What could childrenís storybooks, horses, and the necessity of communicating in a foreign language have in common?
Answer: as if in collaboration, they drew Kathy Miller into a life of making art, although the three worked out their plan over a number of years.
As a child, Miller pored over the illustrations in her favorite books. She recalled "Misty of Chincoteague," with illustrations by Wesley Dennis, and "War Horse," illustrated by Paul Brown. Those bodies of art work stayed with her and influence her work even today. In her childhood and teens, she drew horses walking, running, and standing. "I couldnít own a horse so I tried to recreate them," she said. As a college French teacher, she often drew on the chalkboard ó rather than revert to English ó in order to convey a wordís meaning.
Years lapsed between the events, but the links connecting them and finally bringing Miller to her life as an artist, were her periodic returns to drawing ó through high school, following college, and through nearly 20 years of teaching French. During those teaching years, when her two sons were in elementary school, she decided to respond decisively to her yearning for the visual arts. She replaced drawing with a new medium by enrolling in a watercolor class at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. With that class her new life began. Other classes at VMFA followed, then came classes with recognized watercolor artists. Those classes paid off: she has been accepted into the VA Watercolor Society for the third year, making her a signature member. Not only was she accepted, but she received an Award of Excellence for her painting: that of a figure viewing, through glass, a painting of the Virginia War Memorial and its list of military casualties.
Millerís painting of the Stonewall Jackson statue on Monument Avenue was selected for the cover of Natural Awakenings: Healthy Living Magazine in 2005. The statue, in snowfall, elicits an appreciation of the beauty and uniqueness of Monument Avenue. "No surprise that I started with equestrian subjects when I got back to art!" she said.
Millerís paintings portray real objects and scenes. However, small details invite viewers to apply imaginative power. In some, we see children playing in the sand on the beach. In others, adults walk in quiet contemplation along a shore. Some landscapes ó a California bridge on its stretch of coastline, and a Virginia mountain scene, "View from the Top" ó speak of the grandeur of the out-of-doors. One series, of which the Stonewall Jackson statue is a part, features several of Monument Avenueís statues; these show the horses and riders in soft colors, with misty pastel skies and surroundings. Other paintings, of city streets and individual buildings, have more intense palettes. Many ó among them "Grande Dame II," a nighttime depiction of the old downtown train station ó speak of Richmondís history. The lone, huge canna bloom in "Red Hot" is also brilliant, in reds and red-oranges, but against a dark background; it won first place at Uptown Galleryís recent "How Does Your Garden Grow?" exhibition.
The artist was born in Frankfurt, Germany, where her father served as an American military officer. Military life took her family to various places in the world. She said of her northern Virginia years in grades eight through 12, "It was unusual for me to stay in the same school for five years." Travel is still important to her; she has been to France a number of times since those early years in Europe ó one for painting, some as "refresher trips" for her teaching, and one to show her two sons, as they began foreign language study, that "French is a living language, not an academic torture that some teachers dreamed up!"
Family members before Miller had painted. "In fact, my husbandís family inherited a painting done by a distant cousin of mine. How coincidental is that?" Women among her ancestors painted china ó one of the popular pastimes for female artists in bygone years.
"Richmond is extremely rich in art," Miller said. "Having enough viewers and venues to hold an art walk every weekend of the month is incredible. The range of styles and categories means anyone can find art to please. It sometimes seems that the public takes this richness for granted."
She recommends buying some of this original art. "When buying art, donít worry about investment; thatís too unpredictable. Itís also a waste of money to buy art to match the sofa." She emphasized the importance of trusting your own judgment. "If you respond emotionally to a work of art, you will always find a place for it and it will easily blend with the belongings you have collected."
The same guideline goes for making art, said Miller. "Follow your heart, and the emotion will come through in your work."
Recalling her teaching and traveling years, Miller said, "I spent many years being too busy to see what was around me; when I finally got back to art, I began to see much beauty, both natural and man-made..." Her hope is that her art will encourage people to "look at everything with new eyes."
Shortly after the Millers bought their Fan house in 1975, Miller invited her French club to a party. Workers had just finished peeling the old wallpaper off, but what remained -- mottled old plaster ó distressed the hostess. She wailed in frustration. "Oh, just paint Eiffel Towers on the walls," her husband said. She did, after digging out some old postcards from Paris. "The students will think itís great," he said, and they did.
Uptown Gallery, at 1305 West Main Street, carries Millerís work throughout the year, and it appears in the Unitarian art show and the University of Richmondís Arts Around the Lake.FP
Ann Harmon, retired adjunct instructor of English at VCU, taught English and art in both secondary and higher education in this country and the Middle East. During her teaching years in the Middle East, she wrote art reviews regularly for two English language newspapers.