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PROFILE: Adjunct Ray Miller Welds Art to Function

Date: Jan. 18, 2001
By: Mary Bridget Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos by: Colleen Kelley

"I got scared..."

That's how Ray Miller remembers the realization of a long-time dream. Miller, adjunct assistant professor of mechanical engineering in UC's College of Applied Science and a dedicated sculptor, recalls how unsettled he felt after winning a juried exhibit at Cleveland's Sculpture Center a short time after pursuing his artistic avocation.

Invest in Strength

"I was scared after winning. If I really was an artist, what should I be doing? I had a wife and children. I slowed down my art work. What if I kept being successful? I started to hide in my functional work. There, I didn't have to worry about being judged or criticized...." he recalled.

Miller creates elegant metal sculptures and furniture with speed and finesse. However, his journey toward becoming an artist has been fitful and awkward.

Miller at work

"When I entered engineering school [as an undergraduate]...I was a lab assistant making lab apparatus. I had to do lots of it using machine tools, welding. It was my first experience with making things, and I really enjoyed it. I teased my Dad that I'd be doing it full time except that he'd forced me to go to college," recalled Miller who began teaching in the College of Applied Science in 1987.

Hands-on work continued after college as technical director for General Electric Corp., a job that called for hands-on welding and other work as part of training the crews that built power plants. The job called for travel, and Miller searched for a creative outlet, finding one in leather design.

"I left my Louisville hotel one day and went out to a leather works store. Soon, I began making things: leather masks, custom cases for construction workers, purses. All were my own design. I was having a lot of fun though the maids probably didn't like the dyes I spilled on the carpets," he said.

Ray Miller at work

A change of jobs meant more time at home and an opportunity to extend his creative reach. Miller, a resident of Kenwood, recalled that he felt limited by leatherwork. He knew he wanted to sculpt, but he didn't know how to start. His move to the College of Applied Science as an adjunct changed that. In the college, he began teaching "Principles of Manufacturing" lab and lecture. Then in the summer of 1994, Miller asked the mechanical engineering program director if he could come into the welding area and weld scrap metal. "He said, 'Sure. You're a faculty member here.' I then asked an artist friend to come and teach me what he knew. After two visits, he said, 'You don't need me.'"

That first summer, Miller created up to 20 sculptures. He laughs and taps his head, "I had a lot up here. I knew what I wanted to make which is usually the more difficult part of the creative process. I just had to do it." Soon enough, Miller set up a booth at the Mt. Adams Art Affair. He sold his first piece before he'd even set up. In 1996, his piece, "Invest in Strength," won the grand prize at the Cleveland Sculpture Center's juried exhibit.

Ironically, that's when Miller found his new avocation more difficult to pursue. "I couldn't find a gallery to represent me because I didn't have formal art training, but my work was considered too refined for 'Outsider' art. I didn't fit the mold. So, I began concentrating on functional work. Then, I didn't have to explain myself and who I am. I began working for interior designers," he said.

Miller continued to play with space and geometry in his functional pieces for retail outlets and homes, creating custom furnishings for Cincinnati's premiere home show called "Homearama." He even made an extra-large metal jail cell for use in a Cincinnati Bell commercial.

He still makes the custom home furnishing but has also returned to creating sculpture, finding new enthusiasm and energy after creating a special work to memorialize his parents who recently passed away. "When my parents died, I had to say Kadish for the seven days of mourning for the deceased. I found the ritual very comforting. It was connecting me to history and a tradition going back thousands of years. I wanted to give something back more than money. I wanted to do a sculpture to honor my parents. I didn't appreciate them when they were alive. They taught me to do what you'll say you do. Don't give up. Fulfill your word. That's kept me going at many points."

So, Miller returned to sculpting in a work that visually represents the Jewish ritual of saying Kadish with a Minyan. (A Minyan consists of the ten Jews required to say Kadish.) He created an outdoor service area for Adath Israel Synagogue. It consists of ten stylized seats, representing the ten individuals (Minyan) required for Kadish. The shape of each seat references the Star of David. The reader's stand recalls a torah scroll and the tablets containing the ten commandments. The project, dedicated in February 2000, has enabled Miller to move on to creating more sculpture. Working in his Deer Park studio, he is submitting a work for a public sculpture competition for Greenville, Ohio's main square, submitting work for a spiritual sculpture exhibit in Northern Kentucky as well as work for a traveling exhibit of Judaic art.

The creative journey has made him more comfortable and confident in his teaching role at UC. "I use my metal work as problem-solving exercises in class. I've used questions regarding how to connect steel and brass (which can't be welded or glued together). Silver soldering is the answer if used with care because if residue is left, it will rust the metal. I've used this in "Theory and Practice of Joining." It gives students a look at the decision-making process."

Though his avocation requires some very long days and focused commitment, Miller won't consider giving it up. "When an idea stays in my head for a long time, I have to see it done. Then I can say, 'This is me, like it or not.'"


 
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