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AN ARTIST CONFRONTS DEATH HIV-infected Tom Miller creates bright sculptures from rescued discards

Tom Miller describes himself as a rescuer, one who delights in finding some broken-down table or chair in an alley or junk shop and proceeds to patch it, paint it and place it on a pedestal in a museum somewhere.

"The more unlikely it seems of becoming anything, the more I'm drawn to it," he says, gesturing at a creaky table he pulled from a warehouse in Fells Point.

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"You know, you could just say, 'Look at this hateful thing. It's just a piece of trash, not good to anybody.' But I refuse to accept that.

"I think people should be treated like that, too."

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The last is a telling remark from Mr. Miller, 46, one of Baltimore's most celebrated artists, who has gained recognition from turning pieces of discarded furniture into brightly painted sculptures. Shattered by the news a little more than a year ago that he is carrying HIV -- the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS -- he has slowly been putting himself back together again in what is his most challenging rescue yet.

Now, having reached a point where he feels comfortable with his ability to cope with being HIV-infected, he says he can talk publicly about it.

"Why not?" he says. "I don't know how much time I've got. If there's something I've got to say, I should go ahead and say it."

Mr. Miller learned that he was HIV-positive soon after the death of his companion of 18 years, whom he had nursed through a long battle with AIDS.

"At first you go through hell; you're wondering what's going to happen. Will I drop dead any minute? And I'm an intelligent person, you know. I read a lot; I've been through the whole thing with somebody else. But still, when it's you, it's a whole different story."

Mr. Miller went to Chase-Brexton Clinic, where he had been tested, for help. Doctors at the Mount Vernon clinic, which specializes in treating people with HIV and AIDS, put him on AZT to stave off infections, and social workers there offered him counseling and help in getting financial assistance to pay for the expensive drug.

Today he checks in at the clinic once or twice a month for blood tests. His only symptoms of illness, he says, are infrequent fatigue and bouts with anemia -- a side effect of taking AZT. Doctors avoid giving a prognosis on his illness, he says, and instead concentrate on keeping him stable.

"It looks like I'm kind of holding my own, and we're trying to see how long we can keep it that way."

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On this day in his studio in his Druid Heights home, he's putting the finishing touches on a small cabinet painted boldly in red, yellow and a half-dozen other bright colors. There are patches of sky blue, some puffy clouds and an illusion of water. As a final touch, he'll put a multi-patterned fish on top and call the piece "Kingfish." It is one of about 18 pieces in a one-man show on display through February in the Steven Scott Gallery on Charles Street.

As Mr. Miller paints, a small black and white television balanced on a stack of furnishings plays talk shows, sometimes providing the only link in his 18-hour work day with the outside world. Besides a chandelier overhead and a marble mantelpiece, there is little evidence that this room was once home to antiques and Oriental rugs, the well-appointed living room of the once well-appointed young urban professional. But then a lot of things have changed in Mr. Miller's life since he decided to make art for a living nearly six years ago.

In 1986 he gave up the security of 20 years as an art teacher in Baltimore City schools to go after a master's degree at Maryland Institute. Shortly after graduating, he was signed on with G. H. Dalsheimer, one of the leading commercial art galleries in Baltimore, and in 1988 was included in the Baltimore Museum of Art's Maryland Invitational, a coup for a fledgling artist.

But the creative world is changeable, and when the economy went sour in late '80s, it didn't spare Mr. Miller or the Charles Street corridor where several galleries have had to close. In 1989, Mr. Miller was forced to move his studio into his home and begin selling off his possessions.

While he was financially much leaner, his reputation as an artist with an unusual style for creating functional art remained healthy. His pieces today command an average $1,000 each, compared to about $400 when his career first got underway.

"His work is terrific," says gallery owner Steven Scott. "It's his sense of humor, his visual artistry, his craftsmanship." Mr. Miller's art is particularly popular with architects, designers and museum curators, says Mr. Scott, who notes that nearly half the pieces in the current show already have been sold.

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As Mr. Miller works, he talks about coping with HIV: "At first I was just numbed by the whole experience. I felt kind of hopeless, like why bother, 'cause you're going to die anyway."

His depression continued for several months, he says.

"Then for some reason your attention seems to be diverted. And suddenly that's where you are." The diversion, of course, was one piece or another of junk furniture that drew his eye and inspired him to start painting it in his playful style that has been dubbed "Afro Deco."

"This work is all-absorbing, where you don't sleep or you don't care about anything else," he says, noting that he has had to produce at an unprecedented rate -- completing four months' worth of work in as little as four weeks -- for this show, his first solo exhibition since learning of his illness.

