© 2012 Joe Miller
After my grandfather’s death, my father left Catholic seminary to support the family. He met my mother just in time to entice her away from becoming a Catholic nun, and they took to married life! Seven children were raised in Utah, within the faith that each person has a calling, a vocation. The vocation may be odd, it may be mainstream; it may bring worldly success, it may be a quick road to poverty. But never mind the outcome, the calling itself is sacrosanct.
My parents’ Catholicism has fallen from my life, but my sense of painting as vocation has not. Inherent in taking on a vocation is to accept any accompanying difficulties, impoverishments, failures. This has allowed me to paint for over 50 years.
I started painting landscapes in 1959 as a student at Notre Dame University. That is where I started gaining an emotional feel for depicting a plane receding in space, a field of grass with an object rising up from it, under a sky. I was also drawn to the graphic purity of printmaking and intended to pursue graduate work at the University of Iowa.
But just as with my parents, married life intervened. With 5 children under the age of 6, being an artist seemed highly impractical, and I followed my father into a life of business, with all the mainstream rewards. This worked for a while, until I was sitting in the Milwaukee symphony hall, the orchestra creating a great wall of sound, and I knew I had to spend the rest of my life attempting to create visual music. ..something that I could feel. The next morning I turned in my resignation and truly began to depend upon the reality of a vocation.
Soon enough, my wife and children and I were living in Moab, Utah on food stamps and 25-pound bags of beans. There the receding plane in my paintings became the desert floor, with a sandstone butte or a mountain rising up from it, under a sky. Often during this period my work was so abstract that lines, colors, and shapes were largely symbolic of the subject - but somehow always related to the landscape. It was this work that won an NEA grant to be Artist in Residence in the Parks: Arches, Bryce, and Zion’s.
My marriage was not a failure, but it did not survive these times. I became an artist in residence in Kenlake State Park in Kentucky. I spent 9 months there and began to work seriously in watercolor. The change from working on large canvases to watercolor on rice paper was fortunate, as I began to be rather nomadic, living out of my car as I traveled to spend summers with my children – who are now scattered around the earth raising families and following their own vocations.
In the early 1980’s, I settled by the Mississippi River and began communicating with my now-wife, painter Dana Roberts. Dana and I returned for a stint in Moab and then moved to her tiny cabin in the woods on San Juan Island, off the coast of Washington state. Here I developed carpentry skills, foremost to make stretchers for our canvasses, and to expand the original cabin, now our studios, and build a separate home for us and our daughter, Noe.
When I left the desert and my beloved denuded earthen formations for the forest-covered Northwest, I left my source of immediate conceptual guidance: where is the receding plane? The object rising from it? I painted often out near the shore and came to realize the San Juan islands are mountain tops springing up through the receding plane of the sea’s surface, under an amazing variety of cloud-laden skies. My imagination was excited by this landscape set above, below, and beyond the sea. As in the desert, I still work from my inner vision, even when out in a location by the sea, in the woods, or up in the mountains.
I paint from my imagination because I prefer to paint with relatively free line, marks, shapes, and colors unrestrained from the brush and color demands of realism. These colors, shapes, marks, and lines are to me like musical instruments capable of producing a beauty in their relationships and controlled freedom of application.