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Mudville: April 14, 2024 2:13 pm PDT

The Art of the Game

Art Miller probably never figured when he was a younger man that a washing machine would be one of the keys to his having a successful career as an artist. Yet, the New Jersey resident has taken his Maytag and made it every bit as important to his work as the paint and the brushes he uses.

Miller, 65, has been dazzling baseball fans for more than four decades with his portraits of players, mostly old and some new. It wasn’t until about 10 years ago, however, that he tried a different approach to his work – incorporating his washing machine into the process of creating a painting. Miller came up with the idea of throwing his canvases into the wash around the time he was searching for a new method that would enable an easier depiction of textures, such as human skin and old, woolen baseball uniforms.

He washes the canvas several times, the first of which comes before he begins painting to remove what is infused in the fabric during manufacturing. Miller then irons it dry. That is followed by the detailed drawing of the image and the first coat of paint, which is another interesting story in itself. Miller has been using acrylic enamel housepaint rather than regular artist’s paint usually found at hobby shops and art supply stores.

So, his trip to stock up on paint now means a stop at the local Ace or True Value Hardware Store, where he purchases the base paint into which he mixes the various colors he requires. He said that depending upon a mixed color he is trying to achieve, he will go to a certain store because while each franchise may sell a base color, that color is a bit different at every store. For instance, Miller said the red at Ace is slightly different than the red at True Value – one is more of a ‘fire-engine red’ while the other is ‘cherry’ red. Additionally, the house paint is much less expensive, ounce for ounce, than artist acrylics.

“I changed the way I had been working,” said Miller, who paints while sitting at a large drafting table rather than standing in front of an easel. “For a long time, I had been working with traditional artists acrylics on gessoed Masonite. Then, about 10 years ago I started monkeying around with techniques while working on a side project involving faux-antique sideshow banners. It led me to explore color and texture in the various elements I was depicting in my work. I thought there had to be a better way and easier way than minute brush strokes.

“What I’m doing now is using housepaint from a hardware store. I get bolts of raw canvas from [fabric chain store] Joann, which goes through the machine at least once with hot water to remove the sizing. Then I iron it dry and sketch in the drawing. Then comes the detailed underpainting on the canvas with at least two coats before I throw it back in the washing machine, iron dry it again and then do the detailing on top of that with paints, colored pencils and oil pastels.”

“There’s an intrigue to the guys who have been dead for so long but who had years of notoriety, fame and sometimes greatness – their moments in the sun. That’s just unadulterated magic and it has always inspired me to try to bring them back to life in a way.”

Miller said that while he has had lot of “happy accidents” as a result of educated guesses, it’s been fun developing a brand-new technique. He learned quickly, to his chagrin, that he had ruined three days of work when the regular artists acrylics mostly washed right out of the canvas because they have different chemical properties – they are more fragile and less adhesive – than house paint. The house paint is designed to withstand the weather, which is what Miller simulates with the washing machine.

Miller’s supplies are just one of the many interesting things about him. He grew up on the Jersey shore, where he began drawing Dick Tracy, Superman and other popular cartoon characters of the early 1960s as an child. That love of drawing only grew, continuing on through high school. There was no doubt that he would be attending art school.

He said he became a fan of the San Francisco Giants when he was very young as a result of a hat, adding that his dad was blasé about baseball and really had little interest in any particular team. Miller points out that he was a fair-haired child and sun burned easily so his dad simply wanted to get him a hat to keep him protected.

“I was about 4 or 5 and we went to a store and they had Mets, Yankees and Giants hats,” said Miller, who graduated with honors from The School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. “He liked the orange and black one and thought it looked best on me. Back then, hats had the elastic in the back and not the adjustable plastic straps they have today. So, a couple of years later, I was still growing into the hat when I came to realize what professional baseball was.

“I looked at the Giants and they had Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Juan Marichal and all these great players.  With my father’s selection of that cap that I had been wearing for years, I innocently felt like I was destined to be aligned with the Giants. That’s how I kind of got into baseball.”

Miller’s home on the Jersey shore was about an hour from both New York and Philadelphia, so he got the broadcasts of both Mets and Phillies games. The situation allowed him to see the Giants about a dozen times a season while affording him an equal number of opportunities to see his favorite player –Mays. Miller also loved watching McCovey and the immense power he brought to the plate.

