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Art People: Charles Miller, painter

  • Charles Miller points to a self portrait in a painting showing  at the Anchor House of Artists in Northampton. <br/><br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • A painting by Charles Miller showing  at the Anchor House of Artists in Northampton. <br/><br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Charles Miller with paintings at the Anchor House of Artists in Northampton. <br/><br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Charles Miller with paintings at the Anchor House of Artists in Northampton. <br/><br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Charles Miller with paintings at the Anchor House of Artists in Northampton. <br/><br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Charles Miller with paintings at the Anchor House of Artists in Northampton. <br/><br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

Years ago, Charles Miller painted an oil-on-canvas portrait of the late jazz great Charlie Parker, who he’d seen play back in the day. But Miller was never satisfied with the result of his work.

“There was no personal connection,” he said of his effort to capture the legendary Parker, who died in 1955. “That was when I realized it made far more sense to paint the musicians I already knew.” During the e_SSRq90s, he did so, creating the paintings now on view at Anchor House of Artists in Northampton.

They depict a world Miller, now 81, knows well. Besides being a painter, he is a percussionist and conga player who performed for decades in these parts with many other musicians. Over the years, he painted many of those who helped forge Northampton’s reputation for music, including Ralph Whittle, Bob Farnier, Bruce Krisin, Ed Mari, Jon Weeks, Lea Macquarrie, Tom McClung, Barbara Ween, Chester Pasek, Cliff White and Steve Moser.

“All these guys here, I’ve known them for years,” Miller said, pausing at one of his canvases. “This was a concert we did in the parking lot in back of Thornes [Marketplace]. It was a nice, breezy day,” he added, pointing out bass player Genevieve Rose’s windswept hair.

In his singular, idiosyncratic style, Miller wrote in a statement for the exhibit, “I would go from the solitude of my studio 2 some joint packed with savages, and play all night with some amazing musicians. ... The cats I painted r real people and I have great respect for what they have accomplished.”

Miller often paints in neon bright, intense color. But these paintings are in black and white, which he chose, he said, for its pared-down immediacy. He wanted nothing in them but the musicians and their instruments — no distractions, he said, no smoke curling from overflowing ashtrays, no crowds of patrons seated at tables in the background. Some of the paintings of musicians onstage are done from Miller’s vantage point, seated behind them with his drums. “This is what I see,” he said, “the backs of everybody.” Rendered in paint, the scenes have a vivid, in-the-moment energy.

For many portraits, Miller invited musicians to his studio. He didn’t want their instruments to appear as props, so he’d ask them to play. “I wanted it to be exact, I wanted to get the fingering just right,” he said, as he talked about a portrait of a saxophone player. “I wanted him playing real notes.” In the spaces between the playing and the painting, they’d talk, Miller said, about life, about everything, “from baseball to last night’s gig.”

Miller dedicated his show to Brian Miller, “my son and musician,” who died in 1993. The paintings are a tribute to the musicians’ gifts and to their shared times, he said. “As long as these paintings exist, they will, too. It was a great joy” to know them, and to paint them. And when he was finished, he said, “I was really glad to say that’s it, it’s done.”

— Suzanne Wilson

“Charles Miller: Black and White Cool Paintings” is at AMA new art showcase AKA Anchor House of Artists, 518 Pleasant St., Northampton, through July 30. Hours are Wednesdays through Saturdays 2 to 5 p.m., or by appointment. Call 588-4337 or email artists@anchorhouseartists.org.

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