Tom Miller is among the most famous and creative contemporary American artists who managed to develop his own unique artistic style that still captivates the imagination of both ordinary viewers and connoisseurs. His life story continues inspiring creative youth since this artist proved that diligence, talent, and love for life and art could overcome poor background and turn anyone into a successful artist. Moreover, he was not only a talented artist with a unique vision and style, but also an admirable personality who was always optimistic, kind-hearted, and passionate about his work. Being a founder of the Afro-Deco style, Miller introduced a new movement into the contemporary American art. Legacy House is an example of this unique artistic style that captures the life of a modern American family and impresses with its bright colors, bold shapes, and conveyed messages. Owing to his biography and artistic heritage, Tom Miller is considered to be a remarkable African-American artist whose artistic legacy constitutes an integral part of the contemporary art world.
Tom Miller was born in Baltimore in 1945 and remained a citizen of this city throughout his entire life. His father was a tailor while his mother’s occupation was connected with sewing and raising six children with Tom being the eldest (McNatt, 2000). The family resided in Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood when the future artist was young. As a child, he attended public schools and, in particular, Carver High School. From an early age, Tom displayed an avid interest in painting. According to his mother, “From the time he was a little boy, maybe about second grade, he was always with paints and pencils, and he could draw unusually well” (McNatt, 2000). Moreover, ideas he tried to convey through his paintings were unique and different from others and his mother considered them to be “sort of whimsical” (McNatt, 2000). Nonetheless, Tom’s decision to pursue artistic education and then career was fueled not only by his interest in painting but also by his observations of a neighbor. During one interview, Miller said that at the age of seven he was keen on observing the lifestyle of their neighbor who was different from all other people in the neighborhood (McNatt, 2000). This man was African American just like Miller, but unlike all men in the neighborhood, he had processed hair and drove an MG (McNatt, 2000). Miller recollected watching the man sitting at his easel late at night and painting, which fascinated the young boy and appealed to him in ways that he could not explain. At that time, the boy decided that “Yeah, I think I want to be an artist” (McNatt, 2000). Thus, this decision of a seven-year-old boy became monumental as it set the course of his entire life.
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After graduating from high school, Miller won a scholarship to the College of Art in the Maryland Institute where he obtained the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1967 (Scott, n.d.). It should be noted that it must have been an uneasy decision for Miller to take a degree in arts as this profession was not very popular with people in his neighborhood. He was frequently asked what he could achieve with this degree and how he could apply it in real life. Jokingly, Miller answered that he planned “to have a bog solo show at the BMA”, which was a goal he successfully reached three decades later (Scott, n.d.). Once obtaining the BFA degree, the artist started working as an Art Resource Teacher in the Baltimore City Public Schools. He occupied this position for twenty years from 1967 to 1987 and loved his job as it allowed him to frequently move from one school to another and teach art to children of all ages (Scott, n.d.). During these decades, Miller’s paintings were highly realistic, but lacked some breakthrough and captivating allure that his later works possess. Although he seemed content with his life in general, Miller decided to obtain the Master of Fine Arts degree when he received a highly prestigious Ford Foundation grant in 1985 (Scott, n.d.). This decision was motivated not only by Miller’s desire to change his personal style and move on to something unique but also encouraged by his friend Leslie King-Hammond who was the Dean of Graduate Studies at the Maryland Institute at the time. Judging from works Miller created during his graduate studies and afterwards, it is evident that the MFA program significantly benefitted the artist and assisted him with finding and mastering his personal artistic style. This style was called Afro-Deco by Miller and it is present in all his artworks created after the late 1980s (Scott, n.d.). Although the artist experimented with installations that were appraised by his professors and colleagues from the artistic community during the years of graduate study, he decided to focus on Afro-Deco as the hallmark of his popular works.
Afro-Deco is a “unique whimsical multi-patterned style” that makes artworks of Miller easily recognizable (Scott, n.d.). It started when the artist began painting furniture with bright colors and exotic patterns. Hence, his furniture creations are full of various animals like leopard skin, zebra, giraffe, and sophisticated abstract designs. It is said that the artist’s furniture can evoke smiles in all viewers since it is so bright, cheerful, and inspiring. Furthermore, he conveyed certain themes and messages through his furniture designs. Some of his furniture creations concerned famous African-American people like Paul Robeson, Holliday, and other individuals he admired and wanted to symbolically commemorate through art. In addition to being recognized as a talented artist, Miller was also admired by his colleagues, friends, and acquaintances owing to his personality. He was an extremely intelligent man with vast knowledge of various spheres like music, art history, cinematography etc. Moreover, he “had the warmest of smiles and was a consummate storyteller through his words and his art” (Scott, n.d.). Gradually, Miller won fame and became a successful artist for whose creations people were willing to wait for two years and more.
