HIV-infected Tom Miller creates bright sculptures from rescued discards


January 26, 1992|By Phyllis Brill

Tom Miller describes himself as a rescuer, one who delights in finding some broken-down table or chair in an alley or junk shop and proceeds to patch it, paint it and place it on a pedestal in a museum somewhere.

"The more unlikely it seems of becoming anything, the more I'm drawn to it," he says, gesturing at a creaky table he pulled from a warehouse in Fells Point.

"You know, you could just say, 'Look at this hateful thing. It's just a piece of trash, not good to anybody.' But I refuse to accept that.

"I think people should be treated like that, too."

The last is a telling remark from Mr. Miller, 46, one of Baltimore's most celebrated artists, who has gained recognition from turning pieces of discarded furniture into brightly painted sculptures. Shattered by the news a little more than a year ago that he is carrying HIV -- the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS -- he has slowly been putting himself back together again in what is his most challenging rescue yet.

Now, having reached a point where he feels comfortable with his ability to cope with being HIV-infected, he says he can talk publicly about it.

"Why not?" he says. "I don't know how much time I've got. If there's something I've got to say, I should go ahead and say it."

Mr. Miller learned that he was HIV-positive soon after the death of his companion of 18 years, whom he had nursed through a long battle with AIDS.

"At first you go through hell; you're wondering what's going to happen. Will I drop dead any minute? And I'm an intelligent person, you know. I read a lot; I've been through the whole thing with somebody else. But still, when it's you, it's a whole different story."

Mr. Miller went to Chase-Brexton Clinic, where he had been tested, for help. Doctors at the Mount Vernon clinic, which specializes in treating people with HIV and AIDS, put him on AZT to stave off infections, and social workers there offered him counseling and help in getting financial assistance to pay for the expensive drug.

Today he checks in at the clinic once or twice a month for blood tests. His only symptoms of illness, he says, are infrequent fatigue and bouts with anemia -- a side effect of taking AZT. Doctors avoid giving a prognosis on his illness, he says, and instead concentrate on keeping him stable.

"It looks like I'm kind of holding my own, and we're trying to see how long we can keep it that way."

On this day in his studio in his Druid Heights home, he's putting the finishing touches on a small cabinet painted boldly in red, yellow and a half-dozen other bright colors. There are patches of sky blue, some puffy clouds and an illusion of water. As a final touch, he'll put a multi-patterned fish on top and call the piece "Kingfish." It is one of about 18 pieces in a one-man show on display through February in the Steven Scott Gallery on Charles Street.

As Mr. Miller paints, a small black and white television balanced on a stack of furnishings plays talk shows, sometimes providing the only link in his 18-hour work day with the outside world. Besides a chandelier overhead and a marble mantelpiece, there is little evidence that this room was once home to antiques and Oriental rugs, the well-appointed living room of the once well-appointed young urban professional. But then a lot of things have changed in Mr. Miller's life since he decided to make art for a living nearly six years ago.

In 1986 he gave up the security of 20 years as an art teacher in Baltimore City schools to go after a master's degree at Maryland Institute. Shortly after graduating, he was signed on with G. H. Dalsheimer, one of the leading commercial art galleries in Baltimore, and in 1988 was included in the Baltimore Museum of Art's Maryland Invitational, a coup for a fledgling artist.

But the creative world is changeable, and when the economy went sour in late '80s, it didn't spare Mr. Miller or the Charles Street corridor where several galleries have had to close. In 1989, Mr. Miller was forced to move his studio into his home and begin selling off his possessions.

While he was financially much leaner, his reputation as an artist with an unusual style for creating functional art remained healthy. His pieces today command an average $1,000 each, compared to about $400 when his career first got underway.

"His work is terrific," says gallery owner Steven Scott. "It's his sense of humor, his visual artistry, his craftsmanship." Mr. Miller's art is particularly popular with architects, designers and museum curators, says Mr. Scott, who notes that nearly half the pieces in the current show already have been sold.

As Mr. Miller works, he talks about coping with HIV: "At first I was just numbed by the whole experience. I felt kind of hopeless, like why bother, 'cause you're going to die anyway."

His depression continued for several months, he says.

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