For the better part of his 65 years,
Charlie Miller -- and Charlie Miller's still-lifes and
landscapes, figurative studies and murals -- embodied
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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."
'The Life and Art of Charlie Miller,' Through May 2, 2008, Askew Nixon
Ferguson Architects, 1500 Union.