Full Palette

Painter Cynthia Miller Loads Up On Real Life And Art.

By Margaret Regan

CYNTHIA MILLER, the local artist much-admired for paintings that give eccentric life to household objects, had repaired to her own domestic headquarters in between engagements.

Just back from a shopping expedition to Penney's, where she'd bought new sandals for her two young daughters--one pair of white, one pink--in half and hour Miller had to be over at the elementary school for a meeting of the fine arts committee. At home in between, she fried up burgers, nuked a trio of burritos, shooed off the dog, fended off a telephone solicitor, hugged a child who'd fallen off a swing and pondered questions about her painting.

Review "It would be helpful to have two brains," she said cheerfully in response to a query about balancing her life as an artist and as a mother. "The mother brain never shuts off."

Miller's latest paintings, joyous mixed-media affairs full of loopy painted chests and maverick prickly pears, are in a group show at Pima Community College, along with Rudolph Nadler's geometric abstractions and Julia Andres' metallic vegetable sculptures. On her last outing, at the Temple Gallery more than a year ago, Miller showed affectionate paintings of little girls and childhood treasures, painted in a flat, deliberately naïve style.

"I never really got away from the chests," she said, "but I had to do the kid thing. For now the furniture is calling."

Miller maintains that "it's a mystery to me where (the images) come from," though her subjects have a curious habit of following her own life. The ironic Domestica series on household objects, for instance, more or less coincided with her marriage. The kid paintings emerged after an "enforced break" of several years from serious work on her art, during which Miller was mostly a full-time mom. She'd had neck surgery (she'd been injured hauling her huge canvases around) and given birth to her second child. Then the family had moved out of Miller's native Southwestern habitat to the cold clime of Minnesota for a job for her husband, poet and Chax Press publisher Charles Alexander.

"I felt I was moving to the moon," she said. "I felt like a refugee...You don't get vistas there." Sometimes, when she'd be traversing a vast mall parking lot, she said, "I would hallucinate the Catalinas."

And after years of being in the thick of things on the Tucson art scene--studying at the UA, helping found Dinnerware--in Minneapolis Miller found herself in the more typical artist's position: on the outside looking in. Her friends, she said, were the other moms and dads on the block, and a surprising number of them were trained artists who had abandoned art in favor of work that could actually support them.

"It made me mad," she said. "Art doesn't do enough for people. It was amazing how little of what was happening (in Minneapolis) was set up for people."

But her artist's eye didn't stop looking, and Miller acknowledges some new northern influences in her work, even though the family returned a year and a half ago to her home place of hot Mexican pinks and "velvety blue" summer skies.

"My colors have gotten softer," she said. "There's so much water up there the light acts differently. It's kind of a reflective light...Before I did a lot of bright Mexican colors...Now I find I like what muddy does."

Still, in her current suite of seven works, one would be hard pressed to find any hues that deserve the appellation of muddy. "Snow Box," a 1998 work on paper of acrylic, chalk, oil pastel and oil paint stick, pulses with orange, pink and blue-green. (The yellow "snowflakes" on the chest of drawers look suspiciously like Hohokam spirals.) "Monsoon Chair," a 1997 mixed-media work on paper, has the exact dark blue of the summer evening sky, and the pads of its prickly pears glow a deep green. This piece also features another Miller trademark: a tiny child's chair of straw and wood, gaily painted in flowers.

"I did that first series of little chairs in 1991, when we first got involved in the Persian Gulf War," said the artist, shaking her head. "And now...it's come back again."

Her painted chests of drawers, all curving lines and impossible angles, are pure "Toon Town," she says. "Nothing is square. The Alamo guys (fine furniture makers whose workshop adjoins her studio in the Steinfeld Warehouse) give me a hard time."

"None of the pieces are real," she added, "though they have references to real things and references to real people...The furniture has an intensity, like a body, and the layering of materials gives them their own history."

Miller's ruminations were interrupted by a small pink sandal hurled with deadly accuracy across the living room. Time for the art brain to cede to the mother brain. The painter began dashing around, ordering shoes put on for the outing to school, and crayons and paper and books assembled to ward off the meeting fidgets. But she paused for one more thought about art and family:

"I'm trying to pace myself, but I didn't have any idea (what motherhood would be like)...They still haven't written the book on it. But having a family is a real adventure artists can participate in."

An exhibition of a paintings by Cynthia Miller and Rudolph Nadler, and sculpture by Julia Andres, continues through Monday, February 16, at the PCC Center for the Arts gallery, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information, call 206-6942. TW

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