Friends remember Midtown's Charlie Miller as painter's-painter
  Charles Miller  T-1960

For the better part of his 65 years, Charlie Miller -- and Charlie Miller's still-lifes and landscapes, figurative studies and murals -- embodied Midtown life.

Miller died of cancer Feb. 3, 2008 at his home in Bartlett. This month, a group of his close friends, including Kat Plumley and David Leonard, are hosting an exhibition, billed as "a celebration of the life and art of Charlie Miller," at Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects. The show opens at 5:30 tonight and runs through May 2.

They've spent the last few weeks cleaning and framing paintings that regularly hang in Midtown haunts like the Lamplighter and Zinnie's East. They culled Miller works from stockpiles of collectors such as gallery owner Paul Edelstein and author/documentary filmmaker Robert Gordon. And they consulted with artists Sammy Britt and George Thurmond, who, with Miller, had traveled to Provincetown, Mass., to study with famed impressionist painter Henry Hensche.

Along the way, they uncovered the truth they suspected all along -- that Miller's life work represents a link in the artistic chain that includes American masters William Merritt Chase, Charles Hawthorne and Edward Hopper.

"Charlie was the guy who hung out at the bar who was a painter," says Gordon, who first met Miller at the Daily Planet in the early 1980s.

"His work was seen in dim, smoky rooms where beer bottles clattered," Gordon says. "In a big way, Charlie's paintings are like the music made in Memphis -- created in dark rooms at night when no one else is around. But as I saw more and more of his work, I was continually amazed at the body he was creating."

Leonard, a photographer and filmmaker, originally crossed paths with Miller at the former Omni Arts Gallery, which was located in Overton Square.

"Charlie was the sage of the Midtown scene, but according to all the other painters, he was a painter's painter as well," Leonard says. "He was true and unassuming, and as humble as can be -- yet the painting school he came from was unreal. Charlie went to Provincetown 10 summers in a row. Only his fellow painters could tell how great he really was -- as good as Hopper in his work with color and light."

"Painting was Charlie's life," says Plumley, who befriended Miller in the 1970s, became his muse, and served as his caretaker in his last months.

She thinks Miller wasn't really frustrated by his lack of fame -- just disappointed that he lacked the ability to self-promote.

"He never pushed himself on people," she says, "and he never allowed anyone who didn't really know him to buy his work. It was like letting go of his children -- he wanted to emphatically know that you were going to handle them with love and care."

It took a decade for Plumley to convince Miller to sell her a picture -- and once he agreed, she had to pay it off in installments. She ultimately bought 13 pieces, running Miller's errands and giving him haircuts to help pay for the work.

Leonard bartered an old car for one of Miller's paintings; for another, a portrait of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in a prison cell, he paid $25 a month for 10 months.

While Miller often failed to generate an income from his work, he scraped by as a pool hustler, a sign painter and a muralist for the Danver's fast-food chain.

Ann Bradley, proprietor of the Lamplighter, recalls a time when Charlie was so broke that he asked her for cash.

"This was so long ago, Jimmy Carter was president," the venerable bartender recalls. "He wanted to do a painting for me, so I gave him $50 with the understanding that I'd give him another $50 when the painting was finished. I didn't know him from Adam, so I was shocked when I saw him again."

The painting, a play on the black velvet pastiche, featured Elvis as a matador.

"The bull has an Ayatollah Khomeini mustache, and there are all these Memphis characters in it, like Adrian Rogers and Maxine Smith, along with a silhouette of President Carter," Bradley says. "I said, 'Where am I gonna put this?'"

For a short time, she hung the work over her fireplace at home -- then she brought it to the Lamplighter, where it fit perfectly over the jukebox.

Later, Bradley hosted an exhibition of Miller's work in the Lamplighter's tiny, pie-shaped backyard.

Miller produced paintings inspired by his time there as well, such as a portrait of the late Charlie Hull, a Lamplighter regular, and a Hopper-esque painting of a pinball player.

He painted several studies of the Lamplighter's exterior, glimpsed from a small strip of grass across Madison Avenue.

One of those landscapes hangs in Gordon's dining room.

"Charlie took a mundane image and filled it with color and feeling," Gordon says. "It's made me see something I see daily anew every time I look at it."

After Miller left Midtown for his mother's old house in Bartlett in the mid-1990s, his visits to the Lamplighter began to drop off.

"He started saying that grey-haired people were vulnerable, and the CK's Coffee Shop in his neighborhood was the farthest he would go," Leonard says.

Yet in June 2006, Leonard and Gordon were able to persuade Miller to participate in the music video for Cat Power's "Lived In Bars," which was filmed at the Lamplighter.

"It was more of a hoot than anything," insists Gordon, who produced and directed the video. "I knew it would be Charlie's scene -- a bunch of people hanging around, a pretty girl, and everybody having fun."

Fifteen months later, Miller received his diagnosis -- a tumor in his brain, and one in his lungs.

Plumley immediately thought back to a conversation she had had with Miller more than a decade ago.

"In one defining moment, he said, 'You know, when I'm gone, that's when it's all gonna happen for me.'"

"I said, 'Charlie, we need to make it happen now,' but he said no."

"Like all the greats," she says, "he knew that his life's work would matter most after he was gone."

                                                      ...Andria Lisle

  'The Life and Art of Charlie Miller,'  Through May 2, 2008, Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects, 1500 Union.