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Tom Miller recalled for whimsical art, attitude

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Tom Miller, a highly acclaimed Baltimore artist who invented a style of exuberant, brightly painted furniture known as "Afro-Deco," died yesterday at Joseph Richly Hospice in Baltimore after a long illness. He was 54.

Miller's work was exhibited regularly in Baltimore galleries, and he enjoyed a devoted following among collectors here, who often waited up to two years to purchase examples of his work. Miller's furniture and sculpture were the subject of a major retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art and Maryland Art Place in 1995, and he was represented in several important group shows that toured the country.

Miller was also a beloved figure in the local art community, where he was known as a man of great compassion and empathy as well as an indefatigable raconteur whose jokes and tall tales could keep friends and strangers alike laughing for hours.

"He was a keenly intelligent person who was very knowledgeable about the art world and very clear-thinking in his responses and in speaking about his work," said Steven Scott, whose gallery represented Miller in Baltimore for many years.

"Miller's work often dealt with historical facts and personalities such as Billie Holiday, the Harlem Renaissance and Baltimore history," Scott said. "Afro-Deco was an example of his great wit."

Miller, the oldest of six children of a tailor father and a housewife mother who sewed, was a lifelong city resident who grew up in Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood and attended public schools. His artistic talent was evident from his earliest years.

"From the time he was a little boy, maybe about second grade, he was always with paints and pencils, and he could draw unusually well," said Frances Miller, the artist's mother. "And his ideas were different from most people -- they were always sort of whimsical."

In a 1994 interview with Leslie King-Hammond, dean of graduate studies at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, he said that his early interest in art was in part inspired by the example of a neighbor.

"I couldn't have been more than 7 or 8," Miller recalled. "I remember the man -- he was black and he had processed hair. None of the men in our neighborhood had processed hair. He drove an MG, which was unheard of in the early Fifties. Late at night sometimes I could see him at his easel when the light was on. He was just different, his whole lifestyle. ... For some strange reason it appealed to me, even as a child. I said to myself, 'Yeah, I think I want to be an artist.'"

Miller attended Carver Vocational Technical High School with the intention of becoming a commercial illustrator and won a scholarship to attend the Maryland Institute, where he earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1967.

After his graduation from MICA, Miller was hired by the Baltimore City Schools as an art resource specialist, a job that required him to travel to several different schools each week giving art instruction to the children and their teachers.

In the mid-1980s, partly at King-Hammond's urging, Miller decided to return to MICA as a graduate student. At MICA, Miller began to develop the distinctive style for which he would become known.

"Tom was singularly spectacular in graduate school," King-Hammond recalled yesterday. "He would turn his entire space into an installation that looked like an underwater sea tank with divers doing arabesque dances with fish and water bubbles floating through the space."

After experimenting with installations art, Miller turned to painted objects.

"He began to create the style called 'Afro-Deco' by using discarded furniture he found in thrift shops and painting the surfaces in these magical patterns, both inside and outside," King-Hammond said.

"He would take rocking chairs and attach umbrellas to them, or create spindles from banisters and add shoes, a box for the body, a metronome for a heart and a lampshade for the head -- the most unusual, clever combinations joining the environment and the people as he saw them. That was the hallmark of his style, his incredible sense of humor."

Upon graduating from MICA with a master of fine arts degree in 1987, Miller decided to devote himself to the painted furniture that became his hallmark style.

"His art was playful and decorative, but it included all kinds of references to the Baltimore community he came out of, whether it was crabs or kids playing in the street, jumping rope, going to market," said Jack Rasmussen, director of Maryland Art Place gallery. "It was decorative and narrative at the same time."

Rasmussen said Miller was unstinting in his support for other artists and the Baltimore art community and last year donated his only studio chair to the Maryland Art Place benefit auction to help raise money for the event.

In 1995, Miller became one of the first African-American artists from Baltimore to be given a one-man show at the BMA. The exhibition was a joint effort between the museum and Maryland Art Place.

"His work made you smile but still speaks to the important issues," said Carl Clark, a Baltimore photographer who was one of Miller's closest friends and colleagues. "It speaks to African and African-American roots, but also of color and cheer and brightness. He incorporates stereotypes of big lips and black faces into his art, but it's subtle and makes you smile."

Clark said Miller was diagnosed with AIDS in 1989, yet continued to produce his art up until the very end. An uncompleted piece representing a Baltimore a-rab made from found objects -- a pair of Timberland boots, a scarf, a basket and pieces of fruit -- lay on the work table he used in a makeshift studio he had set up at the hospice where he died.

"He was a great artist, a man of great dignity and tremendous courage," Clark said. "After he was diagnosed with AIDS he talked openly with his family and colleagues and students about being black and gay and having AIDS in a very magnanimous way in order to help others."

Miller entered the hospice Jan. 18, bringing with him his art equipment, tools and paints.

Natalie Kloss, the head nurse at the hospice, said Miller quickly came to regard the hospice staff and patients as part of his extended family.

The week before he died, Miller left the hospice one final time to attend the opening of Clark's photography show at Maryland Art Place. Kloss said she helped Miller dress and accompanied him to the gallery that afternoon.

"He dressed up in his dashiki," Kloss said," and when we went he was extremely alert and bright and happy just to be there, and everyone attending was very open and warm to him."

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