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Just regular folk: R.A. Miller at 100
East Hall artist called his creations junk; art world begs to differ
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One of the large pieces of folk art in the R.A. Miller display at the Quinlan Visual Arts Center. - photo by Tom Reed

100th Birthday Party for R.A. Miller

When: 12:30 p.m. Monday
Where: Quinlan Visual Arts Center, 514 Green St. NE, Gainesville
How much: Free
Contact: 770-536-2575
Activities: Cake, viewing of the “Just Folk” exhibit and 1:30 p.m. screening of the “Lord Love You: The R.A. Miller Story” documentary

Reuben Aaron Miller, better known as R.A., was a simple man.

He was born in the East Hall County Rabbittown community in 1912, the youngest of eight siblings. When he left school at age 12 to work in a cotton mill, no one expected him to become a world renowned artist whose influence would spill across generations and the globe.

“‘Don’t know how I come to do it,’” documentarian Bryan Dodd remembers Miller saying during an interview.

“‘Reckon God wanted me to do it.’”

Miller died in 2006. Monday would have been his 100th birthday, and with the help of Miller’s friends, art collectors and admirers alike, the Quinlan Visual Arts Center in Gainesville is planning a special celebration to honor his legacy and contribution to the folk art world.

The free festivities at the center, 514 Green St. in Gainesville, will begin at 12:30 p.m. They will include birthday cake and a viewing of the documentary about Miller’s life that Dodd created with Craig Williams.

The celebration will also include the opportunity to view the Quinlan’s “Just Folk” art exhibit, as well as a special showing of Miller’s work. There will also be a satellite exhibition presented by Around Back At Rocky’s Place, a folk art gallery in Dawsonville.

 

Hundreds of ‘whirlygigs’

After leaving the cotton mills in the 1970s, Miller’s divine inspiration lead him to create art out of tin, bicycle parts and any other odds and ends he could get his hands on.

His earliest pieces were whirlygigs, creations that pivot and turn in the wind. One turned into a dozen, then multiplied by 10 a few times over.

He displayed something like 300 of the dancing whirlies on a hill near his home. The animated hillside attracted the attention of the rock band, R.E.M.

In 1984, the band filmed its “Left of Reckoning” music video on Miller’s “whirlygig farm.”

“I went to the University of Georgia, (in Athens, R.E.M.’s home), so I knew of (Miller) because of them,” said Amanda McClure, Quinlan’s executive director.

“It wasn’t until I moved to Gainesville (eight years ago), that I became really exposed to the artist. I started paying attention and you’ll see his work on the sides of buildings around town.”

Over time, Miller’s work grew to include patriotic, animal and religious-themed cutouts.

He drew inspiration from television, cultural icons and the community around him.

“One of the pieces that he’s best known for are variations of his ‘Blow Oskar,’” Dodd said.

“Oskar was his cousin. Whenever he would drive by (Miller’s) house, he’d blow the horn and wave. One day, (Miller jokingly said), ‘I’ll show you. I’ll cut you out.’

“And he did.”

Miller’s work has been exhibited at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York, featured on the cover “TV Guide” and graced the pages of the New York Times.

“When the Olympics (were held in Atlanta in 1996), they constructed Folk Art Park right at Ralph McGill Boulevard and Courtland Street,” said Dodd, co-creator of the film, “Lord Love You: The R.A. Miller Story,” which will be screened Monday.

“One corner of it is devoted to (Miller). He did the drawings and they cut them out in steel.”

 

‘A simple and humble man’

Many of the artists in the exhibits, including Durwood Pepper, were directly influenced by Miller, McClure said.

“In pulling together pieces for the show, everyone had a (Miller) story,” McClure said.

“With the people that I borrowed his work from, I could’ve easily filled the whole center. As it is now, the exhibit goes from floor to ceiling, but that’s how it was when you visited him. He had his work displayed all over his property.”

“I’m happy that people are still interested in his work.”

“Our family will remember our work by default, but how many of us are able to make a contribution to society that lots and lots of people recognize and honor what you’ve done?

“People would come from all over to buy his art. He was a simple and humble man, but he impacted a lot of people.”

If he was around to celebrate his birthday, you’d probably find Miller in his outdoor studio and gallery — better known as his front yard.

He’d likely be wearing paint-splattered britches held up by a pair of wide suspenders and a well-worn T-shirt with a baseball cap sitting at a slight angle on atop his head.

If you happened upon him while he was in the middle of working on one of his “critters,” he’d happily pause to make sure you got fixed up. Even if that meant stopping to sign “R A Miller” in big, block letters on a newly purchased item or handing over a finished piece with still wet paint.

“He loved the company,” said Pepper, a friend and fellow folk artist. “He had visitors come by every day and it never bothered him.”

Sometimes those visitors, like Pepper, would give him fresh ideas to work on.

“He always did the Blow Oskar pieces, so one day I said, ‘Why don’t you do a Mrs. Blow Oskar.’ So he did.”

 

One man’s junk ...

Where the critic may see primitive, childlike paintings and cutouts, fans see works of art created with a raw and whimsical point of view. Potato. Po-tah-toe.

“I tell ‘em it’s junk,” Miller said in an interview that was included in the Dodd-Williams documentary.

“He never took a lesson, but he had a desire to create and made wonderful pieces of art,” said Dodd, who lives in Decatur. “His work was raw.

“When people look at the stuff on my wall, they say, ‘I could’ve done that.’ I respond with, ‘But you didn’t.’”

For a man who never took up residence more than 100 miles from his birthplace in Hall County, Miller’s work seems to be more well known to outsiders than natives.

“People in Gainesville don’t know how famous he was, but the outside folk art community knows,” said Pepper, a Gainesville resident.

“He had people come from all over the world — Europe, Japan, Ireland, Spain — to track him down.

“I didn’t know how famous he was until I started hanging out with him. He never bragged about it. I just saw it for myself.”

Back when his work was fresh from his work table, Miller sold his pieces for $5 to $25.

Today, dealers won’t consider parting with the pieces for less than $100. Where some might see inflation, others see it as a sign that folk creations are gaining ground in the art world.

“Folk art is part of our shared history for this region,” McClure said.

“I think it’s coming into it’s own now. People are very serious about it and it’s not as marginalized now as it was before.”

If Miller was alive to see the newfound respect that folk artists are receiving today, he’d probably think that was great for “them” but it had nothing to do with him.

“I ain’t no artist,” Miller says in the Dodd-Williams documentary.

“(They do) fancy schmancy stuff. (People buy my work) because it’s old-timey, I reckon.”

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