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During his lifetime, Miller held four solo shows at the Steven Scott Gallery and sold more than 200 masterpieces since the 1990s (Scott, n.d.). In 1996, Miller’s autobiography entitled “Can a Coal Scuttle Fly?” was published by the Maryland Historical Society and it was adapted for children (Scott, n.d.). The book explores Miller’s artistic career and how his early aspirations were realized through persistent work and belief in his talents. Hence, this book targets primarily children who have similar dreams and need a real-life example that they can fulfill these dreams. Moreover, Miller’s achievements were recognized in 1997 when he was chosen to become a cover artist for St. James Guide to Black Artists published by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (Scott, n.d.). In addition to the above-mentioned solo shows, Miller’s creations participated in various group exhibitions all over the USA, for instance, at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the American Craft Museum in New York, the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., and many other museums (Scott, n.d.). Since most of his works were immediately bought after their creation by collectors, these museums often had to ask to borrow them for exhibitions. Although Miller quickly became a famous American artist, he remained a loyal citizen of Baltimore and often depicted this loyalty in his works through some themes and motifs. There is also a huge mural commissioned by the city at the corner of the North Avenue and Harford Road. This mural is entitled However Far the Stream Flows, It Never Forgets its Source, which seems to be a symbol of Miller’s own life and career.
Miller died in 2000 after eleven hard years of fighting AIDS. He was openly gay and made no secret of his disease, on the contrary drawing public attention to the problem and doing his best not to let it ruin his spirit. His latest furniture creations were “a metaphor for his medical condition and ailing body” as he managed to turn old and often broken pieces into something exuberant and unique (Scott, n.d.). He continued working every day irrespective of his health problems and his friends could often see him painting with an IV attached to his hand. Perhaps, his commitment to art was what allowed him to fight infections caused by AIDS and continue making the world a brighter place to live in. His furniture is widely appraised by everyone as it “has an immediate appeal” and because “it’s so much fun” (Dorsey, 1997). Some of his latest works also include beautiful and truly exquisite life-sized doll figures created out of different old furniture parts. According to the artist’s will, his house and proceeds from all future sales of his works went to Chase Brexton Health Services clinic where he had been a patient for years (Scott, n.d.). A memorial service dedicated to this immensely talented and bright personality took place on July 10, 2000, at the Baltimore Museum of Art Auditorium (Scott, n.d.).
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As it has been mentioned above, Miller’s unique artistic style is Afro-Deco and is characterized by exuberant and bright colors, exotic motifs, and sophisticated patterns. However, it is also extremely serious as it chooses serious topics to focus on, including mortality, stereotypes, social issues, and historical figures and events. This combination of seriousness and optimism evokes pleasure in viewers and makes Miller’s creations memorable. Though the artist used similar patterns and motifs in his works, all of them are unique and do not repeat themes. One visitor to his solo show noted that “Every piece looks fresh, a newly imagined and ingenious marriage of design and form” (Dorsey, 1997). One of these unique works is entitled Legacy House, which was finished in 1997. It is acrylic on paperboard 40 x 40", and is performed in the Afro-Deco style. Currently, this painting is a part of the collection in the Baltimore Museum of Art, which was given as a gift by Steven Scott in honor of the 100th anniversary of the museum.
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The painting is representative of Miller’s unique personal style since it is full of characteristic patterns, motifs, and bright colors. In terms of the color scheme, different shades of orange and yellow predominate with black, pink, blue, and green being eye-catching as well. The painting shows a house of an African-American family where several generations are shown together. As evident from the picture, the family has significantly intermingled with the Whites so that children are a mixture of both races and represent the legacy of the family and races. Since Miller was fond of showing topical social issues and stereotypes, it may be supposed that this family house is a symbol of the contemporary US society where representatives of all races and nations freely intermingle and create families. The mood of the painting is optimistic because children are the key focus in the painting. It is obvious from the layout in the picture as children are in the foreground and in the center, while other members of the family are depicted to the sides with their eyes focused on children. All colors used in the painting seem to be in harmony and do not create any dissonance; therefore, Legacy House is pleasant to look at. The house is framed with walls and a roof with the blue sky and white clouds being shown outside. The entire picture has a yellow and black frame with a pattern of small flowers in corners of the painting. All this evokes a cheerful and light mood, as well as a smile owing to such details as toys, pleasant colors, children, and a happy family.
It may be hypothesized that Miller placed a huge value on children as the future of the humanity and continuation of the legacy of each and every family. These children seem to glue together other generations of the family with the eldest having the darkest skin and the youngest being of mixed genetic heritage. The sky outside the house is blue and all people inside the house seem to live happily together without any problems that may be present in the outer society such as racial tensions or other social issues. Hence, Miller’s Legacy House seems to appeal to the readers to focus on the future by cherishing children and embracing the intermingling of different ethnic and national groups despite stereotypes and conflicts artificially created in the society. The family in the painting is a vivid example that people of all races and ethnicities can happily live together and cherish their future by taking care of and loving their children irrespective of their race.
To summarize, Tom Miller is a remarkable contemporary African-American artist who is well-known for his wild imagination, cheerful personality, and unique Afro-Deco style. His artistic legacy comprises hundreds of furniture pieces, paintings, murals, and installations. All of them evoke a smile on a face while at the same time emphasizing topical social issues. The man led a great life and left an unforgettable trace in the history of art. His creations like Legacy House will surely remain immensely popular with the general audience and collectors alike since they are bright, optimistic, memorable, and creative.