“I used to write a letter to the Mets ticket office each year asking for box seats and I’d mail it off with a check my father would write out,” Miller said. “Things are so very different now but back in the 60s I suppose maybe the teams must have liked to indulge like me whenever they could and so we would invariably wind up sitting somewhere around the Giants’ dugout. I got such a thrill seeing those heroes close up.

“I remember during one game Mr. Mays reached on a walk and that brought Mr. McCovey up to bat with the bases loaded. On something like the second or third pitch he hit a rocket with a trajectory so low that the second baseman, Ken Boswell I think, started to jump to snare it. But the ball kept rising and was still rising when it hit a sheet metal advertising sign on the scoreboard in right center. The sound of that ball hitting that sign reverberated around the stadium.”

While times have changed, Miller’s love of the game has remained constant. He’s created between 1,100 and 1,200 pieces since the late 1980s, including a spectacular series entitled Baseball Cards That Never Were. That set includes depictions of all-time greats Mays, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Mickey Mantle, Roberto Clemente, Josh Gibson and others such as Bugs Bunny and Roy Hobbs from the movie, The Natural. According to Miller, the faux antiquity of these pieces tends to “make them look like they have been stored in a trunk in an attic for a generation or two.”

And Miller’s career as a baseball artist began in a rather nonchalant way. Miller been a co-owner of a small graphic design and advertising agency in New York City but, on a whim, began doing fine art, including landscapes and wildlife scenes, in the 1980s. He says he was “just plodding along” when one summer he decided to do a few baseball paintings.

Will Clark was the first player Miller painted followed by Cobb and then Babe Ruth. He mailed slides of the finished pieces to [then San Francisco Giants general manager] Al Rosen and Ted Spencer, who was, at the time, the curator at the Hall of Fame. He received responses that were complimentary and encouraging along with a query – did he have any more?

“I’d like to think my mother didn’t raise an idiot so I said something along the lines of ‘coming right up’,” Miller said. “I spent the next year using every spare moment I had to paint players. After I had amassed 20 or so portraits Mr. Rosen invited me out to San Francisco for a Giants homestand. He told me he wanted me to some kind of promotion using my work but nothing ever came of it. Nevertheless, we stayed in touch and I very much enjoyed his company during occasional games at Candlestick Park until he retired.”

Spencer’s interest, however, did bring a fruitful result. Miller wound up having a one-man show at the Hall of Fame from 2000 to 2005. What was supposed to be a one summer affair was so successful that the Hall kept asking him to continue. The show ended when the section of the Hall in which Miller’s work was displayed was replaced by an expanded gift shop. The Hall has acquired a selection of Miller’s painting in the years since his show, putting them in its permanent collection.

“It was an extreme honor having that show,” said Miller, who also received a lifetime pass to the Hall as an added benefit. “It was a big feather in my cap. The paintings were offered for sale so we both made out well with the ongoing show.  I don’t think that [a one-man show] will ever happen again there for me or anyone else. But you never know.”

Though Miller may never host another one-man show at the Hall of Fame, the feel of his work and the time period in which he usually paints make his work among the most distinctive and recognizable in the field. He focuses mostly on players from the era before color photography, bringing to life the players and telling the stories that have always been seen in black and white.

“Not many people alive have any direct reminiscence of what things were like in 1927 or personally experienced the era when Babe Ruth was the biggest star on the planet and not just here in the United States,” Miller said. “Once or twice a year I listen to the audiobook version of Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times. I find it chilling to hear some of those old players, all passed on now, talk about playing with or against men like Mr. Cobb and Mr. Wagner.

“There’s an intrigue to the guys who have been dead for so long but who had years of notoriety, fame and sometimes greatness – their moments in the sun. That’s just unadulterated magic and it has always inspired me to try to bring them back to life in a way.”

One of Miller’s most prominent pieces is a panoramic painting of Lou Gehrig giving his famous July 4 ‘Luckiest Man of Earth’ speech at Yankee Stadium. A copy of the painting greets patrons on his website.  The actual painting has traveled a long and winding road. It started off in Cooperstown, went back to Miller in Maine, then to a baseball-themed art show in San Francisco, then back to Miller’s studio and on to a gallery in New York City before being purchased by a retired surgeon in Arizona.

“The good doctor must have passed away because someone told me they saw the painting at auction last year,” said Miller, who spent several decades playing in competitive softball leagues. “So, I guess the painting ain’t done with its wanderings yet.”

