Stripped Away

Illness takes Nancy Tokar Miller--and her work--in a new direction

For years, painter Nancy Tokar Miller has lived large, traveling the world with her husband, Walter, and returning home to Tucson to make lyrical paintings that conjure up the exotic locations she's visited.

Melding landscape and architecture into near-abstractions, Miller's big paintings use transparent washes and calligraphic drawing to create a sense of place. In one series, the arched doorways in Morocco and the hot colors of North Africa appear again and again. In another, it's Cambodian temple ruins.

Last year, a serious illness changed her painterly MO. Doctors forbade Miller to travel any farther than four hours away from an emergency room. And the painter wasn't well enough to take on big canvases. But she discovered the virtues of working small, and close to home.

"It turned out to be a wonderful thing for me," she says.

After roaming the world on grueling journeys--a month-long trip to Cambodia, Thailand and Japan in 2004 was "difficult," she admits--Miller opened her eyes to local beauty. Last year, she and her husband dr ve out to Willcox to see, for the first time, the migration of the sandhill cranes. Each winter, these graceful long-winged birds flock to the bleak Willcox Playa by the thousands.

"We stayed overnight," Miller says, "and we saw the cranes take off at the first light of day. It was beautiful."

The delicate lines of their wings and the S-curve of their long bodies appear again and again in Miller's new body of work at Etherton Gallery, in a three-person show called Poetics of Place. (The exhibition also showcases photographs by Dick Arentz and Gordon Whitten.)

Miller exhibits seven largish paintings from 2004, most of them beautifully colored evocations of a pool and the jungle around the Cambodian temple of Angkor Wat. But one whole wall is filled with no fewer than 30 tiny paintings from 2005, the year of her illness.

Just 9 by 12 inches, the acrylics on hand-made paper have densely colored backgrounds of a single hue--rich blue or red or canary or ochre. The angled wings of the cranes, painted in black, dance across the top. (Miller uses a calligraphy brush.) In some works, the birds are drawn fully ("Cranes, no. 1"); elsewhere, they've been reduced to simple curves ("Cranes, no. 18").

With its quick strokes, simple lines and transparent paint, Miller's work has long had the feel of Asian art, and the new work is no exception. Its repeated images, numbered rather than named, suggest a meditation. In fact, after returning from Willcox, Miller says she rushed to consult her books about the art of Japan, where traditional painters prize the birds. But after an immersion period, Miller returned to her own photos. Typically, she takes "a lot of photos" on her travels, and then returns to the studio and synthesizes them into paintings.

This time, she found herself particularly taken by the "photos of cranes with spaces in between," and began making paintings that were as much about the negative space between the birds as they were about the birds themselves. For instance, "Cranes, no. 2" is brilliant yellow, with two sketchily drawn columns of intertwined birds, the interstices between them as distinct as their bodies.

During her medical treatments, doctors advised Miller to give up her beloved green tea, which she makes each day in a kind of tea ceremony. This small loss also turns up in the small paintings: Painted tea bowls join the painted cranes on the wall. The tea bowls float individually on colored backgrounds, becoming both a symbol of loss and an icon of longing. "Tea Bowl, no. 5" is a simple jet-black shape on pale yellow; "Tea Bowl, no. 3" is two shades of red on gray.

The Angkor Wat paintings from her last big trip, in 2004, are as deft and fluid as ever, registering once more why many consider Miller Tucson's best painter. She takes the same image, a horizontal pool guarded by ornamental carved cobras, set in a densely vegetated jungle, and paints it again and again in different colors, different lights.

"Angkor/Pool and Balustrade IV" is full of pungent greens; "Angkor/Pool and Balustrade I" blocks out the scene with a red vertical stripe on the left and a yellow on the right. The deep grays of the paving in IV yield to a softer ocher in I. The fifth deepens into night, and VI simplifies into a nearly pure abstraction, of black lines, lime green and tan.

"Tonle Sap Sanctuary," Miller says, is a work of imagination. Monsoon rains prevented her and her husband from reaching the real-life place; disappointed, she painted its pale liquid pools as she supposed them to look. Glittery silver paint makes the water shimmer on the paper, and if you look closely, you can see some tiny birds on the shore, barely visible in red.

The painter is feeling well now, she says, and she's excited about where the illness took her. "It stripped away the non-essentials," she notes, and brought her art into a new place. The tiny color-field paintings (works with a single-color background) will give way to similar paintings on a larger scale. She's at work at home on a big crane painting right now.

"This has brought me back to things I hadn't thought about in 20 years. It's a rediscovery, but no one can see it yet."

That doesn't mean she's entirely given up thoughts of travel. On the contrary, she's already dreaming of Australia, and the paintings she'll make of the Great Barrier Reef.

"I haven't painted underwater images for a while," she says.