Tom Miller, An Artful Appreciation
By Steven Scott
Nationally-acclaimed Baltimore artist Tom Miller passed away peacefully at the Joseph Richey Hospice on June 23rd 2000, after a valiant 11-year battle with AIDS. Among his many honors, the lifelong Baltimore City resident had had a mid-career retrospective in 1995 at the Baltimore Museum of Art and Maryland Art Place which drew about 46,000 visitors to the BMA alone.
Miller always aspired to be an artist, painting found objects as a child and making regular visits to the BMA, where he took special interest in the Matisse paintings in the museum's renowned Cone Collection. The oldest of six children, he grew up in the Sandtown-Winchester area of the city and attended Carver High School. Tom won a scholarship to the Maryland Institute, College of Art, where he received his B.F.A. in 1967. When friends and acquaintances asked him, during his undergraduate years, what he planned to do with a degree in painting, he joked that he planned "to have a big solo show at the BMA" - a dream that became a reality 30 years later.
Tom worked in the Baltimore City Public Schools as an Art Resource Teacher from 1967-1987, floating from school to school and teaching various media to all grade levels. At the urging of his friend Dr. Leslie King-Hammond, Dean of Graduate Studies at the Maryland Institute, Tom returned to the school to enter the M.F.A. program in 1985 on a prestigious Ford Foundation grant. Tired of the lack of spontaneity of the photo realist paintings he was making before graduate school, Tom began painting furniture with a unique whimsical multi-patterned style he dubbed "Afro-Deco." Brightly painted with exotic patterns such as zebra, giraffe, and leopard skin motifs, as well as highly sophisticated abstract designs, Miller's furniture always put smiles on the faces of all viewers.
Tom was a man of keen intelligence who was widely read in film, music and art history. He had the warmest of smiles and was a consummate storyteller through his words and his art. Each of his furniture pieces revolved around a specific theme, often dealing with African-American historical figures such as Billie Holliday (a chair with a blue heart on it) and Paul Robeson (a table resembling Emperor Jones), historical eras such as the Harlem Renaissance, or Baltimore's jazz music legacy featuring - Holliday, Eubie Blake, Cab Calloway, Avon Long and Chick Webb.
Contemporary Baltimore themes were also a favorite of Tom's, as seen in his highly popular 1994 screen print, Summer in Baltimore. This image depicts a black arabber with horse-drawn cart selling watermelon on North Charles St. under the shadow of the Washington Monument. It's companion screen print Maryland Crab Feast, depicts a jubilant family gathering which includes such witty touches as a young man donning a Malcolm X T-shirt, a girl with "big Baltimore hair" and a blaring boom box. Tom never shied away from black stereotypes, preferring to confront them head-on.
In 1996, the artist completed his final screen print, The National Aquarium in Baltimore, based on a commissioned painting for the institution - one of his favorite destinations - which depicts school groups and families of all ethnicities visiting the national treasure.
Openly gay and HIV-positive, Tom often spoke of his exuberant furniture as a metaphor for his medical condition and ailing body. He would reclaim old, broken-down furniture - chairs tables, lamps, cabinets, chests, coat racks - found in thrift stores and even in back alleys and dumpsters and then "hide their hurt" with layer upon layer of glossy, often electric-colored paint on the surface along with animal print fabrics and faux fur upholstered seats.
So dedicated was Tom to making art every day, no matter how ill he felt, that I would often go to his studio and see him working with an IV dripping medication into his left hand while he created with a paintbrush in his right. I truly believe that it was his commitment to his work that kept him going despite bouts with pneumonia, neuropathy and numerous opportunistic infections. He often commented that he was unable to forget about his disease because he was reminded of it every four hours, when he had to take his next dose of medicine.
In his last years, Tom also constructed nearly life-size doll figures from an assemblage of old furniture parts, using a small cabinet for the body, lathe-turned dining room table legs for the legs and armchair arms for the arms. The results were wildly inventive. A large serving spoon would serve for a face, painted with African mask like eyes and features, while roller skates or bowling shoes with argyle socks adorned the feet.
These beautifully-crafted works were highly sought after by regional collectors as well as collectors and museums across the country. All four of Tom's solo shows at my gallery, the Steven Scott Gallery, sold out. He sold over 200 works over the past 10 years through the gallery and since 1991 had a waiting list of over two years for his engaging creations. So irresistible was his work that it was not uncommon to see a collector attempt to hug one of his cabinets.
In 1996, the Maryland Historical Society published the children's book, Can a Coal Scuttle Fly?, illustrated by his close friend Camay Calloway Murphy (Cab Calloway's daughter). It is an autobiographical account of Tom's life aspirations to become an artist, specifically written for children who may have similar dreams. All 17 original paintings made for the book were purchased by the Society in 1995. Tom was also very proud when he was selected as the cover artist on the St. James Guide to Black Artists, a 625-page encyclopedic reference book published in 1997 by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Tom's work was widely shown in prestigious group exhibitions at numerous museums across the country including the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery in Washington D.C., the American Craft Museum in New York, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, N.C. and the Contemporary Art Centers in New Orleans and Cincinnati. His spectacular creations continue to be requested on loan from collectors for museum exhibitions.
Locally, Tom's three-story outdoor mural at the corner of Harford Road and North Avenue is a lasting testament to his creative spirit. Titled However Far The Stream Flows, It Never Forgets Its Source, this city-commissioned mural depicts a black man reading an open book which includes this African-American proverb of heritage.
As a final gesture of Tom's goodwill, he left his home and proceeds from all future screen print sales to Chase Brexton Health Services, the clinic which helped him for so many years. A memorial service was held on July 10, 2000, at the Baltimore Museum of Art Auditorium. The world is truly a more beautiful place because of Tom Miller.