In the middle of artist Tom Miller's West Baltimore studio stands what he calls "a work in progress." Sometimes Mr. Miller refers to it as a "bird" and sometimes as a "creature." Once he laughed and called it "my chicken."
To me, it has the sharp bill and gracefully curved neck of a swan. But swans are round and soft with milky white feathers, like pillows turned inside out. This piece is bright like a Bird of Paradise, and hard and happy like something from a carousel. It is constructed out of a kitchen stool, a coal scuttle, and other odds and ends. It is coal-black, and bright red, and gold, and white, and yellow.
OK, I confess I don't know what it is, but I cannot take my eyes off it. It has the four-footed solidity of a stool but there is something vibrant about it, as if at any moment it might soar into the air.
"It's definitely not a chicken, it's some kind of a bird," Mr. Miller explains when I ask him about the work. "But then again, it's not really a bird because you never saw a bird with four feet. It's a back and forth kind of thing. I'm making up my mind as I go along. It may end up part gargoyle or part bird and part something else -- like a Dr. Seuss character. It's part of the creative process. I'm always adding and adding until I get what I want.
"This is an interesting piece," the artist continues, looking at his creation in a musing sort of way. "It's part of a book project about a young artist who is loosely associated with me. Like myself, the character is a 'found artist' and so this piece is being put together out of found objects: The claws are nothing but rakes I got from the hardware store."
Mr. Miller's studio is a large room on the bottom floor of his McCulloh Street row home. There are power tools lying on the floor, and open containers of paint, and weathered-looking tables and chairs and dressers. The place looks more like a junk yard than an artist's studio -- Fred Sanford would be comfortable here. When I first arrived, an Isley Brothers tune, a golden oldie from the 1970s, was playing on the stereo.
And all of this is just right. It is the type of studio you would expect the 49-year-old Baltimorean to have because Mr. Miller's special genius lies in making extraordinary art out of ordinary objects.
His work has been described as "witty" and "exuberant;" it is deeply rooted in African and African-American traditions, including the bright colors and sweeping designs of some folk artists. Unlike folk artists, most of whom are self-taught, Mr. Miller is a graduate of the Maryland Institute, College of Art. His images are the result of calculated choices, selected to communicate a specific message.
"My work is easy to read, I think that's part of the appeal. On the other hand, if you want to read something more in it, I can take you as deep as you want to go. You can look at the pretty colors or you can go a little deeper and ask, 'What is he trying to say about this? What is he trying to say about art and life and people?' "
Mr. Miller is nationally known for his wildly inventive painted furniture. In fact, a two-site exhibition -- "Tom Miller: Painted Furniture" -- opened last Saturday at Maryland Art Place on Saratoga Street, part of a collaborative effort with the Baltimore Museum of Art, and runs through March 18. The BMA's portion of the exhibit opens February 22 and lasts through April 16.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a color catalog and a videotaped interview with the artist. He was honored at a reception at Maryland Art Place last weekend and will be honored again at the BMA. And this Saturday, Mr. Miller will be the guest of honor in a "community tribute," also at Maryland Art Place.
I am especially proud of this weekend's celebration, by the way, because it was put together by an ad hoc group of his admirers, including myself. I see it as a way of expressing our appreciation for Mr. Miller's use of African-American motifs.
"I like looking at the upswing of life -- there is enough unpleasantness without my adding to it," he says. "Oh, I could show some guy with a needle sticking out of his arm. Or somebody bopping somebody else over the head. But you see enough of that in the media already. There's much more to our culture than that."
Mr. Miller makes that statement through his art with eloquence and humor. I applaud him for it.