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Artists’ lasting legacy — Miller brothers at Herndon

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By Carla Steiger

Now hanging at the Herndon Gallery are sketches of nudes done with the sure hand of a master draftsman, dozens of ink sketches in small notebooks documenting the travels of the artist Dick Miller and charcoal sketches of farm scenes in rural Ohio.

Meanwhile, in a small reading area, sits a desk and reading lamp along with a bookcase of the published works and favorite books of local author and longtime Antioch writing professor Nolan Miller.

These pieces and more can be found at the upcoming show  “The Miller Brothers: An Enduring Legacy,” at the Herndon Gallery at Antioch College.

The exhibition celebrating the contributions of Nolan and Dick Miller runs from Feb. 7 to May 13. Gallery hours are weekdays, 12–5 p.m., and Saturdays, 1–4 p.m.

An opening reception for the exhibit will be Thursday, Feb. 7, at 7 p.m. in the gallery.

Both brothers were gifted teachers and had legions of students over the course of more than 50 years in town. For most of that time they lived together in a house on Glen Road, which has since been renamed Grinnell Circle. Nolan passed away in 2006 at age 99, and Dick died in 2009 at age 94.

The brothers are well known locally for a $3.6 million bequest to the Yellow Springs Foundation that became the Miller Fellowship program, which supports students who work in nonprofits throughout town.

The exhibition was curated by Yellow Springs artist Jennifer Haack and Faith Morgan, an artist, documentary filmmaker, longtime friend of Dick Miller, and also the granddaughter of former Antioch President Arthur Morgan.

Morgan will give remarks at the opening, as will Susanne Hashim, Antioch vice president of advancement, and Jeannamarie Cox, executive director of the Yellow Springs Community Foundation.

In an email this week, Cox praised the brothers as people, and an asset to the village.

“They touched many lives,” she wrote. “Their creativity, humor and love for Yellow Springs and Antioch College established their place in our community far beyond their philanthropy. Their gift helps ensure the continued close connection between the college and the community.”

Brief history of Miller brothers

The brothers were accomplished in the visual and literary arts in their lifetime.

Born in 1907 in Kalida, Ohio, Nolan Miller came to the village in 1946 to become a professor at Antioch. His favorite authors were Wordsworth, Proust, Joyce and D.H. Lawrence. A magnetic teacher, he challenged students to “shape their own education for their own ends, and to write for pleasure,” according to his obituary in the Yellow Springs News.

In addition to numerous short stories, he was the author of four novels, “Sarah Belle Luella Mae,” “A Moth of Time,” “The Merry Innocents” and “Why I Am So Beat.” Nolan Miller’s short story “A New Life” was included in the O. Henry Prize Awards in 1959. His short stories were published in the Atlantic Monthly, Colliers, Saturday Evening Post and The Antioch Review.

Nolan Miller became the first fiction editor at the Antioch Review in 1965 and after retiring in 1972, he continued to play an active role in the publication until he was in his 90s.

He once wrote, “The writer must work with a mind ever open, ever free, ever alert.”

Dick Miller was the younger Miller brother, born in Spencerville, Ohio, in 1915. Following a bout of smallpox, he became deaf at the age of 15 months. His mother sent him to Detroit Day School for the Deaf where they taught lip-reading instead of signing.

After attending the Cranbrook Academy of Art from 1939 to 1940, where he was a student of deaf painter Carlos Lopez, he went on to spend two years at the Art Student League of New York from 1940 to 1942.

In 1965 he studied under Harry Sternberg, who was known for his WPA murals depicting life in America. Miller’s work at that time developed an expressionistic style that continued throughout his lifetime. He was also heavily influenced by Austrian Egon Schiele, his favorite painter, whose intense and sexual figure studies reflect the work of Gustav Klimt, Schiele’s mentor.

Miller exhibited his work widely in Michigan in the late 1930s and at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburg, Pa.  His painting “New Skates” was part of a traveling exhibit from the Federation of Arts in Washington, D.C.

For most of his life, Dick was a self-employed artist. He moved to Yellow Springs in 1954 to be with his brother Nolan.  In the late 1960s and 1970s, he was a ceramics teacher at the Yellow Springs Arts Council, in the Carr Greenhouses on South High Street. During the same period he taught painting classes to Yellow Springs students. Additionally, he and artist Dottie Moore painted all the posters for the Little Art Theater for 35 years, at a time when there were up to three movies a week.

A legacy on exhibit

The sprawling exhibition of the Miller brothers’ work covers both floors of the Herndon, which each measure 35 by 48 feet.

While the artwork of Dick Miller comprises the bulk of the exhibit, a reading area is set aside to honor Nolan, whose famous students included the Poet Laureate Mark Strand, children’s book author Virginia Hamilton, and television producer Rod Serling. Visitors to the gallery can peruse Nolan Miller’s book selections, and can pull any title and leaf through it.

The art, which ranges in size from sketches only a couple of inches across to canvases that are four feet long, includes oil paintings, charcoal sketches, ceramics, watercolors, pencil drawings, woodcuts, and watercolors. On display also is a small army of hand-built ceramic figures and an array of functional pottery that includes bowls, vases and plates.

According to Haack, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate, the exhibition is an illuminating look at an artist’s exploration of the world throughout his life, beginning with his student work. Haack said the exhibit will be particularly valuable for art students, since they can view the development of his work from a young age.

The fact that all the work was not equally proficient is also an important lesson, Haack said.

“This show exhibits an artist’s process — sometimes coming up with a piece, and sometimes not,” she said. “His life-long creative practice was against difficult odds, because he was deaf and used art to interpret and understand the world.”

Dick Miller’s interests included a range of subject matter, but in his early years he was especially interested in documenting the transition from the use of horses to fossil fuel powered engines in rural areas, according to Morgan. 

Later in life he loved to travel and became an expert at miming when he couldn’t understand the language of the country that he was visiting. His travels included time in Asia, Europe and South America and his notebooks are full of scenes from his journeys.

Morgan’s relationship with Dick Miller dates back to when she was 16 years old and studied ceramics with him. She said that as a deaf-mute, he felt at ease teaching students how to work in clay because he could easily demonstrate what he wanted to show them. 

A native of the village, Morgan returned to Yellow Springs in 2003 after two decades away and picked up her relationship with the aging artist. He was often lonely, and so she became almost a surrogate daughter, she said.

After the death of Nolan Miller, it was evident that his brother was too frail to stay in his Glen Road home by himself. Morgan renovated the carriage house of her home on East Whiteman Street for him and assisted in his move. Morgan said it was a massive undertaking since he had a significant amount of art and over 900 art books, which were later donated to the Dayton Art Institute.

Haack, who now lives in the carriage house, came up with the idea of the exhibition this past December when an opening in the Herndon Gallery schedule occurred. She and Morgan organized the show in record time, according to Jennifer Wenker, the creative director of the Herndon Gallery, as the lead time to organize an exhibition at the gallery is usually between six and 18 months. 

Wenker said she was enthusiastic about the idea because it highlighted not only an artist’s life-long creative practice and development, but also the strong relationship between the brothers, the town and the college community. In the end, their legacy gift showcases that love.

“This exhibit of these two gentle brothers creates the time and space for us to gather and celebrate that relationship,” she said.

*Steiger is a local artist and writer.


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