Plowing ahead

Hot Springs sculptor and metalsmith Marshall Miller worked primarily in wood until the gift of a welder 20 years ago changed the direction of his art. 

Regardless of the materials, Miller’s style is simple, clean, abstract figurative representation.

“I’m just trying to pull out the essence of something, really,” he said.

His subjects include both animals — birds are a favorite — and the human form.

Miller’s array of sculptures populates his home and backyard. One of the fun pieces outside is a steel cutout of the characters from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “The Bremen Town Musicians.” The showstopper is “Hug Me,” a tall, brightly painted ambulatory piece that was featured outside one of the historic bathhouses during a Hot Springs juried art competition in 1997. The curved arms of the sculpture tempt visitors to respond to the sculpture’s title.

Miller’s impressively equipped studio sits just a few yards from his sculpture garden. 

Art dealer Dale Blackwelder, a member of the Hot Springs Arts Advisory Committee, admires Miller’s workmanship and quality of work.

“He has a real good eye for composition and he is very attentive to detail and quality. Everything is so precise,” Blackwelder said. “His execution is superb. It’s purposefully done for longevity.”  

Miller recently began exploring incorporating tools and other found objects in his sculptures. An ambitious example of this new direction can be seen with “Plowing the Troposphere,” one of 10 temporary, outdoor artworks selected for the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Art in its Natural State regional competition. 

It may surprise viewers of his vast array of works that Miller did not study art formally and did not really begin creating sculptures until he was in his mid-30s.

Miller credits the beginning of his love of art to his fourth-grade teacher, who taught “the equivalent of a college freshman-level art appreciation course,” he said. Each student in the class created a notebook in which they pasted images of artworks and wrote information about them. He still has his notebook.

“He has been a student of art ever since I’ve known him,” said his wife, Jeanne.

Miller attended Hendrix College, the University of Arkansas at Monticello and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

After college, Miller worked in the construction industry until retirement. The work took him all over the South. He has lived in Georgia, Texas, Tennessee and Florida, and on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. He met Jeanne in Savannah, Ga., in 1976, and they married in 1980.

They eventually moved back to Arkansas and ultimately settled in Hot Springs in 1990. Miller was also the primary caretaker of their son, Marsh, as Jeanne travelled regularly for work and their daughter, Jessica, was attending college.

Miller wanted to try his hand at 3D work for a while, and his technical experience helped him segue into creating sculptures.

“All my life, I developed skills in the construction industry, for many different abilities,” he said. “By the time I got started, I was already pretty well equipped to manipulate materials. It wasn’t a matter of me having to develop my capabilities along with my concept. I was pretty well able to attack it on any level I wanted to. I didn’t need to take any courses to manipulate wood or steel or anything else, although I had not done that much welding and all. But by that point, it was just a matter of whatever it was, I could do it.”

Miller worked primarily in wood until about 1997, when a metal sculptor friend brought by a small welder for Miller to try out.

“I got carried away with this metal sculpture and that’s been it,” he said. 

Miller has begun using found objects to create pieces like “Kyoto Bush,” which won the People’s Choice Award at the 2017 UpCycle Sculpture Festival in Hot Springs. The piece is made of discarded items including a carbide drum, a partially burned shrub, an abandoned bird nest and a dollhouse-sized pair of fried eggs.

Crow Bird”, like the upcoming “Plowing the Troposphere” installation, utilizes farm implements. The bird’s head is a sickle bar mower blade guard.

Miller lets the found objects themselves guide his process into creating a piece. “It’s more like the experience I encountered with abstract work, to where, rather than you being led during the drafting process, you’re led during the construction process to make changes. It’s kind of like there’s a spirit that enters into this whole thing that you access at some point, and if you’re smart, you’ll go with it.”

He wants to continue exploring with scraps and tools. "Taking stuff out and putting it together and seeing what I come up with. It’s a change. It’s not a radical change in my style but it’s a development. You know, you’ve got to keep something going to keep things from getting stale. And that’s what this is about. Plus, it’s enjoyable.”