There are millions of paintings in the world that can evoke a sense of home in the viewer, but Bill Miller’s works of vintage linoleum collage do so while actually being a piece of home. This unique Pittsburgh-based artist will showcase his latest works at the In this house I call home exhibition at Shelter Island’s dieFirma East gallery, opening Wednesday, August 19.
Originally scheduled to debut at dieFirma’s expansive New York City location in March, Miller resolved to create his largest, most ambitious works to date. “It was a big space, so it really pushed me beyond my previous limits to create larger works and tell a bigger story just by virtue of size,” he says of the works spanning four to five feet. The reworked show will now be presented as an outdoor art walk at the Shelter Island gallery featuring 30 linoleum collages, many from the planned March exhibition and some even newer pieces. All work on view is for sale unless otherwise specified.
“Because the material is about the home and a lot of my work has to do with family memories or our common memories, I went with that as a theme. Ultimately, I feel like the linoleum is always central to the theme of the show,” Miller explains. “I’m trying to call attention to things that are past and forgotten, but I’m also trying to create new, contemporary work with it.”
For each collage he creates, Miller cuts and arranges the linoleum, without modifying its surface, transforming its plainness into complex pictorial arrangements that bear the scratches and scuffmarks of a bygone era. Inspiration can come from any number of places, including from the linoleum itself. “I can certainly pick up a piece of linoleum and see a face in it or see a house in it and immediately cut that out and begin the piece based on that, so I really keep myself open to interpretation when I’m working,” he says. “The medium is important… I really feel like my material has a life of its own. It has a quality that I tapped into, and I love and I’m nurturing, but the viewer also has to engage in that. That helps get the story across.”
One piece in the In this house I call home exhibition that stands out is Miller’s unique take on Vincent van Gogh’s “Bedroom in Arles,” which he recreated with a similar composition but vastly different color palette. “There’s something that’s really challenging about telling those stories with new material, and I felt like it would be compelling to see what I could do with something so well known,” he says, adding that finding the perfect patterns and colors of linoleum to realize his vision for “Starry Night” was paramount to deciding whether or not the piece could be created.
Miller explains that linoleum isn’t something that can simply be purchased at craft or home improvement stores, as real linoleum isn’t produced today, outside of niche artisans. True vintage linoleum, the only kind Miller uses, is an all-natural compound that was a popular flooring pre-World War II and went out of fashion after 1951, when plastics and other artificial compounds were introduced into the formula.
A painter and mixed media artist in the early 1990s, Miller and his friends would search abandoned factories and houses throughout Pittsburgh for collage materials, which is what led him to his eventual art medium of choice. “I was in an old house, and they had pulled some linoleum out and had it on the front stoop for the garbage man to take, and I looked down at it and said, ‘That looks like the sky of an Impressionist painting or a Van Gogh sky,'” he remembers. “I fell in love with the material, the old stuff that was used in the early 20th century. A lot of it had to do with grandparents’ memories and those kinds of things, but also it’s very beautiful, colorful and has a lot of pattern and quality to it, and I was intrigued by all that.”
He collected as much linoleum as he could in the months that followed, sometimes using it to mat his paintings, and one year later, he finally had enough colors and patterns to experiment with full one-medium collages. By the end of the decade, his linoleum works proved to be a huge hit. “I always had a good response to my paintings, always had good shows, but as soon as people started to see these things, the response that I got was completely different,” he recalls. “I think people discover memories in the material, in addition to being attracted to what I do color-wise and composition-wise. The material has such a quality to it, and people love it! It has more going for it than even I could create!”
Witnessing people connect with his art is a “real honor” for Miller and reminds him of his main reason for creating the unique, memory-inspiring works that he does. One such moment occurred an exhibition a few years ago when a woman purchased a collage of an elderly couple looking out over Central Park. “She bought it and told me, ‘This is going to remind of my husband and remind me of the time since he passed, and that this is what our life would’ve been like,'” he remembers, adding that she has been a frequent visitor to his subsequent shows. “I always remember to talk to her and remember which piece she bought, because it was such a powerful experience!”
In this house I call home runs at dieFirma East on Shelter Island from August 19–August 23, by appointment only. To learn more or reserve a time slot, visit diefirmanyc.com/bill-miller-exhibition. To see Miller’s works from previous exhibitions, visit billmillerart.com.