We were walking the neighborhood that Sunday evening, Merle and I, when we happened on a fellow carrying tools out to his truck. Merle, being the friendly sort, wagged his tail and approached Mike Miller. “He’s friendly,” was my comment. Miller knelt down to pet Merle, then admired his markings and even his coloring. “Mind if I snap his photo?” he asked. “I like to do drawings of animals.”
That chance meeting introduced me to a man I’ve come to admire for his personal quest for knowledge, followed by a dedicated effort to perfect what he’d just learned. Mike Miller is a co-creator of beautiful art and craftsmanship.
“I remember as a kid, the first pencil drawing I did was a picture of Paul McCartney from the front of a Beatles album,” he said. From my observation, Miller has come a long way since that first drawing. My evidence is the pen-and-ink drawing he did of Merle taken from the snapshot he took with his phone on a Sunday evening.
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I gained a deeper understanding of his talent and self-driven desire for learning how to do things when he brought over the drawing a week after that chance meeting. “Here, I want you to have this drawing,” he said. “The only thing I ask is that you have it professionally framed.”
And, that we did. Weeks later, when we invited Mike to see the framed drawing, I learned a great deal more about just how seriously he approached learning.
“My first real job was working for Rob Deitemeyer, a carpenter in Lincoln,” he said. “That gave me a love for working with wood. I’ve helped build houses and did an addition to my own house – everything from digging the footings to doing the wiring.”
And, that love for woodworking eventually grew from home construction to furniture repair and even building. During our conversation, Miller showed one photo after another of pump organs he had turned into desks, handmade tables with marble tops for drafting, and even a large drawer unit his father uses to keep his files.
“Furniture shouldn’t look like a box,” he said as I admired that cabinet he had made for his dad. “Each of the 32 drawers can hold pieces of paper 8 ½ by 11 laid flat.”
A pen-and-ink drawing of a dog, building homes and making furniture is quite impressive, but there’s more.
“I love to do paintings of Native Americans,” Miller noted when I asked about one of his favorite pieces of work. “I did a painting of Wes Studi in one of his ‘Dances with Wolves’ outfits. Then not long ago I learned he’d be in town, so I was able to give him the painting.” Miller beamed with a smile as he shared that story.
From a pencil drawing of McCartney to a beautiful painting of Wes Studi, looking at Miller’s work is impressive. As I dug further into how he became an accomplished artist, I learned that he had dropped out of high school but had become a voracious reader and a tedious perfectionist of drawings and paintings of all sorts.
“Sometimes I learned how to do something out of desperation,” he noted as he talked about needing to earn a living. “And I’ve learned a lot from failure. You try something, it doesn’t work, but you learn and then try again. One thing about my art,” he added, “is that I’m an illustrator rather than an artist. Illustrators capture what they see; artists are expressing their emotions. I’m a fan of Norman Rockwell, who was a great illustrator.”
As we concluded our conversation, I learned that Miller’s latest quest is using artificial intelligence (AI) systems to give him images he describes. One he recently painted is of a young cowboy. Miller asked AI for a digital image of a cowboy, and then he turned it into a large oil painting.
“One of the guys I work with at Rixstine Recognition mentioned AI, so I began to explore it a year ago,” Miller shared. “I type in a description and the computer gives me a digital image, which I can use for painting a hand-drawn portrait.”
Many guests at our home have admired that pen-and-ink drawing that Miller created last summer. It hangs in our living room. And since that chance Sunday evening encounter, I’ve learned that Miller’s parents are in their 90s and he visits them nearly every day.
When he’s not working as a graphic artist at Rixstine Recognition or checking on his parents, you can probably find Miller at home among thousands of drawings, paintings and beautifully handmade pieces of furniture, or in his garage working on yet another piece of furniture … all the product of a curious, self-educated artist and craftsman.