Despite a burden of troubles that might have disheartened a lesser artist, Baltimore native Tom Miller managed to create works that were full of joyful whimsy. The trademark of his style was a smile, expressed through gentle good humor that poked fun at life's pain even as it acknowledged it.
Miller's career was tragically cut short in 2000 when, at the age of 54, he died after a protracted struggle with AIDS. By then he had become a beloved figure among local collectors, who often waited up to two years to purchase examples of his exquisite fancy.
Now the Baltimore Museum of Art, which organized a major retrospective of the artist's work in 1995, has mounted a posthumous tribute to Miller. Tom Miller: Changing Spaces presents 17 of the artist's signature painted furniture pieces, including one-of-a-kind tables, chairs, desks, cabinets and sculptural screens, that have been lent to the museum by local collectors. Many of the collectors' personal responses to their pieces have been reprinted in the exhibit's wall labels and texts.
Miller created more than 200 works during his most active period, between 1985 and 1995. His works were exhibited both locally and in several national touring shows, and he is widely credited with creating the "Afro-Deco" style, whose strong patterns and vibrant colors blend the European modernism of Picasso and Matisse with the traditional subject matter of African-American art.
Almost all of Miller's work was fashioned from found objects - discarded furniture he picked up in thrift shops or rescued from streets and alleyways - which he lovingly reconstructed into jewel-like artworks that were both decorative and functional.
The gleaming surfaces of his works belie their humble origins, and the process of their transformation was a metaphor for the artist's creative imagination as well as for his unwavering belief in the redemptive power of art. Especially after the onset of his illness in 1989, he came to regard reclaiming and repairing the lost and broken things that became his artworks as a kind of spiritual healing for mind and body.
Like the great African-American poet Langston Hughes, whom he admired, Miller's art often relied on humor as a therapeutic strategy. Hughes called it "laughing to keep from crying," and in Miller's work it was often directed against the forms of social injustice that directly affected his own life as a black, gay man. His pieces sometimes incorporated stereotypical racial images - grinning red lips, watermelons, etc. - which he parodied and transformed into humorous but pointed social commentaries.
In his most beautiful works, such as Jungle Chest (1987) and Mardi Gras King (1993), Miller often harked back to the African past, symbolized by exotic animals like the elephant, the zebra and the gazelle, and by the elegant abstract patterns of African textiles. In this he was following in the footsteps of a long line of African-American artists dating to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, when black writers and poets first set about reclaiming their identification with and pride in their ancient homeland.
Since then, African-American art has been inextricably intertwined with the broad currents of European and American modernism - so much so that it almost has become something of a misnomer. For the art created by African-Americans is first and foremost a distinctly American art, as integral an expression of the historical experience of this country as are the musical forms of jazz and the blues. Though it has often been relegated, like the artists themselves, to separate institutional and critical ghettos, it remains inseparable from the broad mainstream of contemporary art. It is, in the memorable phrase of W.E.B. DuBois, part of the "warp and woof" of American culture.
Miller recognized the interdependence between his own work and the seminal artists who preceded him.
"Artistically, I'm influenced by the greats - Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence and Henri Matisse," he once said. He might have added Picasso and Aaron Douglas, Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, and the great surrealists from Dali and Miro to Ralph Ellison and Klee. As this show makes abundantly clear, all were ores in the grand melting pot of Miller's fertile imagination.
What: Tom Miller: Changing Spaces
Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive, at 31st and North Charles streets
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Fridays; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Feb. 16.
Admission: $7 for adults 19 to 64, $5 for senior citizens (65 and older) and college students with ID, free to members and visitors 18 and younger.