Remembering Tom Miller

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If you’re ever at a red light at the intersection of E. North Avenue and Harford Road, take a moment to look around. Hopefully you’ll get a good view of two of my favorite murals in town, painted by Baltimorean Tom Miller. On one side of the road there is an expansive wall depicting “Children Playing”a zooming bicyclist, a boy enjoying ice cream on the stoop, a toddler with beads in her hair, and white marble stepsa recurring detail in Miller’s paintings.

On the other side of the street there is a big, black, and beautiful man sitting on a sandy beach. Perhaps he is on a tropical island, as a palm tree stretches up the wall and colorful birds look on nearby. He is relaxing with a book in hand. The open pages feature a Nigerian proverb: “However far the stream flows, it never forgets its source.” 

Baltimore was the primary source for Miller’s inspiration. To this day, his creative stream still flows throughout the city. He was born here, grew up in Sandtown-Winchester, went to Carver Vocational Technical High School, studied at MICA, taught art in Baltimore City Schools, and passed away at the Joseph Richey Hospice. Miller highlighted everyday scenes and landmarks through his art, as evident in his screen prints “Maryland Crab Feast” and “The National Aquarium in Baltimore.” 

I first learned about Miller through the book Can a Coal Scuttle Fly?, a biography written by Tom Miller’s friend Camay Calloway Murphy (daughter of Baltimore-born jazz musician Cab Calloway). Miller illustrated this children’s book which tells a chronological story of his joyful upbringing as well as his journey on becoming an artist.

The story begins with an infant Tom coming home from the hospital. “My mom says I liked color from the beginning. She brought me home from the hospital in a bright red baby blanket. When I peeked out from the blanket and saw the colored brick houses and rows and rows of white marbled steps, my little feet began to kick and my fists pummeled in the air with joy.”


Anything is possible when you are true to your colors and true to yourself.
Can A Coal Scuttle Fly?

Throughout the story, readers learn about his mother’s proclivity to painting, his father’s work as a tailor, and Miller’s origins as an artist, scavenging for treasure in a junk pile and turning his findings into sculptures. This moment references the title of the book, when a discarded coal scuttle morphs into a bird ready for flight. On the back of the book is a painting of Miller at work on his Harford Road mural. 

In 1995, Miller was the first African American artist from Baltimore to have a solo exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art. “I only record what I see and feel based on my experiences as an African American living in Baltimore, Maryland, in the United States of America,” Miller shared in a press release. “All of my influences are by no means artistic. The people around me, the community I live in, provide a great deal.”

Miller tapped into these vibrant, Baltimorean moments and transferred them in a collage-like fashion into his work. “Summer in Baltimore” shows people checking out fruit from an Arabber cart. With their bright carts, decorated horses, and musical street cries, it made sense that Miller would include the traveling Arabbers in his paintings. But the Arabbers were more than just a spectacle. To this day, they continue delivering fresh produce to areas to the city that might be known as food deserts.


"Summer in Baltimore," color screenprint, 1994
"Legacy House," Acrylic on paperboard, 1997

Miller lived with AIDS for the last decade of his life, yet he continued to paint and create with an optimistic lens. As a recurring patient at Chase Brexton, he showed the importance of the clinic through the commissioned piece “Hope Lives Here.” Miller also left his home studio and proceeds from future screen print sales to Chase Brexton upon his passing. In an effort to learn more about Miller, I reached out to Steven Scott Gallery, since they handle print sales and represent Miller’s work. 

I asked Scott about the acrylic painting “Legacy House” and learned that Miller originally created it as a commission in the 1990s. A group of doctors were hoping to create a transitional housing project for families affected by AIDS but the project never launched. Despite that, Miller conveyed love and compassion with his vision. It also mirrors those first lines in Can a Coal Scuttle Fly? when Tom first laid eyes on his Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood.

There is a warm sense of community as well as a small detailthe white marble steps. That was just like Miller, to notice marble steps throughout the city. A material often associated with classical sculptures and architecture, it was as if Miller’s repeated motif of marble steps alluded to how Baltimore homes could also be sacred places occupied by characters full of joy and life.


"The National Aquarium in Baltimore," color screenprint, 1996
Photo of a Tom Miller mural by Jill Fannon for BmoreArt Issue 13
Photo of a Tom Miller mural by Jill Fannon for BmoreArt Issue 13

Miller’s legacy continues, thanks in large part to Deyane Moses of Blackives. Moses was the driving force behind reviving Tom Miller Day, which takes place on February 18th. This year, Blackives extended this commemorative day into a series of events for Tom Miller Week. Students from Miller’s alma mater got involved in the festivities. Carver’s Art Club, known as Cre8tive Xpression, paid tribute to Miller by painting furniture in his Afro Deco style. Like Miller’s Harford Road mural, each student used a proverb to guide their artistic choices. For some of the students, it was their first time working on a painting project.

Local artist Gary Mullen worked with the students on preparing and painting the furniture. A few students expressed how painting furniture was an exciting creative challenge. While talking about the process with Zariah Stringfield, she mentioned how she had to sand the furniture and apply a primer for the base layer.

“Sketching was weird,” Stringfield shared. She had to crouch to access all of the nooks, crannies, and undersides of the furniture’s surface. “I had to have more control, to be precise without dripping,” Stringfield explained. “It was tedious work, but I kept going.” 

Cre8tive Xpression received salvaged furniture from Second Chance for this project. When the students had to pick which piece to work with, Stringfield gravitated towards the piano. Although it was a daunting, three dimensional canvas to work with, it made sense, since Stringfield has a passion for music and art. Just as Miller was influenced by his creative parents, Stringfield takes inspiration from her father. Not only is he a tattoo artist, but he also produces music in a studio. Her piece is titled “Showtime” and she was inspired by the proverb “Where words fail, music speaks.”

Zariah’s work is one of the many pieces on display at the University of Baltimore Robert L. Bogomolny Library. A few plates are laid out on a painted table and an incense holder rests on a painted coffee table. These little hints of domestic activity create a sense of a thriving home. Although you can’t play Stringfield’s piano, other pieces are interactive. Deon Newkirk’s “Up in the Clouds” is a desk and viewers are invited to open up the various drawers to see more painted details. The show runs until February 25th. Each piece is also available for sale through a Live Silent Auction. Proceeds will go towards funding a scholarship for young artists. 


Zariah Stringfield's Miller-influenced piece "Showtime" on view at UB. Photo by the author.
Student artworks on display for the Auction at UB, photo courtesy of Deyane Moses

“Anything is possible when you are true to your colors and true to yourself,” Murphy wrote towards the end of Can a Coal Scuttle Fly. The story is written as if Miller is the narrator. “In my studio I paint day and night. I still find many discarded things that have beautiful shapes. I use all the pieces to tell stories. I still like to use bright colors and make pictures and sculptures that say something about my people and my culture.”

Returning to the Nigerian proverb, Miller was like a stream flowing with ideas. There were video interviews from his contemporaries playing at the art opening, and from their stories, it sounds like he was in constant exchange with his community, giving and receiving energy. His creative streak continued until the end of his life.

Scott saw him painting while hooked up to an IV and Miller even set up a makeshift studio while he was in the hospice. His obituary mentioned that he attended his friends’ art show the week before he passed away. With the resurgence of Tom Miller Day, more people are studying and admiring his work, turning Miller into a deep source of inspiration for future generations of Baltimore artists. 


Mural images by Jill Fannon and art images courtesy of Steven Scott Gallery

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