The fire still burns at 90: Valley art icon Charles Miller’s new work reverberates with vibrancy of protest

  • A study by painter Charles Miller for his new exhibit, “Protest at Ninety,” at Northampton’s Anchor House of Artists. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Detail of one of Charles Miller’s lastest oil paintings, which reflect on the protest movements in the U.S. in recent years. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Charles Miller talks about his latest artwork, now showing at Anchor House of Artists, and on recently turning 90. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Charles Miller says his new series of paintings and sketches was inspired by citizen protests in the U.S. in recent years against police violence, environmental destruction and more. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Charles Miller says his new series of paintings and sketches was inspired by citizen protests in the U.S. in recent years against police violence, environmental destruction and more. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Charles Miller points to a detail in one of his new oil paintings, which focus on citizen protest in the U.S. in recent years. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Charles Miller jokes that now that he’s turned 90, “I’m getting to work on making it to 91.”  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Charles Miller used these smaller paintings as studies for his larger oil canvases depicting citizen protests. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Charles Miller talks about his latest artwork on exhibit at the Anchor House of Artists. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Charles Miller points to one his smaller paintings, used as a study for his larger oil works at the Anchor House of Artists. He used a similar background color in his larger paintings. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Taking to the streets: Charles Miller’s new exhibit at Anchor House of Artists is called “Protest at Ninety.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Monday, December 06, 2021

When he talks about his friend Charles Miller, Michael Tillyer has a number of ways of describing the work of the iconic Northampton painter: It’s immediate, Tillyer says, and it’s honest, full of energy and pulsing with rhythm.

“It’s got a beat,” says Tillyer, the founder and co-director of Anchor House of Artists in Northampton.

What’s more, Tillyer says, Miller brings a lot of compassion to his paintings, a concern for everyday people and the injustice they can experience at the hands of more powerful forces, all of it built on a keen sense of observation. As Tillyer puts it, Miller “keeps his eye on the world.”

That’s something Miller’s been doing for many years now. The veteran painter recently celebrated his 90th birthday, and Anchor House is celebrating along with him, with an exhibit of some of his newest work, called “Protest at Ninety: Charles Miller.”

It’s an intimate show, built around a series of preliminary drawings and smaller paintings Miller did as preparation for two large oils, both of which are a testament to the mass protests in the U.S. in recent years — on environmental issues such as climate change, to sexual harassment and assaults against women, to the murder of George Floyd and police shootings of African Americans.

“There’s been so much going on,” Miller said during a recent interview at Anchor House. “I watch the news, I read the paper, and sometimes I can’t believe what I see.”

The new exhibit is just the start of a retrospective series of shows on Miller that Anchor House has planned. To recognize his long tenure in the Valley’s arts community, and his turning 90, the gallery will exhibit past work by the artist each month through most of 2022.

“Charlie was already a big figure, both as a painter and a musician (a jazz drummer), when I came to the Valley,” said Tillyer, who’s been exhibiting Miller’s paintings at Anchor House for a decade. “I had this idea at first he was kind of unapproachable, but then I got to know him, which made me appreciate his work even more. Now we can kind of reacquaint people with what’s he done.”

Miller, born in Connecticut in 1931 during the depths of the Great Depression, moved with his family to Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1937, where the seacoast, he says, had a big effect on his creative vision. He graduated from the New England School of Art in 1955 and later “worked at a lot of jobs to pay the rent and feed the beast,” as he puts it, before relocating to Northampton in 1973, where he became part of the “Renaissance” of the 1970s-1980s in which artists and new businesses helped revitalize the city.

Taking to the streets

Before he began his most recent work, Miller said, he’d been working on some landscapes and seascapes. But he was struck by the increasing number of American citizens taking to the streets, such as the Women’s March on Washington (and other women’s marches elsewhere) following the election of Donald Trump as president, as people protested what many considered Trump’s anti-women statements.

Then there were protests against oil pipeline projects in the Midwest and other environmental threats. Miller shifted gears: He says he began sketching a series of drawings of protesters, then added some small studies along similar lines in acrylic paint.

He used these preliminary works to develop ideas for the first of his two new oils, a tall, narrow work that presents a dense knot of people holding handmade signs. Above them is a beautiful but somewhat foreboding red and orange sky.

“We Can Still Fix This” reads a sign carried by one demonstrator, a reference to a short video created in 2019 by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and another environmentalist. “Save the Sea Turtles Now” says another, while a third sign, in dripping red letters, simply reads “HOT.”

“I liked that so many people, young people especially, were standing up for the planet,” said Miller, who’s been a fan for years of a web page where you can watch bald eagle nests in Turners Falls.

Then, he says, the pandemic arrived “and everything changed. The whole world changed. Now everyone’s wearing a mask.”

Miller segued into a second oil painting full of protesters, but this one looks more ominous, with people now wearing face masks; some carry Black Lives Matters signs or ones that reference George Floyd’s death. Another sign presents the face of Breonna Taylor, the young African American woman fatally shot by police last year in Louisville, Kentucky when several officers burst into her apartment as part of a drug investigation (Taylor’s family was awarded $12 million in damages in the case, and one officer was fired).

Looming in the foreground of the painting, looking out at the throngs of protesters, is a dark, hooded figure that looks like the Grim Reaper. “I don’t know where that came from,” Miller says. “Sometimes things just come out of your brush … you just have to go with them.”

It could be an unconscious nod to what Miller says is his “real concern about the future of our democracy.” His paintings also contain references to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan, “Yes We Can,” and to the death of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. There’s a nod as well to ever-present gun violence. Overall, the mood seems to become bleaker from his first oil painting to the second.

Yet the colors, scope and energy of the paintings — they’re displayed as an unconnected diptych — offer a more positive vibe. Miller, whose work can be highly detailed, here uses simpler, earthy images and paints with broad strokes to give a sense of regular citizens fighting for a more equitable, less violent and more environmentally aware country.

There are a few flashes of humor in the show, too: One smaller painting shows protesters holding a long, horizontal banner that reads “WTF?”

In an artist’s statement, Miller writes, “The major events of the last few years have deeply moved me … the protesters, BLM, Me Too … I wanted to make all of the signs and slogans gritty and crude — but readable. Remember, these are just regular people using cardboard boxes and masonite and house paint. [They used] whatever they could get their hands on, but all of the signs are from the heart and that is the major thing.”

Miller has used past canvases to call for justice and greater humanity. One set of paintings depicts the plight of Kurdish refugees fleeing the genocide of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein; another series, “Stations of the Cross,” presents Christ’s painful and violent journey to the cross, but in a gritty urban environment circa 1970.

“Charlie takes delight in so much of the world, and its richness,” Tillyer says. “He also points out what’s wrong with it … But he has a lot of compassion and a hope that it can become a better place.”

To learn more about “Protest at Ninety” and other shows at Anchor House, visit anchorhouseartists.org.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.