Spotlight: Ongoing Exploration

Ceramics Monthly: What key elements contributed to your long and successful careers in ceramics, sculpture, and painting?

Janiver and Gustaf Miller: We keep in mind what a customer might want, and combine that with the continual fascination of making new creations. It’s an ongoing exploration. With age comes a certain freedom; however, making art is just as difficult and there is less psychic and physical energy. Our love of working with clay persists, and it helps that patrons encourage us.

The audience for our work now is our two communities: Vero Beach, Florida, and Stonington, Connecticut. We’ve converted an old, unheated and uninsulated chicken barn into a seasonal studio in Stonington. From spring into fall it’s a perfect work space. We have an electric kiln inside and a wood-fired raku kiln outside. During the winters, we work at the Vero Beach Museum of Art school.

CM: How has your creative focus changed over time?

JM: We spent a year in Rome from 1963–64. Old wall reliefs and battered sculptural figures influenced Gus’ direction for the next few years. Exhibiting in the Northeast Crafts Fair in the 1970s led him into making ceramic animals and figures.

Gus has migrated to more wood sculpture, avoiding the vagaries of kiln firings, but he still makes a plunge yearly into clay. His interest in bonsai has focused him on making ceramic planters. Bonsai trees have specific requirements; forests want low, shallow pots, cascades need tall containers.

With our children grown, I started handbuilding in the late 1980s. I trained as a painter at Syracuse University, in New York, and approach a pot as a painting. I began glazing realistic images because they would sell. I make bowls and plates, painting them with fish, birds, and animals.

Images are refined with a lot of sketchbook drawing before putting the brush to a surface. The key is to plan the initial strokes. Bisque ware gets coated with white glaze that is then brushed freely with metallic-oxide color washes.

CM: How do your paintings and your pots relate?

JM: My studio is cluttered with the pottery I’ve made. A Vessels series of paintings came about naturally from shaping pots on the wheel. Pattern energizes me; on both canvas and clay, the painted subject and background space are woven into one unified, decorative pattern. One day I’m glazing, painting on my pots, and the next day I’m painting on canvas. A liner brush makes smooth bands on pots. A dagger brush on canvas with acrylic can make similar long bands. Handmade brushes bring variety to lines. Oriental brushes are workhorses.

Gus’ bas reliefs relate to some of his paintings, but he especially likes the way clay can mimic skin in his figurative work, like elephants and hippos. He spatters extra ash and iron oxide onto the surface to enhance a stone-like finish. We sieve fireplace ashes to add interest to some glazes.

CM: Have you always shared a studio?

JM: Over the years, we usually had individual studios. I work mornings, Gus later in the day. Ceramics is a more cooperative undertaking, with shared space and equipment: wheel, tools, glazes, and kiln. We’re each other’s sounding boards, friendly critics, and wailing walls.

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