A teacher, colleague and friend

Memorial: The city and its artists gathered last night to pay tribute to Tom Miller whose art was infused with humor.

July 11, 2000|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

"This is not a eulogy, this is truly a celebration," said Leslie King-Hammond as she looked out over a colorful crowd of friends, colleagues and family gathered last night to celebrate the life and art of Tom Miller.

Nearly 200 members of the local art community came to the auditorium of the Baltimore Museum of Art to memorialize the city's inventive native son and creator of "Afro-Deco" style painted furniture who died June 23 at the age of 54.

"This is about tributes and acknowledgments for someone who has performed tremendous service for Baltimore City," said King-Hammond, a dean at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, where Miller earned bachelor's and master's degrees.

"Tom Miller did for us what Jacob Lawrence did for Harlem and what Romare Bearden did for Mecklenberg County, N.C. - he put us on the map," said King-Hammond, a longtime friend and mentor of the artist.

Among the diverse crowd that converged on the BMA were museum and gallery officials, representatives of local politicians, students and teachers from MICA and other area schools, fellow artists, friends, family and at least one squalling infant who added its voice to the crowd's enthusiasm. Some wore suits and ties, others showed up in casual attire or sported flowing, African-inspired robes and dresses that recalled the colors and patterns of Miller's artworks.

A parade of speakers praised the artist for his generosity as a teacher, colleague and friend and predicted his legacy on his native town would be long-lasting.

"Tom was a true gentleman," said artist Joyce Scott, who commemorated her friend with a heartfelt rendition of the song "Bridge Over Troubled Waters," which she sang on the auditorium stage in a husky contralto voice accompanied on the piano by composer Lorraine Whittlesey.

"Tom had a sly sense of humor," Scott said yesterday before the 6 p.m. ceremony began. "He was at ease and put you at ease and, of course, he was an artist par excellence. We had love and respect for him on so many levels. He was hungry for every minute of life that he had."

David Miller, the artist's brother, recounted a humorous anecdote from his childhood in which the Miller brothers took advantage of a brief parental absence to construct a gerry-rigged "robot" out of some boxes, balls, wires and other household items. They were attempting to plug the contraption into an electrical outlet just as their parents returned. David Miller recalled hearing Tom whisper he could "swear the `robot's eyes lit up' " just before the boys were chased back to their beds.

Years later, as an artist, Tom Miller created a series of signature artworks in the form of fanciful creatures put together from just such discarded and found objects. "His art-making process was completely open and straightforward, which was how he lived his life," said Gary Kachadourian, a coordinator for the Mayor's Committee on Art and Culture, who worked with Miller on many exhibitions over the years.

Kachadourian described an incident that happened when he was first getting to know Miller in 1989. A curator for the annual summer Artscape festival had asked Miller to create a piece for one of the exhibitions on very short notice.

"He did it in one week, and it was very smart, very right," Kachadourian recalled. "You take the task on and do it the most simple way and you do it right the first time. That ... made him different from so many other artists."

Doreen Bolger, director of the BMA, said the museum felt privileged and honored to have exhibited and collected Miller's works.

"Every city only has a few artists who create work that represents the unique character of the locality where they live but that also have a universal appeal to people on a national and international basis," Bolger said. "We love the work because it is about our life here in Baltimore. His furniture, whose power comes from the artful transformation of ordinary objects, was his greatest legacy and embodies the best of Baltimore and our own efforts to renew the city we live in."

Bolger said the BMA was planning to show Miller's painted furniture as part of a future exhibition on Matisse's influence on contemporary art in the renovated museum's Cone Wing, tentatively scheduled for March 2001.

"We will all miss Tom a lot," said MICA president Fred Lazarus, who first met Miller in 1986 when he returned to graduate school and began creating his brightly painted furniture pieces. Lazarus said he and his wife bought two of Miller's earliest pieces - a pair of yellow wooden folding chairs - after a visit to the artist's studio.

"These two chairs, like much of Tom's work, were metaphors for Tom's great qualities," Lazarus said. "They had humor and an ironic twist. They seemed to project his wonderful smile; in fact there is a smile on the back of each one of them looking at us. They reflect the African-American experience, but they have a much broader message, too.

"They are warm and friendly and draw one closer. These chairs have wonderfully open painted hands - Tom's handprint - the print of a hand that was always open to all of us and produced such great work."

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