John Brough Miller (1933-2010) was an “accidental” artist whose work often stretched a tape measure to its limits. One day, it might be called upon to gather the dimensions of a small but exquisitely powerful ceramic pot that channeled the artistic inspiration of mentor Maija Grotell. The next day, that same unit of measurement could be called upon to span anywhere from nine to 30 feet of hard, cold steel.
Miller didn’t set out to be an artist. Born in Emerson Township, Michigan, he graduated from the public school system before enlisting in the Navy. After finishing his four-year military stint, he received his BS in Education from Central Michigan University. Still not fully satisfied, he decided to reach for a degree in Economics. Everything progressed smoothly until he learned he needed an art class to graduate.
Economics and Art seemed like an odd-ball relationship, but Miller just shrugged and moved on until he fell head-over-heels in love with art. This was his true passion. This was his “zone,” where the two sides of his brain came together and functioned smoothly as an analytically creative unit.
Miller studied with Maija Grotell at the Cranbrook Academy of Art while closing out his Masters of Fine Arts in 1964. Four years later in 1968, he earned his certification in industrial welding from a Welding Trade School in Dallas.
Miller married Janet, also an artist, while still in Michigan. After relocating to Texas, he picked up a briefcase and spent nearly 30-years as an Art Professor of Ceramics and Sculpture at Texas Woman’s University. He spent nearly every minute of his spare time on his personal art.
His giant, abstract, metal forms began filling his imagination. The Miller family, including oldest Heidi, middle Maija, and youngest MacIan, ate their meals from paper plates. This wouldn’t be worth mentioning had the backs of some of those plates not been sketch boards for several of Miller’s metal sculptures.
“There would be a little drawing,” remembered Heidi. “A few days later, it grew to 30 feet tall. Dad was always amazing to me. As I got older, I simply could not imagine how he knew to cut concave and convex angles and then bend them. How did he know the right way to bend and weld? He had a crane mounted on a truck because he needed to hoist most of those big pieces to work on them. A chain snapped one day and threw him all the way across the yard.
“I know Dad had a passion for pottery and ceramics but he craved going further and bigger. He did that with the steel.”
Miller discouraged all three of his children from pursuing a professional career in any of the arts. “He always said he didn’t want any of his kids to be starving artists,” laughed Heidi. “I have the art gene. I do pottery and ceramics, but I chose commercial art as a career. I worked for Hewlett-Packard during the early days of computer development. It was exciting.”
Maija has vivid recollections of climbing all over the sculptures as a child. “We used them as giant toys,” she said. “The kids we rode the school bus with were accustomed to seeing them in the yard. It was no big deal. They just thought they were cool.
“It wasn’t until I grew up that I realized how innovative Dad was; he created in his own way, according to his own rules. If an issue popped up, he solved it. This is why he hated commission work. He couldn’t function because it stifled his creativity. Left to his own devices, he was able to create beautifully perfect balance and motion.”
What Maija just said is one of the great mysteries of Miller’s talent. She said he created “perfect motion” but, literally, there was no motion. How could there be? We’re talking about 30 feet of steel.
The answer is in one of Miller’s long-ago quotes, when he said, “The inferred kinetic energy is in the mind of the viewer.” Precisely! The viewer stands, looking at a mass in space. A ball balances precariously on a concave angle. A triangle floats on another triangle. There surely must be motion in that conversation of steel. There must be an energetic dynamic binding it all together. Yes, there is; but it’s only in your mind.
MacIan, the youngest of the Miller children, inherited the family home in Argyle. He and his family still live there.
“I enjoy being in the childhood place,” explained Macian. “None of us, and none of our friends, understood the word ‘abstract’ but, even then, most of us understood his art made us feel something.
“I suppose Dad would be classified as a workaholic. He came home after work, ready to do more work. I never saw him overwhelmed, and I don’t believe he ever understood the concept of failure.
“The bulk of his work was sold to architects and other commercial outlets. Personally, I can’t remember his ever doing a commissioned piece.”
Argyle was still very rural in the 1970s. The nights were dark, making a perfect backdrop for the flashes of light and sparks that made the Miller property look magical. Actually, the sparks and the flashes came from Miller’s welding equipment. The real magic was in the massive steel sculpture conceived on the back of a paper plate after the food was gone or, at other times, doodled on the garage floor in chalk.
“He always wanted his pieces out in the public eye,” said Macian. “There are still a few pieces in my mother’s estate and a couple that we, the children, inherited. His work is in installations pretty much all over the country. My mom (Janet) has passed away and we’ve decided to sell the remaining pieces.”
photos courtesy of MacIan Miller