John Paul Miller: From A to Z

The Jewelry of John Paul Miller is now on view in the Ratner Gallery of the east wing. John Paul Miller is one of America’s finest living goldsmiths and the first award recipient of the Cleveland Arts Prize for visual arts in 1961. Want to know more?  We've asked Stephen Harrison, curator of decorative art and design, for all of the details on this influential artist-craftsman. You’ll see we’ve got most of the highlights covered from A to (almost) Z.

A: When did you first become AWARE of John Paul Miller's work?

I first learned of his work when I came to Cleveland five years ago. John Paul Miller is not widely known outside the world of studio craft and metal work. I find it disappointing that more people don't know about him, and I'm excited to be able to share his work with a wider audience.

B: We noticed that the exhibition contains a lot of BROOCHES? Why?

The pendant brooch is a really good device for a sculptural artist like John Paul Miller. The brooch is the biggest canvas for an artisan jeweler to work on to achieve a fully formed composition.

C: The pieces featured in the exhibition have a great sense of COLOR. What contributes to John Paul Miller's use of color?

In a word, nature. John Paul Miller is talented both as a goldsmith and an enamelist. The colors model the delicate palette found in nature of many of the creatures that inspired his work.

D: Can you tell us about John Paul Miller's contributions to DESIGN?

Beyond his own incredible works of jewelry design, John Paul Miller taught courses in various aspects of design at the Cleveland Institute of Art and, as a consequence, has had an enormous influence on generations of designers that have come from that program. His works always marry the aesthetic with the practical in their form and composition—always the mark of a good designer.

E: How did John Paul Miller contribute to the art of ENAMELING?

John Paul Miller is quite celebrated for his work with gold, but he also has a great reputation as an enamel artist. His own particular method employs the use of cloisonné, which involves tiny chambers of enamel on the surface of his pieces. This is a common technique; however, John Paul Miller takes it a step further by joining tiny sections of gold together instead of using long strips of metal to form the cloisonnés, thereby creating an incredibly complex texture within the enamel. In this way, he combines the art of granulation with enameling in a very interesting way.

Hermit Crab Pendant Brooch, 1984. John Paul Miller (American, b. 1918). Gold, enamel. Private Collection © John Paul Miller

F: How did you FIND the pieces to include in this exhibition?

We started this process about six months ago. I worked closely with John Paul Miller, who suggested his ideal selection of works he'd like to see come together, and I simply built upon that to pull the checklist together. Then the process of locating the works began.

G: What is GRANULATION, and why is it so important to John Paul Miller's work?

Granulation is an ancient technique, by which tiny pieces of gold are bonded to another surface of gold without the use of solder. Granulation seems to have begun in ancient times within the Etruscan culture between the eighth and the second centuries B.C. Miller virtually rediscovered the technique in the early 1950s and has brought this ancient art to its highest degree of refinement in contemporary jewelry.

H: How has his love and appreciation for HISTORY influenced John Paul Miller's work?

He was very much influenced by coming to the Cleveland Museum of Art as a child. He took art classes and spent hours viewing the collection. His main technique of granulation came from an ancient Etruscan process. Even the look of some of his creations takes on an Egyptian or Assyrian appearance.

I. There are more than a few INSECT creations among the works chosen for the exhibition. Where does John Paul Miller's love of insects derive?

Moth Pendant Brooch, 1994. John Paul Miller (American, b. 1918). Gold, enamel. Collection of Barbara S. Robinson © John Paul Miller

Miller is perhaps most enamored with the complicated color palette that many insects display. There is also a sort of dichotomy in his works between something that is both scary and that which is beautiful. Using insects is common among many jewelers.

J. What do you have to consider when installing an exhibition of JEWELRY?

One of the most important factors to consider is the light source. Jewelry is best appreciated with good, strong concentrated light. In this gallery there is a lot of natural light coming into the space. So we had to add screens to bring down the direct sunlight to enable the case lights to work their magic. We also had to consider the right color to showcase the works within the cases. We considered about three colors before finally settling on the fawn color.

L.  What do you consider to be John Paul Miller's LEGACY?

His devotion to hand craftsmanship and his revival of the granulation technique is perhaps John Paul Miller’s greatest legacy. Many jewelers are using the process of granulation as a result of his work.

N. What's NEXT? What is the exhibition you're working on now?

I’m working on a number of topics that draw from the 19th and 20th centuries. But it’s too early to say beyond that at this moment.

O. How has John Paul Miller's work help put Cleveland and OHIO on the radar for decorative arts?

John Paul Miller taught at the Cleveland Institute of Art for many years, and he influenced a generation of artists in our region. He taught classes in drawing and exhibition design, as well as metal arts.

P. What do we learn about John Paul Miller's PASSION for his work from viewing the exhibition?

Look at one of his pieces and you realize it takes months to create it. You can't produce something of that quality without being passionate. He also has a great love for music and you see that in his work as well. His compositions look like a score of an opera: 40 musicians playing at once.

Q. What do we learn about the QUALITY of John Paul Miller’s work?

The quality of Miller’s work is extremely high because of his devotion to handiwork. He even made the cords and necklaces by hand. That is not common at all.

S. What are his SIGNATURE pieces that are now on display in the exhibition?

There are probably three or four.

Hermit Crab Pendant Brooch, 1984. John Paul Miller (American, b. 1918). Gold, enamel. Private Collection © John Paul Miller

Squid Pendant Brooch, 1959. John Paul Miller (American, b. 1918). Gold, enamel. Collection of Charles S. Tramontana © John Paul Miller

Moth Pendant Brooch, 1994. John Paul Miller (American, b. 1918). Gold, enamel. Collection of Barbara S. Robinson © John Paul Miller

Talisman Necklace, 1985. John Paul Miller (American, b. 1918). Gold, silk. Collection of Mrs. Scott R. Inkley © John Paul Miller

T. What's special about the TALISMAN necklace?

Talisman Necklace, 1985. John Paul Miller (American, b. 1918). Gold, silk. Collection of Mrs. Scott R. Inkley © John Paul Miller

The Talisman necklace is a study in contrast. It is made completely of gold, but it has been oxidized, not painted, to chemically change the surface to a black patina. It also explores fragmentation: positive and negative space and light and dark.

U. What are some of the things that make John Paul Miller UNIQUE as an artist?

He shows great humility in his work. He hasn’t sought much recognition for his work and has hardly charged much for his pieces. Those qualities are pretty unique in any maker but especially a jewelry artist!

V. What are some of the things visitors should consider when VIEWING the exhibition?

Look for the texture and three-dimensional quality of the pieces. They are really like sculpture in many ways. They draw you in and invite you to linger. Look with detail because there are many layers to each piece.

The Jewelry of John Paul Miller is on view through January 2, 2011.

-- Kesha Williams


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