The Art of Dan Miller
Look for art in unusual places because creativity is everywhere,” says Tom di Maria, Director of External Relations at Creative Growth, a nonprofit art studio founded in 1974 for artists with disabilities in downtown Oakland. “There’s a sense of excitement in terms of meeting an artist and engaging with their work.”
by Kevin Daniel Dwyer
Fall 2019 Issue
Creative Growth and its extensive team lead by di Maria are leaders in the field of arts and disabilities, establishing a model for a creative atmosphere guided by the principle that all people gain fulfillment from the arts and are capable of producing work of great cultural merit.
The studio is home to over 150 artists working in a variety of media. Facilitated by professional artists, Creative Growth provides non-directive artistic support, museum-quality materials, and space to explore painting, drawing, ceramics, woodworking, fiber arts, printmaking, and digital media.
“Coming to Creative Growth opened up an enormous new world to me in terms of what art was and who an artist can be. Walking into the studio, I felt like it was this fantastic aesthetic laboratory where you see people problem solve, communicate and experiment visually in a way that is so integral to who they are as human beings,” recalls di Maria. He found the work to be without ego and self-conscience efforts. “The depictions were immediately visceral, meaningful and aesthetically engaging which I found incredibly powerful. This is the essence of what every artist is trying to do. To connect with that part of them that wants to create. Creativity is this innate human experience and to see it in its purest form is a pretty powerful experience.”
Dan Miller is one of Creative Growth’s star artists, a 20-year veteran of the studio art program whose exhibitions include solo shows in New York at Ricco|Maresca Gallery and White Columns and in Los Angeles at Diane Rosenstein Gallery, as well as group exhibitions at the Berkeley Art Museum; The Museum of Everything, London; Partners and Spade, Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York; Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco; and ABCD, Paris, to name a few. Miller’s work is also part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Berkeley Art Museum, the Mad Musée, and the Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne. He’s also the first artist with autism in the MOMA’s collection.
Miller has limited verbal capabilities. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, he uses language as the basis for his drawings, which consist of dense, mostly illegible accretions of words, phrases, letters and numbers that serve as a record of the artist’s life and obsessions. Letters and words are repeatedly overdrawn, often creating ink layered masses, hovering on the page and built up to the point of obliteration or destruction of the ground. Each work contains the written recording of the Miller’s obsession with objects like light bulbs, electrical sockets, food and the names of cities and people. Miller continues to work in a variety of media, including drawing, painting, ceramics, wood sculpture, printmaking, and other mixed media projects.
“The power of Dan’s work is something that most artists strive for, in that the form and the content are intrinsically linked. The content are his words and the form are his words. The two things together are so powerful,” reflects di Maria. “It’s not like an artist with a great formal technique thinking ‘what should it be about?’ For Dan, it’s about only one thing, and that’s how it looks too. He’s really solved his communication challenge in a beautiful way.”
The key to facilitating Dan’s work is encouragement. Staffed by professional artists who support as mentors, Miller’s work has continued to evolve over time. “Encouragement and supporting creativity is key, a lot of times by deflecting. For someone like Dan, his work is all word and text based. Early on his words were clearly delineated. It looked in a way elementary. A fellow artist/mentor understands how to encourage him to continue that train of thought: What happens if he continues? What happens after 5 – 10 years? When he is introduced to paint? What happens if the paper gets bigger, or the materials change?’ We just keep encouraging and encouraging and encouraging,” says di Maria.
Encouraged he is. Miller has dedicated staff, including an assistant several days a week whose job is to lay out every possible material, mediums and paper that he might want to use. The goal is not to tell him what to do but to make sure he has access to everything and feels supported.
“To be the first artist with autism in the MOMA collection is an amazing achievement. When you see someone like Dan communicate in a way that’s beyond anything that I can do, you see the richness of their experience and that opens the door into what he‘s seeing and what he’s feeling about the world,” says di Maria. “To become an artist who is a part of art history without having an understanding of art history is a pretty amazing achievement.”
Miller has something to say to the world. On the surface, the word-tangled artworks reflect an experience or memory he has. Digging deeper, di Maria thinks Miller is trying to tell us: “I have perceptions and understandings of the world but I might not be able to communicate it in the way you expect. Don’t discount me.”
“Autism is primarily a communication syndrome. Art is a really satisfying way for Dan to detour around that obstacle. When you see the urgency with which Dan works, I think you see that because it’s so important to him. If I told you don’t speak again for the rest of your life, that’s an almost impossible request. I think that for Dan to have found a solution to that situation is part of the importance of his work,” says di Maria.
Advocacy is the underlying mission of what Creative Growth does. Di Maria: “The intelligence is there, all the information is there, just in the wrong place. How can we open the door or the portal to have a more complete understanding of what it’s like to live inside an autistic brain and to deal with those frustrations? Miller is an amazing problem solver. He’s also aesthetically talented and a very sophisticated artist from color combinations to palette.”
Other artists, including David Byrne, Cindy Sherman and the late Kate Spade were some of the earliest collectors who responded to Miller’s work and other Creative Growth artists. What they see is the immediate connection between maker, and process and object. Miller doesn’t get stuck on commerciality and price point. “Our role is to represent the artist to the art world, in terms of their income and sales price. It separates the commercial market from the process of making the work that is refreshing in a way,” says di Maria.
Miller’s works range from small typed pieces priced at $1,000 to larger paintings ranging from $10,000 to $15,000. A large work of Miller sold for $45,000 recently at Art Basel Miami. Miller’s pricing follows the same way any contemporary artist would evolve: “As the work gets stronger, voice is clearer and as it moves into important collections and museums, the price reflects that. It’s not an invented price,” says di Maria.
Di Maria recalls a funny encounter from a successful show. “A year ago he had a big show in New York. I came back and told Dan ‘your show went really well, people like your work, and so on.” He says: ‘coconut ice cream.’ I told him: ‘We don’t have any coconut ice cream’ and then he says ‘go get some!’ I’ve never heard him say that in his life. He understood that something good had happened and that his reward was going to be coconut ice cream - so go get some!”
Beyond a love of coconut ice cream, I ask di Maria what else we might not know about Miller: “Dan’s an amazing basketball player. He shoots free throws underhand and he doesn’t miss. He loves to eat and that’s rewarding for him. He’s also a bit of a ladies man.”
If you come to Creative Growth there is no right or wrong. “It’s a great way to look at Miller’s work and the work of other artists and decide what you like and don’t like without the judgments of a gallery,” says di Maria. “Most importantly, don’t’ be afraid to be a tastemaker.” G
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