symbolic of our commitment to each other and also a reminder of our destiny together. We hope that any couple who wears our sweaters is able to experience the same magical feeling together.
With Milan Art Institute, there are always exciting projects on the horizon. Something recent that is very exciting is that we launched season 2 of our artist reality show The Outstanding Artist. It features 11 different artists from all walks of life competing in art battles for a grand prize of $25,000. This was such a fun experience to film because all of the artists actually lived in the same house together for the 30 days that we filmed it, so that was definitely interesting.
Looking forward, what I’m most excited about is our social learning platform that we’re launching. Think Facebook meets Netflix but designed just for artists. This is where they can learn, grow, and realize their full potential as artists. It’ll have the classes directly integrated with our own social media platform so students can have a social learning experience. We believe that artists really thrive through community and so that’s what we hope to foster with this new platform. This will be available in December 2021 for all artists to join!