In the late 1980s, artist Leslie Van Stavern Millar began to entertain the idea of time travel. Not the H.G. Wells kind of time travel, which requires a machine, but something a little closer to what cognitive scientists call "mental time travel"—the process of conjuring a memory and reliving an experience through recollected detail and emotion. Sitting in her studio near the Jocko River, Millar closed her eyes and imagined her British ancestors—maybe a great-great-great-grandparent—standing in a field in 1559 as Queen Elizabeth I's procession went by.
"I was thinking about what it would be like if you could actually experience an event through your chromosomes that span back all these generations," she says.
Millar already had a deep obsession with Queen Elizabeth, admiring her as an early feminist icon in a world ruled by men.
"She survived to become an adult and the queen, and managed to not get married off," Millar says. "She wasn't just sitting back cowering behind a screen and drinking a cup of tea. She did some things that weren't good during her reign, but she also did some kickass things."
The combination of time travel and Queen Elizabeth became the focus of a 1995 series of paintings called Peepshow Stories in which Millar imagined the queen using a time machine to travel to Montana and appear at significant historical events. With help from her father, Robert, and her husband, Max Gilliam, Millar built five free-standing plywood boxes to house the gouache paintings. In the first of the series, Queen Elizabeth can be seen stepping into a time machine. Subsequent images show her witnessing William Clark's journey through Lolo with Sacajawea and the 1923 boxing match in Shelby between Jack Dempsey and Tommy Gibbons. The boxes allowed the viewer to peer through a hole, flip a light switch and admire the paintings. Millar took the peepshow boxes on the road with "The Caravan Project," for which 14 artists traveled with their work through communities statewide during the summer of 1995.
Millar comes from a family of artists and scientists. In junior high school she became interested in zero population growth, genetics and biology.
"I would have been a geneticist if I'd ended up at a school that was really moving in that direction," she says. "But I went into visual art, which I think is much better suited to my personality."
Over the years she's built a reputation around the confluence of science and art, cultivating a character she calls "Science Woman," who marches in local parades and delivers lectures about scientific discoveries and the arts.
Millar's love affair with gouache paints and techniques began in 1957 when her father, a chemical engineer, moved the family from Baltimore to Iran for a job. Her mother bought Persian miniature paintings to hang on the walls and Millar was mesmerized by the delicate designs rendered in opaque watercolor. When the family moved to Libya 12 years later, Millar started having dreams about metal tubes of paint lined up in colorful rows inside an art supply shop. "The colors call to me and I want to ... consume them," she wrote in an essay about the experience. During a visit to London's art museums she finally purchased a set of gouache paints and an instruction manual and brought them home to Montana, where she settled into her Jocko River cabin and began to paint.
After the Caravan Project, Millar stored her Peepshow Stories paintings away and mostly forgot about Queen Elizabeth for the next 20 years. She worked as an artist, bought the Brunswick Building in downtown Missoula, and opened studios there for fellow artists to work. She continued collecting stories about Montana history, but found herself drawn less to big public moments and more to obscure stories from the past—small celebrations, forgotten spaces and acts of art.
"Once you get past all the patriarchal dates and wars and killing people and power struggles, you get to the stories of what the artists of the time were doing and what the women were doing and how people actually lived."
In 2013, Millar decided to pull the peepshow boxes out of storage and re-engage the project with these quirkier stories in mind. She created five new boxes, including one in which Queen Elizabeth time travels to 1940s-era Missoula for a pet and doll parade, and another of the queen sitting in the Wilma's Chapel of the Dove—a now-defunct basement theater featuring a shrine to a pigeon—watching Gone with the Wind.
"These stories are ephemeral and so subtle," Millar says. "And the people involved don't have an outside observer saying, 'OK, you guys, pay attention. This is important.' There's no analysis. A lot of these are incidents that could go away and no one would even know about them—except someone who was there."
Montana Peepshow Stories, now on display at the Missoula Art Museum, brings together all 10 peepshow boxes from 1995 to 2013. To accompany the show, Millar created an art book that details the history of the project and includes a do-it-yourself peepshow kit and postcards with images from the show. The book and exhibit capture Millar's humor and politics—they're playful and entertaining even as they invite viewers to contemplate the lessons of history and the meaning inherent in bearing witness to unheralded events and unmarked moments in time.
"So, maybe I don't have a time machine," Millar says. "But I have a brain. And I think it's important to get a good sense of what the past was like so that we understand what's going on now."
Leslie Millar's Montana Peepshow Stories continues at MAM through January 21.