In early January, I had the pleasure of visiting the Glasner Studio, one unit in a larger compound of Old Town studios developed in the late 1920s by artist/designer/craftsman/architect Edgar Miller and collaborator Sol Kogen. Despite my best attempts to focus on the fact that I was there for a meeting, I spent the majority of my time gazing, mouth agape, at literally everything: the chair I was sitting in, the banisters on the stairs, the panes of glass in the windows. In 2014, I had a similar struggle visiting the Carl Street Studios. Those who’ve been lucky enough to visit an Edgar Miller space can attest to the overwhelming nature of the experience. The level of detail, from the hand-painted tiles on the floor to the meticulously-crafted chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, engages the eye at every turn. But not everyone gets to see it. Miller’s work is largely hidden from the outside world. I can’t say I’ve ever seen his name in a gallery, nor have I seen much scholarship around the subject of Miller. I’ve only interacted with his work as a visitor behind a collection of closed, albeit very ornate, doors. That’s why I was so intrigued by Zac Bleicher’s work with the Edgar Miller Legacy, an organization with the goal of making this very special, somewhat unknown creative’s philosophy and art more available to a wider audience.
On Saturday, February 25, we’ll be joined by Rolf Achilles (SAIC), Lisa Stone (SAIC, Roger Brown Study Collection), and Wendy Greenhouse, PhD (Art Historian) for a conversation about Edgar Miller. From painting to sculpture, woodwork to stained glass, Miller was a self-taught artist and master craftsman—a true “Renaissance Man” of the modern era. This presentation is a collaboration of The Arts Club, the Terra Foundation for American and Art, and the Edgar Miller Legacy. Free of charge.
In anticipation of Saturday’s program, I asked Zac a few questions.
-Jenna Lyle, Programs Manager
Edgar Miller has been hailed as Chicago’s last Renaissance Artist. What does the diversity of interest in his body of work reveal about him as an artist and person?
Born in Idaho in 1899, Miller grew up on the dwindling American frontier, and he learned from his parents an iconoclastic regard towards authority, and simultaneously a high esteem for those who make their own way and do things themselves. So it is no surprise Miller came to embody a rugged individualism often seen in American folklore. His story would seem like something out of a fairy tale, except it was real life. Born with a natural gift to master artistic expression by his teens, and with a self-awareness that pushed him to reach for the stars, Miller came to the American Metropolis—Chicago—and fully integrated himself into several concurrent art and cultural scenes, from the bohemian to the professional, all while maintaining his creative independence. The diversity of interest in his work reflects both the extremely wide range of materials Miller masterfully employed—painting, sculpture, metalwork, woodwork, stained glass, mosaic, and more—to the expansive list of projects he completed—figure and landscape painting, freestanding and relief sculpture, illustration and graphic design work, decorative arts, and of course, his architectural projects. Additionally, Miller incorporated so many diverse styles of art into his own aesthetic, from the classical to the primitive, without ever making a mockery of either (if he ever mocked a style of art, it was mid-century abstract expressionism, which he found naive). Furthermore, his life story appeals to so many artists and art lovers because it is the story nearly all artists wish to pursue: to create on one’s own terms, to pursue art for art’s sake, to be recognized and become successful, to work within a robust community of esteemed peers, and to inspire others during one’s lifetime as well as after one’s own death.
What has been your most surprising discovery about the work of Edgar Miller?
What is most surprising about the work of Edgar Miller is always how deep the well goes. We have spent years compiling digital and tangible archives of all the projects Miller completed, knowing there could always be more out there that he produced, and sure enough, eventually another discovery is made. A mural in Kansas City, a painting he gave a friend as a wedding gift in the 1930s, a stash of collected works in a university archive—it always amazes us how much work Miller accomplished and how casually and often he tossed them into the ether. But for Miller, making art, rather than seeing his art displayed on museum walls, was the end goal. It was what he lived and breathed, and so it makes sense that in 93 years of life, he made a lot of stuff, and much of it traveled as far and wide as those to whom it was given.
Where and how does Miller make the distinction between fine and folk art?
Miller was very cognizant of the role fine and folk art played in his development, and he fought against categorization. He often stated that art critics needed to categorize everything so that they could better understand the work of the artist, and so that a market could be established, but that to the artists, there should be no distinction between what kind of artist you were. You either are an artist or you aren’t one. He took this so far as to even describe someone like Frank Lloyd Wright as an artist, because of his unique vision and desire to force the viewer of his art—in this case the home dweller—to see the world the way Wright saw it. But Miller did understand that many saw art at least drawn into two categories, that of the fine arts and the folk arts, from the fine paintings of Rembrandt to the beautifully painted earthenware bowls of nameless Hopis. He also sometimes referred to the “big arts” and the “little arts.” Miller believed that art culture was only strengthened when both fine arts and folk arts flourished, and in the Chicago of his era, he felt too much attention was placed on developing the big arts while not much was done to cultivate the little arts. This is one reason why he gravitated towards the Hull House Kilns in the 1910s and ‘20s, why he was drawn to learning about and practicing his craft in all the various forms of material and media known to humankind, including his handmade architectural projects, and why he continuously pursued art-making in any way he found compelling, regardless of whether it paid or resulted in personal fame.
If you’re still curious, listen to Zac’s interview with architecture writer Ben Schulman and Zach Mortice on Newcity’s podcast series A Lot You Got to Holler.