Melvin O. Miller

[Age 70] The Baltimore artist painted realistic, luminous scenes of his native city during a time of transition.

December 01, 2007|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,Sun reporter

Melvin O. Miller, an artist whose oil paintings depicted Baltimore scenes of streetcars, harbor tugs and wooden market sheds, died of a heart attack Monday at St. Agnes Hospital. The Woodlawn resident was 70.

Mr. Miller belonged to a group known as the Realists of Baltimore, artists who rejected abstract expressionism of the 1950s and employed luminous paints based upon ancient formulas. He stored 300 pigments in apothecary jars in his studio.

"He had a way of capturing the activity on the streets of Baltimore," said fellow artist and friend Nancy Conrad, with whom he shared a Fleet Street studio. "He loved the city, and he had one focus in his life, his artwork."

Born in Baltimore and raised on South Fulton Avenue and later in Woodlawn, he was a 1955 Milford Mill High School graduate. He earned a degree in 1959 from what is now the Maryland Institute College of Art, which later awarded him an honorary degree in recognition of his work.

He studied under French-born Jacques Maroger, who developed a student following at the Institute and at his studio at the Evergreen mansion in North Baltimore. With his group, he imitated the complicated formulas and techniques of the 15th- to 18th-century Flemish and Italian masters. This type of painting became to be known as the Maroger method.

"Melvin was very dedicated to the technique," said Frank Redelius, another member of this group and a Northeast Baltimore resident. "He was also the recorder of Baltimore."

Mr. Miller chose city locations for his works - the No. 6 Firehouse in Oldtown, the old Ford's Theater on Fayette Street and crumbling buildings in the path of highways. He carefully dated his paintings and recorded their locations in notes written in brown ink.

The darkened streetcar barns, which he painted from memory, figured in his works. He found that red streetcars outsold yellow ones.

"The warm brown drawings in Melvin Miller's notebooks are as fine and detailed and evocative as the lines and folds and calluses in the palm of an old friend's hand," said a 1987 Evening Sun profile of him. "They picture Baltimore during a generation of transition. And the sweet and dowdy and sometimes mean old city that once seemed as fixed and unvarying as a copperplate portrait has turned out to be as fragile as the ink in which Miller records it."

The article said he painted "great buildings, of course, and familiar vistas. But he also draws the plain, anonymous rowhouses and workshops that give the city shape and tone and perhaps soul."

"I have become sort of a historian," Mr. Miller said of his work at the time. "Some of these things are not with us any more."

At his death, Mr. Miller had an uncompleted painting of the Hippodrome Theatre on his easel. A red Eutaw Street streetcar passed its blazing marquee.

Graveside services will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at Lorraine Park Cemetery in Woodlawn.

Survivors include a sister, Ruth Hughes of Mount Pleasant, N.C.; and a niece, Robin Grubb of Concord, N.C.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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