Miller’s presence in Cooperstown hasn’t been limited to the Hall of Fame. He has had long-time representation in galleries on main street in Cooperstown in addition to galleries in New York City and San Francisco.

“All closed now,” Miller said of the galleries. “For various reasons. I cried when each one locked the doors. I guess what they say is true, everything has an expiration date.”

He still offers his work through commissions, his website and international auction houses.

Perhaps Miller’s greatest accomplishment, however, is not one of his works of art. Rather, it is displaying his sense of humanity and respect towards the late Ted Williams. Miller got know and spend time with Williams in the years just prior to his death and the two formed a bond. Williams was just one of many retired Major League and Negro League he had the chance to meet.

While Miller has done paintings of The Splendid Splinter, that’s not what their relationship was about. The two spent time together talking about baseball, life and, of course, fishing, among other topics. It was a time in Williams’ life that many people preyed upon him and tried to use him for financial gain but Miller simply wanted to get to know him and learn what it was like to be Ted Williams, the greatest hitter than ever lived.

“I’m very proud and honored to have known Ted Williams personally during the last years of his life,” Miller said. “And through his introductions, I’ve gotten to know a lot of other baseball greats. I was initially contacted by a guy who was doing promotional work for the Ted Williams Hitters Hall of Fame in Florida. They wanted me to do several portraits of new inductees. The money they were offering wasn’t even close to my asking price at the time but I told them I could do it on the condition I would be introduced to Mr. Williams and allowed to spend some one-on-one time with him. They agreed.

“When I went to see him the first time, I went prepared. I had done some research on subjects I knew we would both enjoy talking about. I was told his mind was still sharp as a tack so I wanted him to be engaged on our conversation. We happened to hit it off for whatever reason. His son, John Henry, was controlling Mr. Williams life details then and was very guarded about access to him. I made it plain to John Henry right off the bat that I wasn’t after autographs, just time to talk and learn from Mr. Williams. As a result, I was invited regularly to spend time with him whenever possible during those final years.”

It was through Williams that Miller met the likes of Bob Feller, Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky, George Brett, Buck O’Neill, Yogi Berra, Carlton Fisk, Monte Irvin and many more. He said that he made it very clear to all what he did for a living and that ultimately these baseball greats viewed him as “a historian in a way” and didn’t mind the questions about their lives and careers.

“I love Mr. Williams and being around him; he was like a father figure to me in the time I spent with him,” Miller said. “I have never been around a more dynamic individual.”

While Miller hasn’t painted Williams in a while, he has remained active, averaging between 35 and 40 paintings a year. He admits, though, he doesn’t know how many more years he has that type of production level in him.

His high number mark was in 2008 when he painted more than 100 portraits, most of which were for the Upper Deck Card Company’s Masterpiece Series. His works vary in size with the smallest being 12X9 inches and the largest 4X8 feet with the average size being 32X24.

Though he doesn’t have a “white whale” or “holy grail” type of subject he does say he has never painted someone live with them posing in-studio. And if he could do that, The Babe would be atop his list.

“Can you imagine the privilege of having Babe Ruth sitting right in front of you, posing for a portrait while listening to him regale you with stories for hours at a time over the course of maybe a few weeks?” Miller said. “That might be my white whale. Of course, barring time travel, it could never happen, though I wonder why someone didn’t do while he was alive. I can’t help but think that some portrait artists at the time must have asked.”

When Miller isn’t working, which isn’t often, he spends time with his son, a 14-year-old papillon. He’s also begun flirting with creative writing.

“I have some outlines going through puberty that may one day survive adolescence and become short stories,” he said. “And maybe one will prove man or woman enough to develop into a novel.”

Finally, there is his namesake, famed playwright Arthur Miller. There was a time when he said he would get questioned about his name and its relation to the Death of a Salesman author but those queries ended years ago.

“I’ve heard lots of Marilyn jokes,” Miller said. “Most are good natured but there were some crude innuendos. But as time has gone on, they have vanished. I don’t think he is taught in schools anymore,” Miller said. “This is probably the first time in 15 or 20 years it has come up in an interview. I guess he’s become kind of forgotten.”

Arthur K. Miller the painter, though, remains fresh in the minds of many, particularly baseball fans across the country.

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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