Recently we made a trip to the Chicago History Museum archives to sort through their records of Edgar Miller’s work. We had the honor to experience connecting with his work in a private, personal setting. Out of sixty-two boxes of Miller’s sketchbooks, annotated art textbooks, correspondences, research notes, exhibit programs, and other documents, we were able to explore and document three. These boxes show a wide range of his work from 1924 to 1989. The first box contains a series of Miller’s personal sketchbooks, the bulk of which includes pencil or ink drawings of abstract forms, faces, and animals.
Sketches of animals.
The second box consisted of art textbooks annotated by Miller. As opposed to simply writing little notes in the margins, Miller’s annotations include critiques in the margins as well as illustrations of geometric lines, circles, and arcs on top of the images. It is said that he did this to explore and search for order and reasoning in the various artists’ spatial planning. Among his sketches and annotations, the notes he took in his journals are fascinating, and specifically his writings about technological advances. Miller writes that the digital and analogue computer “serves the two patterns of thought produced by the two hemispheres of our brain.” Edgar’s fascination with patterns were apparent in his stained glass windows, woodcarvings, and mosaics, but to learn that he was interested in patterns of thought and technology is particularly exciting.
Miller's line exercises super-imposed over Marc Chagall's work.
While looking through his work we found ourselves wondering about what it would be like if artists like Edgar Miller were alive today to see how technology has advanced. On the margins of one of the art textbooks we read Miller’s brutal critique of cropped paintings and photographs. He writes that, “The taste of a barbarian treats a painting like yard goods.” Essentially Edgar means that the person who cropped the image of a full painting was disrespecting the value of the artwork. He would probably have a lot to say about Instagram and the disrespect we must be doing by cropping his work over on our Instagram account (sorry, Edgar).
Hibiscus sketches, one of thousands of nature sketches by Miller
Though Edgar grappled with the emergence of technology, some helpful (i.e. airplanes) and some destructive (i.e. nuclear weapons), if he was alive today he would probably be taking advantage of all the possible mediums that now exist for art expression, because he was always trying new things and pushing himself to grow. In his later years, varying influences pushed him to transform his styles of work. Miller thought that no matter the medium, “to use it you just had to have taste and a sense of space” to create something beautiful that is full of life and even humor.
One of Miller's many playful sketches.
This is one of the many reasons why his work is successful and why it is so important for us to continue to share his work and his story. It is remarkable being able to see the work of an extraordinary artist and craftsman like Edgar Miller. On top of that, being able to flip through his sketchbooks and letters has helped us gain an even more intimate understanding of him as a working artist and regular human being.
Miller's sketchbooks are filled with portraits of everyday people from the 1920s to the 1980s.