Two adolescent yellow tomcats, Billy Joe Bob and Homer T, curl up in Jack Miller's lap. The cats look pleased with themselves, as cats will. These felines have a right to be vain, for they recently acted as models for a Miller etching of a whimsical alley cat. The radio plays rock and pipe smoke drifts through the Bienville Street studio.
In 1968, Jack, his wife Marcia, son Sean, and artist friend Glenn Miller (no relation) drove from Erie, Pennsylvania to New Orleans. They came in a car and a van, carrying their furniture with them (“Grapes of Wrath-style…,” says Jack with a grin at the memory). The men had been “Sunday painters” in Pennsylvania, working in oils and watercolors. Jack wanted to come to New Orleans because “I had to break away from my old life. I had to come down here…brought my family… I started all over again, but this time I was going to be an artist instead of whatever the hell I was back there, which wasn't very much. I had lived on a farm, gone into the service, then worked in a factory.”
“We felt the art scene here was healthy. We felt like we could cope with it. It wasn't too big or too far out or anything… There are several good artists here, sort of underground.”
After arriving in town Jack got a job at Century Printing Company, but in 1970 Century closed down temporarily because of a strike by the printers' union. When the strike was over, he did not go back to work. He became a full-time artist.
Jack had a little studio as his house, where he had been painting in the evenings. After quitting his job at Century, he got some watercolors together and went out to Jackson Square.
“I worked on the fence for about a year. I hated it. I'll never go back.”
During this period, Jack and Glenn Miller were befriended by Norman Criner, an experienced local engraver. Using the press at the old Quarter Print Collector on Royal Street, Criner taught Jack and Glenn how to create etchings. They rented a studio, then acquired the press which had belonged to the late Eugene Loving, another local printmaker. Then they began to experiment with various etching techniques and subjects.
Jack worked with representational line etchings, depicting “the surviving architecture” of the Quarter. He also created traditional life study prints. Surprisingly, his French Quarter etchings seldom contain human forms. When asked why, Miller quipped, “It's hard to draw people with their clothes on.”
Discussing his lifestyle, Jack explains that he works harder at his job than people might realize.
“Being an artist, you get a lot of freedom, but then you have a lot of responsibility — you have to motivate yourself.”
Jack is usually in his studio seven days a week from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. or even later.
“I don't think of it as work, though. I enjoy being in the studio. The more I'm here, the more creative I am… Sometimes I just sit and think.”
Recently, Jack has been developing a more impressionistic style. He is experimenting with multicolor etchings and collographs, and also doing some oil portraits. He does not want to stop making prints, though.
“I do like etchings. When you pull a plate, it's sort of a suspense. It may be a week that you've been working on one plate. The excitement builds up and finally, after you've gone through everything, you pull that piece of paper off and see what you have. That's the most exciting part of etching.”
Some of Jack's most commercially successful prints have been editions depicting French Quarter landmarks such as Café du Monde, Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, and the Napoleon House. One of his most popular impressionistic collographs is the burnt-orange “Sunburst.”
Miller etchings are available at these Quarter locations: Adventures in Art, Casell's, Jackson Square Frame Shop, Mitchells', 927 Gallery, Slater's.
Copyright © 1974–2011 Henry H. Mitchell.