Post Impressions: What Color is Your Fire by Mary Jones

Williammillerfire1 Body

Fire, William Miller, Oil On Paper, 8×10 in, 2009.

Mary Jones interviews painter, professor and RISD basketball coach William Miller.

William Miller thinks a lot about fire. As the Tech person at RISD, William shoulders the Promethean task of overseeing the safety of about 169 RISD students, the campus studios, plus the woodshop. Keeping the students’ smoking habits separated from their solvents has William sleeping lightly most nights. Let’s just say he’s seen it all and it doesn’t end there. He also teaches a color class that utilizes the other side of the fire metaphor: inspiration, creativity, and passion; how to harness the blazing hues out of the tube and into an artist’s vocabulary. A 1991 RISD graduate, his own work as a painter is resonant with vivid color relationships and sparkles with the poetry that inspires them.

I caught up with William in his RISD office at the end of a busy day. He has a wall of “heroes,” pictures of George Bellows, Robert Bly, Fairfield Porter, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Neil Welliver, Matisse, and the 13th century mystic poet Rumi.

William is also the coach for the basketball team, the RISD Balls. On an adjacent wall, photos and memorabilia of the Balls are proudly displayed.

William Miller Pratt and Cooper Union are our arch rivals.

Mary Jones Is there a girl on the team?

WM Yes.

MJ Can you make a connection between basketball and painting?

WM I think it’s all about being an eye-hand junkie, and as you know, RISD is full of them. It’s a drawing connection, a line projected in space. Many of our faculty are avid tennis players, but that’s just a small part of it. As for the students, these cats will shoot pool, throw darts, shoot basketball, ping-pong to the death. It’s the physicality of that connection.

MJ In your color class, the students make terrific paintings from your assignments about subjective and objective color relationships. One assignment is to create a color that’s a self portrait, and place it adjacent to another color that represents your hometown. The color relationships speak volumes, whether harmoniously blending in or freakishly clashing. The students also create colors that express ecstatic joy, boredom, and of course portraits of you and other faculty. I think of these paintings as koans in color chart. For this interview, you’ve agreed to do one of your own assignments and create a subjective color for fire. How’s it going?

WM I spent last weekend listening to all my Johnny Cash records. When asked to describe how he wrote music, Johnny Cash replied, “It’s simple, just three chords and the truth.” I tell my students here that it’s just 3 colors and the truth. That’s all you need.

MJ But of course, it’s not easy. How do you separate taste from truth or beauty?

WM Taste is an acculturation. I have to get past that. This point was driven home early on, when I was a student, my instructor asked us all to take three steps back and each piece was different to a person but every person’s palette was reflective of the clothes they were wearing that day. That’s the kind of acculturation that I’m talking about. As for Beauty, if each student makes the ugliest color that they can make, when we put them up on a wall together, of course they will all appear beautiful because the context has changed.

MJ What about value? I found it interesting last year when the student in my class who seemed most naturally attuned to color confessed to me at the end of the semester he was, in fact, color blind. I assumed he had developed a heightened sensitivity to color value.

WM I think value is one of the most underutilized exponents of color. One of the exercises we work hard on is to discerning this difference and learning to deploy it. Most mortals can see about five to nine values at a time, but John Singer Sargent could see up to twenty-five!

MJ How do you describe your own use of color?

WM When I look at subject matter, I’m looking at how much light one form is taking in relation to another. A swan gives a lot of light; a hawk takes a lot of light. Our experience here is in reconciling ourselves with these juxtapositions. This is the consciousness that I’m after. Is it spiritual? For me, yes. It’s an awareness of life that I’m trying to get into the work.

MJ Do your beliefs influence your views on the life of the artist? You’ve had an unusual experience for an artist, in that you ran for public office.

WM Dennis Congdon talks about the citizen artist and I was always a believer in that. I see my role at RISD, including education, as altruistic; mentoring and leadership as part of what I do. In 2002, I was at a point in my life when I wanted to contribute my insights to my community, so I ran for City Council in the city of Providence on an arts and cultural tourism advocacy program. I was soundly trounced.

MJ Is there a particular range of subjects that express your ideas?

WM No. I’m not hunting for a motif in the service of an idea. I’m looking for something that grabs my attention and then I’ll paint it with as much fidelity to the consciousness that grabbed me in the first place. It’s like walking down the street and passing a pretty girl who turns your head and maybe more. What made that woman turn your head and not another? That’s my subject matter, that indefinable something. I keep a plein air easel in the back of the truck at all times, and when I see that something, most often in the late afternoon, that’s when I lock up the brakes, jump out and move the juice around.

