Artisan blends wood engraving, fiddle playing for compelling one-man show HOWARD COUNTY DIVERSIONS

July 16, 1993|By Rona Hirsch | Rona Hirsch,Contributing Writer

Not every artist performs his own musical accompaniment.

But a weekend exhibit of the prints of Randy Miller will also feature the fiddling of Randy Miller.

His art and music will be on hand during the Ellicott City Millfest from 7 p.m. to midnight today and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. tomorrow at the Margaret Smith Gallery.

"It fits with the Millfest," said Ms. Smith. "It's an old heritage festival and he's popular. It's a good mix. He puts in rural, old American folk art."

A self-taught artisan and musician, Mr. Miller has spent years mastering the antique, yet compatible, art forms -- wood engraving and New England fiddle music.

For his original engravings, Mr. Miller uses small, sharp tempered-steel tools, or engravers, to carve miniature landscapes and human figures into highly polished, flat blocks of wood. The raised areas "catch the ink" when he rolls the wood block onto cream-colored Welsh paper.

The process, which was first developed in the 18th century, grew into an industry by the middle of the 19th century when all newspapers, magazines and books were illustrated with engravings.

But with the development of photography, the technique became obsolete by the early 20th century.

Today, wood engraving is "one of the rarest forms of graphic art," said the 45-year-old artist. "There are only a handful of engravers in the country."

The New Hampshire resident stumbled onto the centuries-old art after graduating in 1970 from Oberlin College in Ohio with an artistic bent and an English literature degree. While looking through an old book in the Boston Public Library, Mr. Miller became intrigued with its illustrations.

"I got curious about who did them and how they were done," he said.

He combed art books until he came across pictures of wood engravings.

"It took some tracking down," he said. "Then I said, 'That's it, that's the style.' "

He spent the next three years teaching himself the tedious craft.

"There were no schools, nothing," he said. "It started as a hobby, but it took off after I got experience."

His subjects include the New England countryside, landscapes of the British Isles and "landscapes of the human body," he said. "I use a lot of detail, a lot of fine lines."

That detail is evident in all 225 blocks he has created over the past 20 years. He spends anywhere from a week to seven months engraving a woodblock, which ranges from 1 square inch to 5-by-8 inches in size. He then prints the designs with an antique printing press.

But the 18th century Renaissance man has been forced to become a 20th century entrepreneur.

He markets his prints through galleries and gift stores and his illustrations can be seen on T-shirts, note cards and books. Last year, he illustrated "Children's Special Places," an educational guide.

Though he does not employ an agent or advertise, he has developed his own catalog. "It's extremely uncommon for artist to handle the marketing, but people can order directly from me."

His work sells between $40 to $120 retail.

"One of my guiding principles is to make the artwork affordable," he said. "I basically shunned the exclusive connotations that come with most graphic art because I want my work available to a wide range of people."

His work is primarily on exhibit in New England through the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, where he is a juried member, and in a handful of galleries, including the Smith gallery.

The artist met Ms. Smith almost 10 years ago at a New York City art exposition where Mr. Miller was displaying his work.

Ms. Smith sought him out after she opened her gallery in 1987. "I knew he would be popular and he was," she said.

"I have a theory that everyone has at least one good painting in them.But I only want to go with someone who has at least 10 -- who's consistent. And Randy is consistently good. People who buy one usually end up with three."

Mr. Miller attributes the appeal of his prints to the "nature of the designs and their delicacy. It's very surprising detail," he said.

"It's naive and primitive looking because there were no art teachers [at that time]," added Ms. Smith, who showcases original print media with an emphasis on American art.

She usually keeps six samples of his work hanging in her gallery, though 50 will be on exhibit through Aug. 8.

But the self-proclaimed revivalist was not content with just turning into an expert on forgotten art. He is also a musician who performs authentic "oldies but goodies" -- 17th century Scottish, Irish and French folk music.

"I play music that's compatible with wood engraving," he said. "New England has always been a melting pot of people and culture. My fiddling is a melting pot of many cultures."

He picked up the fiddle about the same time he became interested in engraving.

"I learned those songs, mostly by ear, and there are old books with those tunes," he said. "It took about 10 years to get where I could feel comfortable about playing in public."

Mr. Miller plays jigs, reels and hornpipes -- tunes to accompany dances created by sailors who entertained each other aboard ships.

"And it's nothing you will ever hear on AM radio. It's folk music. And it's very lively -- it's designed to get people up to dance and have a good time."

Mr. Miller performs at folk festivals and dance tours in New England. He even has his own band and recorded a tape.

For his Millfest debut, Mr. Miller will perform intermittently, "when the spirit moves me," he said. "Or, you can ask me to play."

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