The well-publicized legal battle that followed — Miller was charged with operating a scrap yard in a residential area — was “a nightmare” that cost him everything, including his marriage. But the artist, now 60, has found vindication in the fact that the work once considered an eyesore is now part of theGreat Garden Adventure, an interactive exploration of the grounds surrounding Akron’s Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, which runs through Oct. 31. Even more satisfying is his position as the institution’s 2008 artist-in-residence.
“I’m installing the very epicenter of the judge’s battle against me on the main lawn of Stan Hywet,” Miller says. He describes the piece as a “seating-bench arrangement” under a “huge stand of flowers,” all made of recycled items. His work ranges from functional tables and lamps to chainsaw sculptures and wet-concrete murals to the hundred-plus flowers on display at Stan Hywet. Ask Miller what he uses to create, and he replies, “Whatever anybody throws away — metal, plastic, glass, wood, old wheels, old fans,anything.”
Miller, dubbed “the Grizzled Wizard of Waste Not Want Not” by one documentary filmmaker, developed an appreciation for recycling as a kid growing up in Mars, Pa. He and his three siblings regularly accompanied their plant-manager father to the town dump he ran on the side. “We’d bring home various and sundry pieces of scrap,” Miller recalls. “At the end of the summer, Dad would put it on a big truck and take it into Pittsburgh. That was our money for new clothes.” After graduating from the University of Akron with a bachelor’s degree in education, Miller worked as everything from a bill collector to a specialty demolition expert, all the while hauling scrap metals and creating art.
Ironically, Miller’s legal troubles only increased demand for his work, including a commission from Akron to salvage a World War II-era Lawson’s convenience-store billboard. But it was a treehouse made for Stan Hywet’sTremendous Treehouses installation last year that landed him the artist-in-residence gig.
Miller’s position at Stan Hywet hasn’t changed his life in material terms. He lives and works in “a roach-infested slum dwelling” in downtown Akron with no computer or television. “I do not need instantgra-ti-fi-ca-tion,” he says, deliberately enunciating each syllable to convey his dislike of the contraptions. But his notoriety is giving him a chance to use his education degree in the recycling and ecology programs he’s conducting at schools. The bugs and butterflies on his flowers inGreat Garden Adventure were made by students at four Northeast Ohio schools.
There he’s been able to share his philosophy on life with students: Live like a hermit, work like a plow horse, give up all worldly pleasures, and devote one’s life to the betterment of the planet and mankind.
“In this day and age,” he laments, “nobody wants to do it.”