"I've always been a hard worker. But knowing that I also am HIV-positive, I haven't got a minute to waste."

Christine Kennedy, director of case management at Chase-Brexton, remembers when Mr. Miller wasn't as emotionally strong about his infection.

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"He had to get to the point where he believed it was important to take care of himself," says Ms. Kennedy, who noted that Mr. Miller was still grieving and terribly isolated when he first arrived at the clinic. She helped him tap into HERO, AIDS Action Baltimore and federal programs that could offer him assistance. Meanwhile she'd nudge him into painting whenever she'd see him.

When Mr. Miller told her last summer about a commission from the city to paint a mural in East Baltimore promoting literacy and the gallery's plans for his one-man show, she was elated.

"He had the strength to tap into his creativity, and it has been his wellspring of health," she says. "He's made great strides."

But it hasn't been easy.

"It's been one long nightmare," says Mr. Miller of the time since he first learned of his friend's illness about 2 1/2 years ago. "He was very secretive about it. I realize a lot of people have to deal with it that way, but you've got to let people know because you're going to need help every step of the way."

One of Mr. Miller's greatest fears was telling his parents. He hadn't been particularly close to them since he told them he was gay more than 20 years ago. Now he worried they might reject him.

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"I was very upset about it. And then one day, unceremoniously, I just put my hat and coat on and said, 'Well, time to go over and tell them.' "

His parents' response surprised him.

"There were a lot of tears at first. But right away my mother got involved and started finding out as much about HIV as she could." She even suggested an herb therapy that might help keep him healthy.

"I appeared calm, but inside my heart was breaking," confides his mother, Frances Miller. "I was so hurt that this was happening to my son. But I knew we had to help him all we could."

"That's one of the things about this disease," Mr. Miller says. "It's made people be able to put aside petty differences and just deal with the problem that's there."

Telling others in his life was not as difficult, he says. Many of his closest friends are members of the arts community, which has been hit hard by AIDS and where "almost everybody's been affected." When he learned that he was HIV-positive, it was comforting to know he was a part of a community that would be sympathetic and supportive.

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"I've always been a loner and pretty self-sufficient, but I don't want this [HIV] to become overwhelming," he says.

Mr. Miller says the "realist" in him knows he's "just buying time" with the illness. In fact, in many ways, listening to him is like reading a balance sheet, measuring the progress he's made on one side against the fears and insecurities that still haunt him.

On the plus side, he's learned to tackle one day -- or one problem or project -- at a time and let the future take care of itself.

And he's learned to set priorities in his life, putting his health and his art first and skipping less important activities like holiday decorating or shopping for the collectibles he has always admired. So what if he doesn't have a living room full of antiques or his Volkswagen bug anymore, he says; he's accumulated more accolades as a serious artist in the last six years than many people do in a lifetime.

But there's the negative side of the balance sheet, too.

"I used to have the idea I was hateful because I'm gay. Now this HIV business rears its ugly head, and you start feeling that way all over again. I couldn't even look myself in the mirror when I first found out [I had the virus]. It's not a very nice feeling."

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Even deeper perhaps is his fear that his candor about being HIV-positive will push people away from him and prevent him from ever having a close relationship again.

"I'm still human. I still need to be touched. Even my dog wants me to pat her on the head. Everything needs to be loved, and if you don't feel it, it's the difference between glowing and feeling like hell."

Fortunately, those days of feeling like hell are few and far between.

"I really do think I'm on the upswing now," he said last week, after his first day working out at the YMCA. A regular exercise program, he's been advised, will keep him in good physical condition and help ward off illness.

And he recently resumed work on a commissioned project he had started painting at the height of his angst last winter.

"I just looked at it and said, 'Thank God, you didn't finish it then.' I thought, 'This is really ugly. It's so dark and murky.' "

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He resolved to redo the small cabinet in brighter colors and told the customer, "What you would have gotten before would have been OK, but what you'll get now will be fantastic."

THE MILLER FILE

Born: Oct. 13, 1945, in Baltimore.

Education: Maryland Institute, College of Art, B.F.A 1967; M.F.A. 1987.

Occupation: Artist known for his "Afro Deco" style of painting on furniture to create sculpture.

A favorite image: Watermelon. He uses it to poke fun at black stereotypes.

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Sources of inspiration: North Avenue partygoers on a Saturday night and old movies like "Cleopatra."

On coping with a life-threatening illness: "It's always on your mind. It never goes away. . . . I've had vague future plans, but I don't really look way off in the future now. I just deal from day to day."


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