P.R. Miller re-emerges from his Wizard’s Lair with a new gallery exhibition

Words and photos by Derek Kreider

Junkman, artist and self-styled wizard P.R. Miller returns to Akron with a showing of his work entitled “Present and Retro,” opening July 10, 2021 at the Summit Artspace in the Betty and Howard Taylor & Welcome Galleries.

“Present and Retro” spans Miller’s entire art career, from his early ceramic work as a freshman in high school to the blown glass pieces from his time at Penland School of Craft in 1980, as well as more contemporary, newer work, like his flower sculptures made from scrap metal and pieces that will debut at the show opening, including, as Miller puts it, “One of the best lamps I think I’ve ever made.”

The show is his first after a long hiatus. “I’m trying to, shall I say, come back out of the closet,” Miller says, “and at least show myself that I’ve still got something. I don’t know what, but something.”

Akronites may recognize Miller’s work. He’s responsible for the humongous, rusted metal frog outside the Highland Square Library and was Stan Hywet’s artist-in-residency in 2008.

“The only one they ever had,” Miller says, “and they haven’t done it since. I had 125 of my giant flowers all over Stan Hywet for a year.”

Gypsy Grace and the Vintage Goat, a boutique shop on W. Market Street, carries wizard wands he made from gnarled blueberry roots found on the farm where he lives.

“The majority of my artwork comes from recycled goods. Whether it’s scrap copper wire people throw away or this black thing,” he says, picking up a piece of equipment that already looks like a sculpture. “That’s actually part of Ohio Edison’s devices for attaching power lines to the telephone poles.”

The tables he’s making for the show are topped by solid plastic puddles repurposed from the Rubbermaid plant on Gilchrist Road.

“Every time they change a product or change color, or the machine goes wrong, they can’t leave it in the machine; it’ll harden, and the machine’s dead,” says Miller. “So, they purge it out onto the floor, and it forms puddles.”

Miller is always on the lookout for something he can use, either rehabilitating what he finds or incorporating it into a project.

“My hobbies are dumpster-diving, trash-trolling, garbage-gathering and rubbish-ruminating. I’m never not looking.”

His break into the public spotlight was a one-man show at the Massillon Museum. After that, Miller lived full-time in Akron until 2013, moving to Blueberry Hill Family Farms deep in the forested recesses of Glenmont, Ohio, on land owned by the Nabor family, who also also owns the Mustard Seed Markets.

The trek to Blueberry Hill begins with simple highway driving, but then, there is a marked change and only the most rudimentary paving remains.

So it makes sense when you’re greeted by a sign reading “Travel at your own risk.” Hemmed in by trees and farmland — and at one point confronted by a decrepit barn that’s practically in the middle of the road — you round a corner and are threatened by farm equipment bullying their way along. Provided you aren’t run into the Mohican River by a wheat thresher, you arrive at a steep driveway leading up through the trees. At the top of the incline, the sun bursts through the tree cover and onto the farm itself.

And there’s Miller, motoring around in an electric golf cart.

The fields, he says, are finally up to snuff. The bushes bursting with fat, green berries turning pink and beginning to ripen. His job on the farm is to mow the blueberry fields.

“In the 11 years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen them like this,” Miller says. “In the summer it’s constant mowing,” he says.

Miller calls his studio The BIZ, or the Berry Industrial Zone, an area littered with projects in various stages of completion.

Cacti pop out of hand-thrown ceramic pots, and chunks of in-process wood sculptures dot the landscape. Tables, half-completed, stand outside a garage, waiting to be assembled and given purpose, surrounded by a rough horseshoe of shipping containers full of who-knows-what that ring the space like wagons circled against wolves gathering in the dark.

“Very few people, especially Margaret and Philip [Nabor], they try not to come past here,” Miller says at the entrance to the BIZ. “Many people cannot handle chaos.”

Past art supplies cleverly disguised as trash, Miller enters what he calls “The Wizard’s Lair,” a decommissioned refrigerated truck body pressed back into service as his living space. Walking in is a visual assault.

“I love chaos because I love putting things in order. I took a ton of scrap, and I made a frog!”

Everything that can hold something, does. Books hide behind what look like electrical components. Newspaper clippings are affixed to shelves. Tools dot a desk midway through the dwelling. In the back left corner, above a bed, the radio plays “Heaven is a Place on Earth” by Belinda Carlisle, which weaves around in the background as he explains his art and life.

“To me, this is like, next to nothing,” Miller says, gesturing widely. “When you grow up on a junkyard, and every Friday night you burn three or four automobiles at once, and it’s seven acres of scrapyard — this isn’t even a quarter-acre that I have here,” he says, describing how his childhood in Mars, Pennsylvania molded him.

“Life,” Miller says, “is about discovering your destiny.”

Fresh out of college and disillusioned with the idea of being an art teacher (Miller has a degree in art education), he took a job as a repo man. Later, he was a demolition contractor.

“What is a wizard’s purpose? The purpose is to observe the flow of energy and direct it to its proper place,” Miller says. “Everything, if you let it, can be art. It depends on your modifications.”

He practices what he preaches. In his hands, everyday detritus cast aside by humanity becomes ladybugs, tables and giant flowers.

He is also a monument to willful living with few concessions made, and then only when absolutely necessary. Good and bad and blasphemous, unprintable profanity sprouting amongst picturesque blueberry fields — you take what you get with P.R. Miller because that’s all he’ll give you.

“I am who I am, and I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve been given,” Miller says, “And you can’t really expect much more than that out of anybody.”

That’s what makes him an unvarnished original.

Derek Kreider is a general assignment reporter and distribution manager for The Devil Strip.

Present and Retro, a retrospective of P.R. Miller’s work
July 10 — Sept. 25, 2021

P.R. Miller — aka “The Grizzled Wizard” — works with recycled scraps, reimagining them as large-scale, whimsical sculptures. His work has manifested in public sculptures around the city of Akron. This exhibition includes works made from metal, glass, clay and more, chronicling the artist’s journey over the course of his decades-long career.

Public, in-person viewing (FREE)
Fridays, from 12 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Saturdays, from 11 am to 5 p.m.

Summit Artspace
140 E. Market St.
Akron, OH 44308
Details at summitartspace.org

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