'Can a Coal Scuttle Fly?' Yes, he says Self-portraits: Tom Miller, a nationally known Baltimore artist, paints his life story for a children's book. Kids are already inspired.

January 27, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

A lot of people write their autobiographies, but not many paint an autobiography. Tom Miller has done just that, in 16 paintings.

Here's Tom as a baby, being admired by neighbors. Here's Tom as a little boy, at a backyard crab feast. Here's Tom finding an old coal scuttle in a neighbor's garage and making it into a jaunty bird -- Tom discovering he's an artist, in other words.

And here he is going to the Maryland Institute, College of Art; teaching school; painting a mural on a Baltimore wall. Tom having a life as an artist.

Miller, best known for his gently satirical, colorful and delightfully funny painted furniture, has created 16 paintings about his life for a children's book called "Can a Coal Scuttle Fly?" Written by educator and arts advocate Camay Murphy, and published by the Maryland Historical Society, the 32-page children's book will be published in May. But Mrs. Murphy will preview the story in two slide-illustrated readings at the society today, part of the MHS' African-American Celebration Day.

Tom Miller's been a busy man lately. On Thursday evening, also in honor of Black History Month, the aquarium unveiled Miller's 28-by-56-inch painting, "National Aquarium in Baltimore." The painting, commissioned to provide an additional connection between the aquarium and the community, shows the building, the marine life and the people who visit.

It's typical of Miller's originality that instead of depict ing different kinds of fish he decided to depict different kinds of people. "I came down lots of times to look around," he says, "and I noticed that the people were doing the same things as the fish, moving along in groups, with colorful clothes, and all kinds of people -- grandparents, schoolchildren, young people holding hands."

The finished painting sets up an almost musical counterpoint, with the aquarium building's conglomeration of shapes serving as kind of an abstract, rhythmic, geometric background and the people as the representational, melodic, organic foreground.

Miller also introduced touches that give the work added depth: a picture of Henry Hall, an African-American who was one of the aquarium's early benefactors and after whom an educational program has been named; a black, gold and red border symbolic of the city and state flags; a woman in the foreground with a camera taking a picture of us, the viewers; and a self-portrait, with the artist at the seal tank, his favorite spot at the aquarium.

If the aquarium painting contains one self-portrait, the book "Can a Coal Scuttle Fly?" is in effect 16 self-portraits. Together, they add up to a gently humorous and even moving picture of the artist as very much a Baltimorean.

The idea, according to Mrs. Murphy, grew out of a piece that Miller did four years ago for an exhibit on Billie Holiday at the Eubie Blake National Jazz Museum and Cultural Center.

"It was a chair that represented Billie Holiday," Mrs. Murphy recalls. "I asked him why he put bells on it, and he answered, 'She will make music wherever she goes.' I wondered how a person got to be so creative, so we started talking about his childhood, the people in his family who painted things, the encouragement from neighbors, the recognition of his genius."

The idea developed for a book about Miller -- a nationally known artist who has spent his entire life in Baltimore -- that could serve as an inspiration to children. "I wanted to get the sense of someone grounded in the environment who has become famous, who produces wonderful things from his studio there on McCulloh Street in the black community. And who takes his inspiration from the city and the things he sees in his environment," says Mrs. Murphy, a former school principal and present chairman of the center.

At the end, the coal scuttle/bird flies off, a symbol for Miller's career as an artist taking off.

Apparently, the book has an effect. "Some of the children we tested it on said the first thing they wanted to do was paint with color," Mrs. Murphy says.

Touches of Miller humor enliven the pictures. "My father was a tailor," he says, "but he was so busy it was hard for him to find time to make clothes for us. So the picture that shows me going off to kindergarten has me in a suit with one leg longer than the other and the sleeves too long."

There's also history. The picture of Miller going to the institute in the 1960s, for instance, shows him getting off the No. 15 trolley to Overlea, the last of Baltimore's trolley lines.

That's one reason the book appealed to MHS director Dennis Fiori. "There are always a number of reasons for doing things," he says. "Miller is a wonderful illustrator. We've got to reach out to younger audiences, and the Miller book does that. And even though the book is talking about the 1960s and 1970s, that's history already. One complaint about what a history museum does is that it's not accessible to people -- it has no meaning in their lives. We've got to look at more recent history, projects people can relate to."

At a meeting a few days ago, Ernest L. Scott Jr., the historical society's editor and publisher, called Miller "a piece of living history."

:. To which the artist replied, "Aw, shucks."

African-American Celebration Day

Where: Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St.

When: 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. today; readings of "Can a Coal Scuttle Fly?" at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.

Admission: $5; $4 MHS members

$ Call: (410) 685-3750

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