Editor's note: Today we launch a summer-long series on Tucson's visual artists. Watch for the other profiles in The Arts on Fridays.
Cynthia E. Miller has always had a thing for birds. As a youngster growing up in Wisconsin, she marveled at them - even in death. She collected the lifeless bodies she came across, much to her mother's extreme dismay, and gave them proper burials.
Once, she found an oriole that had been run over. "I scraped it off the road. They're so beautiful. Birds are just fascinating."
In fact, all of nature appeals to Miller.
"The natural world figures in all my stuff - and what we do with it," says Miller, 58, who has a trip planned to Yellowstone this summer.
Despite her love of nature, the mother of two daughters - one in college and the other a freshly minted Tucson High Magnet School grad - doesn't get to spend as much time in it as she'd like. Instead, her paintings revel in the beauty of Mother Nature.
Her oversized, exuberant pieces burst with saturated colors. Fat green leaves. Rosy pomegranates. A sandy, whiskered dog dreaming of whirling flowers and a pine cone.
And of course, there are birds. Black crows, cardinals, even a red-headed Gambel's Quail - that one appeared in the 2006 piece "Out West" after one of Miller's daughters complained she'd never put one in a painting.
The most striking thing about Miller's work, though, is her use of color. She uses acrylic paint, chalk, oil pastel and oil stick, which is basically an oil-paint crayon.
"It's just really juicy," Miller says, grabbing a stick and adding a thick black streak to the white butcher-paper covering the large, square table where she works. She smears it with her finger tips. "I prefer it on top of acrylic. It just makes colors so vibrant."
Miller was selected for a one-person exhibition in 2008 at the Cue Art Foundation in New York City. The nonprofit highlights what it considers under-recognized artists who are chosen by their peers and a rotating group of advisers and curators from across the United States.
The winner of an Arizona Commission on the Arts Visual Arts Fellowship and the prestigious Arizona Arts Award, Miller is represented by Etherton Gallery. Her most recent gallery exhibition a few months ago was a near sell-out, says Daphne Srinivasan, a sales associate at Etherton.
"They're really optimistic, colorful images that you can keep looking at again and again," Srinivasan says of Miller's paintings.
Her work can be seen at numerous places around town from Kingfisher Bar & Grill to law and medical offices and Tucson International Airport.
She does commercial art, too. Miller created the agricultural and ecological map of New Mexico as part of its environmental Dreaming New Mexico project, which imagines the state with a more sustainable, localized future. Miller holds up the detailed poster, pointing out the jaguars and wolves and crops on the piece that took her eight months to finish. She notes, wryly, the absence of UFOs near Roswell.
Miller also illustrated the 2002 "Southwest Kitchen Garden" by Kim Nelson (Rio Nuevo Publishers, $19.95). This is funny.
"I'm a terrible gardener," says Miller. "I'm not consistent with the hose."
• • •
Cynthia E. Miller - that "E" is important because it distinguishes her from two other artist Cynthia Millers in town, who've become email buddies thanks to a fair amount of mistaken identity - started her college career studying creative writing at the University of Arizona.
That didn't last long.
"I was writing things I didn't understand," says Miller, who moved to Tucson from Fond du Lac, Wis., at age 10. "I just kind of derailed. I thought things would be saner in the art department."
She knew she wanted to work for herself. Art was the way to do it.
Miller still writes, although she doesn't publish. She leaves that to her poet husband, Charles Alexander, who runs Chax Press, which shares Miller's open, high-ceilinged warehouse studio space near downtown.
On a recent weekday morning, the coffee is already brewing. Miller's silvery hair is casually clipped back, glasses perched on her head. She's wearing a black button-down shirt, the rolled-up sleeves are slightly smudged on the underside with white paint. A formerly white apron protects the rest of her.
Her work space is a huge square table. Its surface is littered with random objects - a cluster of pine cones (Miller admits she's obsessed with them), a blue-rimmed Mexican glass pitcher of water (hey, an artist needs to hydrate), a bowl set on top of a brick and filled about a quarter of the way with foil-wrapped chocolate eggs (a chocoholic, Miller is trying to pace herself. Not bad, it's a good month past Easter). Layers of white butcher paper wrap the table. You can make out words here and there and brush strokes beneath the fresh top sheet.
A painting is under way - green vines stretch upward to a yellow sky. Rough brush strokes of dark blue push up from the bottom of the page. This is much, much smaller than Miller usually works. It's a piece for an exchange show with United Kingdom artists this summer. Everyone's work has to fit into the same size Ikea frame, hence the 16-by-20 inch specs.
Normally, Miller uses long canvases that stretch horizontally or big sheets of Rising Stonehenge paper.
"I liken it to that same sensation of a big park and a big field in front of you," Miller says. "You want to run across it. You have such freedom."
People like to call Miller's work "narrative." She thinks that's an apt description. She basically paints still lifes, she says. But, Miller adds, she does take liberties.
"I think if people buy my art, it's because they love it, not because it's an investment," she says.
Although an observer might treat her horizontal paintings like a book, reading images from left to right, Miller often starts in the middle. Or, the right. You can see evidence of that in a large, vertical painting propped on an easel that Miller is about ready to declare done.
Most of the piece is filled with luminous flowers rising above a rippling pond. The right edge - where she started - is nearly devoid of color and white-washed with gesso, a thick primer. It's representative of a detached right retina she suffered a few years ago.
"It's like the end of the film," she says.
Miller is matter-of-fact about the time she spent keeping her head bent down as part of the recovery process and later wearing an eyepatch after cataract surgery. It didn't really affect her painting. "I paint flat," she says. At the same time, she doesn't take her sight for granted and is a walking PSA for using eye drops in our dry climate.
• • •
Miller likes to put different images together - a bird beneath a branch next to a roughly painted, almost out-of-focus vessel next to a delicate teapot decorated with an iris, a lid hovering above it. This is her 2005 piece "April, Oklahoma." She painted it after helping move her mother-in-law back into her own house from a nursing home. It's about remembering and putting things back together, Miller explains. The teapot, you see, doesn't have a lid in real life.
She does that in her life, too - pairs the freer schedule of an artist with the more structured regimen of teaching. This year, she taught art to fifth-graders at a charter school.
"I never had a job where you had to show up at the same time every day," Miller says. "It was exhausting."
"It gives back more than you give," she says of teaching, which she's done for more than 20 years.
As an added bonus, Miller says, "I love the idea that I've inflicted my ideas about art on them."
That age group is at an interesting crossroads, Miller points out. "You're at the top of the childhood heap" but still so far from adulthood, Miller notes. "They won't feel that free again until their 40s."
Miller, who finds people - like birds - fascinating, also teaches studio art to adults. She loves how they bring such a wealth of knowledge and diverse backgrounds to their art.
In fact, Miller says, she enjoys teaching adults even more.
"They get my jokes."
Artist Cynthia E. Miller
• Where you'll find her work: Etherton Gallery, 135 S. Sixth Ave. No. B; 624-7370; www.ethertongallery.com and selected pieces are available through her website www.cemillerart.com. Her studio is open by appointment only, call 275-4331 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
• Price range: $700-$4,000.
• Et cetera: Miller is teaching advanced classes this summer through The Drawing Studio, 33 S. Sixth Ave., 620-0947, www.thedrawingstudio.org
Contact Kristen Cook at email@example.com or 573-4194.