MJ Looking at your painting, “Three White Chickens for William Carlos Williams” it seems the color in the painting announces that it’s not naturalism that you’re after.

WM Absolutely! I’m not a journalist. I like to consider my enterprise to be poetry. I’m not out here recording color, trying to get it right, in terms of naturalistic representation. The poet William Carlos Williams and other poets differentiate “images” from “pictures”—an image is poetry, an image is something one might not necessarily see out there, but a picture is something that we see every day. I’m not after making a picture, or going out and matching colors. For me it’s an image. To paraphrase Matisse: “It’s only after years of deploying color as description that artists are prepared to lead color down expressive paths.”

william-millerfire2_body.jpg
William Miller, 9 × 12, oil on panel, 2006.

MJ What’s your process like? How and when did you paint this?

WM This painting was painted in my backyard in North East Ohio. When I was living there my wife and I had chickens, had had them for several years. I designed and built a coop that Martha Stewart would be proud of. My wife and I scoured Ohio and Indiana for chickens of a certain breed; Rhode Island Reds, Plymouth Rocks. We knew more about chickens than anybody should know-we got the eggs in the morning, we had a big rooster that pecked me in the calf of the leg to the point that it bled. But it was that late afternoon; I don’t know what it is about the late afternoon, the light, my brain? I set up the easel in the back yard, got the juice on the palette as quickly as I could. I like to paint fast; I like to have the viscosity of the paint ready, it’s important. For me the quality of the materials should have some relationship to the quality of the experience. I’m not trying to have complete control. The paint has a life of it’s own. More often than not the paint is flying in as much of an unpredictable way as those chickens in the backyard. I remember thinking about the William Carlos Williams poem, about the images in the poem “The Red Wheelbarrow.” I resisted the urge and just left it with the white chickens. For every painting that has the truth in them, just as many are painted out.

MJ How do you use your studio?

WM I start with several hours in the studio experimenting with pigments and relationships, getting the paint right for the subject matter. I think of it like a musician playing the scales, or an athlete preparing to take the field. I do research on color systems, pigments and their chemical make up and history. I’ve accumulated a list of websites that research and develop color and our understanding of it. In June I’m taking a class at Rochester Institute of Technology at their Munsell Color Science Lab. It’s a Professional Development course that will cover the materiality of color, pigments, dyes, digitations, optics, and the physiology of human sight.

MJ Can you recommend a few of your favorite websites?

WM Here’s a few good ones:

www.colourlovers.com

www.colour.leeds.ac.uk

www.coloracademy.co.uk

Post Impressions is a conversation series conducted by Mary Jones. She is an artist living in NYC and an adjunct professor at RISD and School of Visual Arts.

William Millerfire2 Body

William Miller, 9 × 12, oil on panel, 2006.

MJ What’s your process like? How and when did you paint this?

WM This painting was painted in my backyard in North East Ohio. When I was living there my wife and I had chickens, had had them for several years. I designed and built a coop that Martha Stewart would be proud of. My wife and I scoured Ohio and Indiana for chickens of a certain breed; Rhode Island Reds, Plymouth Rocks. We knew more about chickens than anybody should know-we got the eggs in the morning, we had a big rooster that pecked me in the calf of the leg to the point that it bled. But it was that late afternoon; I don’t know what it is about the late afternoon, the light, my brain? I set up the easel in the back yard, got the juice on the palette as quickly as I could. I like to paint fast; I like to have the viscosity of the paint ready, it’s important. For me the quality of the materials should have some relationship to the quality of the experience. I’m not trying to have complete control. The paint has a life of it’s own. More often than not the paint is flying in as much of an unpredictable way as those chickens in the backyard. I remember thinking about the William Carlos Williams poem, about the images in the poem “The Red Wheelbarrow.” I resisted the urge and just left it with the white chickens. For every painting that has the truth in them, just as many are painted out.

MJ How do you use your studio?

WM I start with several hours in the studio experimenting with pigments and relationships, getting the paint right for the subject matter. I think of it like a musician playing the scales, or an athlete preparing to take the field. I do research on color systems, pigments and their chemical make up and history. I’ve accumulated a list of websites that research and develop color and our understanding of it. In June I’m taking a class at Rochester Institute of Technology at their Munsell Color Science Lab. It’s a Professional Development course that will cover the materiality of color, pigments, dyes, digitations, optics, and the physiology of human sight.

MJ Can you recommend a few of your favorite websites?

WM Here’s a few good ones:

www.colourlovers.com

www.colour.leeds.ac.uk

www.coloracademy.co.uk

Post Impressions is a conversation series conducted by Mary Jones. She is an artist living in NYC and an adjunct professor at RISD and School of Visual Arts.