When I moved to Baltimore in 1997 to be a painting student at a state university, the head of our department was determined to have us see the work of local artists. We would take field trips, or she would assign us to visit exhibitions at Gomez Gallery (where she was represented), C. Grimaldis Gallery, School 33 Art Center, and MAP (Maryland Art Place). These visits were our keys to the city; she showed us that art was all around the city, and it was our job to go looking for it. One of the most memorable visits was to 1339 E North Ave, not far from the grave of John Wilkes Booth in Green Mount Cemetery and the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum. The soft-hued yellow-brown palette defines the neighborhood from the long line of tall, narrow rowhouses. Depending on the sun, they are almost golden. Then you hit Hartford Road, and the rhythmic patterning is interrupted by this burst of color on a long, low wall that borders the otherwise dark grey stone Iglesia Evangelica Apostoles y Profetas Maranatha Central.
She brought us to see two murals by Tom Miller directly across the street from each other. His works were larger than life, and I thought he was the biggest artist in the world. From 1991-1998, he created six murals across the city; today, five remain. Five of them are still standing. Our class was standing in the shadows of two of them. The larger one was a three-story mural, However Far The Stream Flows, It Never Forgets Its Source, 1991, on the side of a rowhouse. One of his most compelling murals, a black silhouetted man exuding strength with cartoonishly large shoulders and torso spilling out from a white tank top as he sits on a yellow sand beach, surrounded by an exotic setting under a bright blue sky with a white puffy cloud. A towering flower that could almost be a palm tree and an inquisitive bird accompany him, gazing down at the big book in the man’s hands. The two open pages echo the title, a Nigerian proverb, “However far the stream flows, it never forgets its source,” that reminds you to remember your roots and respect tradition, regardless of where you travel.
Many cliches exist about art’s ability to transport viewers to a different mental plane. And this is a perfect example. Tilt your head slightly to the left or right and you are in Baltimore Baltimore. But staring up at this grand painting done in a super Miami color palette of vibrant and tropical hues, our class was somewhere else entirely. It’s like Miller’s figure on the beach opened the book, and everything around him transformed into pastel pinks, vibrant corals, turquoise blues, sunny yellows, and lush greens. It’s a landscape with a magnetic pull that allows you to forget the world around you, lose your sense of time and place, and vanish into the painting.
Miller (1945-2000) left an indelible mark on the city of Baltimore through his vibrant murals, capturing the spirit of the community and challenging artistic conventions. After high school, he earned a scholarship to the Maryland Institute College of Art, obtaining his Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1967 and Master of Fine Arts in 1987. After 20 years of teaching in the Baltimore City School system, Miller retired to pursue a full-time career as an artist.
Influenced by artists such as Jacob Lawrence and Aaron Douglas, there is a direct line to Miller’s figures as flat color shapes, though less somber and more filled with color and life. He invented his unique style, self-described as “Afro-Deco,” a fusion of popular black imagery and tropical kitsch with the geometric shapes, bold colors, and lavish ornamentation of the 1920s and 30s Art Deco. He built his iconography and vernacular, intermingled color, pattern, statements, satire, and whimsy, skillfully confronting racial stereotypes.
That vernacular had a distinctively Baltimore accent. I recently returned to visit Miller’s mural beside the Cherry Hill branch of the Enoch Pratt Public Library. This painting depicts a summertime in Baltimore. The figures in this work are in continuous movement, affecting or not, each other and ultimately creating narratives throughout the city. A young man in red all-stars plays a ball beside music blaring from a boom box. A young couple stands under a tree, the man in a white kufi cap, the mother with big blond hair; they interlock arms as they combine to hold up their baby. The old folks sit and shout and argue over the newspaper. This work suggests a series of stage sets, a mix of vibrant activities and challenges. Streets alive. Sounds of music, children playing, and neighbors socializing. This is Baltimore.
On June 23, 2000, Miller passed away at the age of 54 after an 11-year fight with AIDS at The Joseph Richey Hospice in Baltimore. He leaves a lasting legacy, not only for his remarkable art but also for his wit and captivating personality. His obituary highlighted his resilience, charismatic demeanor, and the profound influence he wielded in the art realm. Even amid personal hardships, Miller’s capacity to tackle societal challenges with satire and wit illustrates his dedication to employing art as a medium for healing and social commentary.
Tom Miller’s life and art form a remarkable resilience, creativity, and social engagement narrative. Miller’s ability to blend diverse influences, confront stereotypes, and create an iconographic system uniquely his own speaks to his artistic genius. As we reflect on Miller’s contributions, we recognize a masterful artist and a social visionary who used his craft to inspire and challenge.