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Art people: Marion Miller/painter

  • artist Marion Miller, discusses her exhibit, The Arena Series, at the Ox Bow Gallery on Pleasant Street, Northampton.

    artist Marion Miller, discusses her exhibit, The Arena Series, at the Ox Bow Gallery on Pleasant Street, Northampton. Purchase photo reprints »

  • One of the paintings from Marion Miller's exhibit, The Arena Series, now at the Oxbow Gallery

    One of the paintings from Marion Miller's exhibit, The Arena Series, now at the Oxbow Gallery Purchase photo reprints »

  • One of the paintings from Marion Miller's exhibit,The Arena Series, at the Ox Bow Gallery

    One of the paintings from Marion Miller's exhibit,The Arena Series, at the Ox Bow Gallery Purchase photo reprints »

  • artist Marion Miller, discusses her exhibit, The Arena Series, at the Ox Bow Gallery on Pleasant Street, Northampton.

    artist Marion Miller, discusses her exhibit, The Arena Series, at the Ox Bow Gallery on Pleasant Street, Northampton. Purchase photo reprints »

  • artist Marion Miller, discusses her exhibit, The Arena Series, at the Ox Bow Gallery on Pleasant Street, Northampton.

    artist Marion Miller, discusses her exhibit, The Arena Series, at the Ox Bow Gallery on Pleasant Street, Northampton. Purchase photo reprints »

  • artist Marion Miller, discusses her exhibit, The Arena Series, at the Ox Bow Gallery on Pleasant Street, Northampton.With her are her dogs, Keeper, left and Banty, right.

    artist Marion Miller, discusses her exhibit, The Arena Series, at the Ox Bow Gallery on Pleasant Street, Northampton.With her are her dogs, Keeper, left and Banty, right. Purchase photo reprints »

  • artist Marion Miller, discusses her exhibit, The Arena Series, at the Ox Bow Gallery on Pleasant Street, Northampton.
  • One of the paintings from Marion Miller's exhibit, The Arena Series, now at the Oxbow Gallery
  • One of the paintings from Marion Miller's exhibit,The Arena Series, at the Ox Bow Gallery
  • artist Marion Miller, discusses her exhibit, The Arena Series, at the Ox Bow Gallery on Pleasant Street, Northampton.
  • artist Marion Miller, discusses her exhibit, The Arena Series, at the Ox Bow Gallery on Pleasant Street, Northampton.
  • artist Marion Miller, discusses her exhibit, The Arena Series, at the Ox Bow Gallery on Pleasant Street, Northampton.With her are her dogs, Keeper, left and Banty, right.

One of Marion Miller’s earliest memories is of light striking a windowsill, and a fascination with the mysteries and power of light has stayed with her ever since. Light allows us to see, she says, and it shapes our perceptions of what we see.

And light — by its presence or absence, its coolness or its warmth — infuses Miller’s paintings in “The Arena Series,” on view at the Oxbow Gallery in Northampton. The paintings are portrayals of horses — creatures, as Miller describes them, of power, speed, personality, athleticism and vulnerability.

Though she loved horses as a child, they were not the first subjects that captured her painter’s eye, says Miller, 67, a retired professor of art at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley. She painted landscapes and has done commissioned portraits of author John Irving, U.S. poet laureates Howard Nemerov and Mona Van Duyn, Judge Michael Ponsor and Mount Holyoke president Joanne Creighton, among many others.

But during her recovery from a 1987 car accident, Miller turned to the Mount Holyoke College Equestrian Center for help. “I needed to find a physical exercise I could manage,” she said, one that would help her stay strong and active. She took riding lessons and also began learning dressage — yes, the Olympic sport made famous by Ann Romney and her horse, Rafalca — that involves executing a series of precise, predetermined movements and routines.

“The Arena Series” shows horses and riders at the equestrian center, most of them as they warm up and go through their practice paces. The paintings are still, but not static. “You’re imagining the step before and after,” she says of what she tries to capture.

In each, the play of light creates depth and texture, drawing the viewer in and directing the eye from one section within the painting to another.

“The Arena Series” was recently exhibited at the First Street Gallery in New York City, where many of Miller’s paintings have been shown over the years. In his notes to the New York show, art historian Paul Staiti noted the temptation to compare Miller’s horses to those painted by Edgar Degas. “... but that would not be quite correct,” he wrote. “Those were racehorses, stoked and proud. ... Marion Miller’s horses are more like Degas’s dance students, practicing at the barre, tying shoes, rehearsing moves, powering up, or drifting into fatigue. In her indoor arenas, there is the sense of stasis reciprocating with action, of orderliness disregarded, of a moment arriving and departing.”

Miller, who usually has several paintings under way at once, says her process with each involves starts and stops and changes “until I’m satisfied.”

She paints in the studio of her Belchertown home, where she shares the land with chickens, three dogs and three horses. “Since natural daylight is so crucial to my painting — I usually work with a combination of day and artificial light — I tend to go to the studio first,” she said.

“Every bit of contact with the horses contributes to the making of paintings about them,” she added. “It doesn’t go quite the same way in reverse, except for the fact that discipline, sensitivity and balance — factors required to be involved with horses — might be considered essential to any practicing artist.”

— Suzanne Wilson

“The Arena Series” is at the Oxbow Gallery, 275 Pleasant St., Northampton, through Jan. 6. Gallery hours are Wednesdays through Sundays from noon to 5 p.m.

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