MU professor creates theater-inspired portraits

Sunday, July 19, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 8:15 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 20, 2009
James M. Miller, professor of theatre at MU, stands among several of his pieces from his exhibit, “Facing Home: Watercolors and Drawings from Mississippi” in the George Caleb Bingham Gallery on Thursday. His exhibit, which features portraits of people from a variety of races, social statuses and ages, will be available for viewing through August 6.

COLUMBIA — MU’s professor of theater James M. Miller eagerly moves from one painting to the next, his eyes lighting up as he describes his experiences while creating each piece of his exhibit.

Miller’s exhibit, “Facing Home: Watercolors and Drawings from Mississippi,” is currently on display at MU’s George Caleb Bingham Gallery and will be there until Aug. 6.

The Exhibit: If You Go

What: Facing Home: Watercolors and Drawings from Mississippi

Where: George Caleb Bingham Gallery, Fine Arts Center, Hitt Street and University Avenue

When: July 6 - August 6, 2009

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Miller, who received a sabbatical from the Missouri Research Board in 2007, spent three months in his hometown of Woodville, Miss., painting and drawing people of the town. When he came back, Miller had completed 150 watercolors, 104 of which are on display.

The paintings feature all different kinds of people, including Miller’s relatives and complete strangers.

One thing they all had in common?

“They’re just everyday people,” Miller said.

Although the portraits feature people of a variety of social status, age and race, Miller said he wanted them to appear equal to the viewer. So, unlike most portraits, Miller’s paintings do not have a background – only their faces and figures are featured.

“I did not want anything but the people. Nothing extraneous,” said Miller. “It creates a kind of mystery – the viewer has to make the story.”

One portrait is of a man from New Orleans, who was sitting in Woodville’s town square. The man ended up being a jazz musician who was a refuge of Hurricane Katrina, said Miller, and even said he had worked with Harry Connick, Jr.

Some of the portraits were of people Miller had not seen in over 30 years.

“One of the most interesting things, a lot of people hadn’t seen me in 36 years. People would tell me stuff that they wouldn’t tell anyone else,” Miller said. “I was shocked at what people would tell me.”

Miller said that, over the last 10 years, he has painted and exhibited more work.

“When I’m at home, I paint – everyday,” Miller said. “Sometimes it can be 30 minutes or three hours before I get up (from painting).”

Although Miller has tried other kinds of painting, such as acrylic, he said he prefers watercolors.

“Watercolors are very fast,” said Miller. “If you screw it up, you can start over quickly. And I just like the way it feels when you dip a brush in paint and brush it across the page. You get looser, and eventually you let the brush and paint do (the work).”

Miller also said that even though he dabbles a bit in painting landscapes, he prefers painting people.

“I’m most interested in painting people because it’s all about looking for the character in each person,” Miller said.

Even though painting is an important part of his life, he said it is mostly a relief to working in theater, his greatest passion.

While in college, Miller started out as an art major but said his teacher “didn’t think much of his work.”

So, after auditioning for a play, Miller said he immediately fell in love with theater and switched his major, eventually receiving his master’s degree in the subject.

“I think I was always interested in … and aware of theater and musicals,” Miller said. He also said that while growing up, he was surrounded by art in varying forms — his mother, a musician; his aunt, a singer; and his piano teacher who often spoke of theater — all influencing his passion.

After working for an advertising agency in New York for several years, Miller said he decided he had to work in theater, no matter where. So, when he was offered a job as professor of theater at MU, he said he didn’t hesitate to take it.

While at MU, Miller has directed and/or designed over 100 musicals and plays for the University Theatre’s academic season and the Summer Repertory Theatre. He has also directed and choreographed for the Stephens College Playhouse, the Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre and the Tulane Summer Lyric Theatre in New Orleans.

Although he has worked in theater in a number of ways, he said he really enjoys costume design above all else.

“It’s an extension of drawing characters,” he said. “You have to visualize (the character) for both the writer and the actor.”

Miller has also received awards and recognition from the American College Theatre Festival and the Speech and Theatre Association of Missouri.

Even after all of his experience and accomplishments, Miller still remains humble.

“I have trouble calling myself an artist,” he said. “I have the highest regard for artists. I think the biggest struggle is to try to realize your potential as an artist.”

He said he believes that as children, everyone has potential to be an artist, but that it takes encouragement from others for them to pursue it. He points to his mother as the person who encouraged him to be an artist.

“I just happened to have a mother who shoved pencils and paper in my way,” Miller said. 


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