DECATUR, Ill. — Darren Miller is overwrought and into heavy metal.
None of it has anything to do with his personality or music choices, however. It's what he does with his hands while he actually listens to opera and operates giant antique machines for the milling, shaping, bending and welding of metal into art.
His sculptures twist and writhe like vines or smoke frozen in mid-motion and yet are often far from still. Using a tiny system of bearings, some of his artwork features bladelike petals, fused with color, that catch the wind and actually spin whole sections of the sculpture. The mesmerizing effect can have the top part of the piece gyrating its flowing metal in one direction while the bottom half whirls around the opposite way, dazzling the eye.
"I have finally reached a point where at no two moments is this piece ever exactly alike," explains the Decatur artist as he watches one of his sculptures, a sinew of swoopy metal lines and whirling color, rotating in different directions at the touch of a finger. "Kinetic sculpture, art that moves, that's really where I am headed," adds Miller. "I've been really successful with those."
His art doesn't have to move to move buyers, however. Miller produces a range of organic plant stands that look more alive than the plants they are holding. He does wall hangings, too, that defy easy description but hold the eye with the graceful softness of their hard metal curves and intricate twists.
He sells at art shows and does do some commissioned work. On this particular afternoon, amid a shower of sparks, he's smoothing and polishing the individual copper seeds that will form a 6-foot-tall ear of metallic wheat as per the request of a local company. Everything is hand-cut, hand-shaped, polished, and welded with the kind of meticulous attention God must have given to the first wheat prototype.
Surrounded by drifts of jagged metal shavings and engine oil and dirt in his workshop of hulking machines, some of them dating back to the 1940s and earlier, Miller doesn't try to sugarcoat the creation process of the heavy metal artist. "This is hard work," he says, explaining that his Kleenex is often black when he blows his nose because of contaminants in the air. "It's not sitting out on some sunny afternoon dabbing on paint, which I'm sure would be a lovely experience. It's really hard work in here, and I work seven days a week, six to seven hours a day."
It's taken him quite a twisting journey to get here, too. Born into a family manufacturing business, at the tender age of 18 he had helped his father resurrect it after a fire only to see it eventually fade in the face of ever-cheaper competition from overseas. He then worked in various other manufacturing endeavors before heeding the advice of his sister, Chery Miller, who knew he had a talent for art and first suggested melding it with metal a decade ago.
"I went and twisted some stuff up for my first art show, and I didn't sell a single thing," he recalls with a smile. "And then I sold one piece for $20 shortly after that, which gave me a little bit of encouragement, even though I'd probably spent 100 hours getting ready for that particular show."
His sister, however, kept pushing him to forge ahead because she could tell this was her brother's true bent. "He was just so excited by it," says Chery Miller, a former raku pottery artist who lives in Springfield. "When he started doing the artwork, it just sparked something in him like he was on fire."
Miller rates 2011 as probably the best year, business-wise, he's had as an artist and says appreciation of his work and word-of-mouth recommendations are helping his sales. He reads and studies a lot about art but admits that doesn't always help him sell the concept of his own artistry to the public. He explains his abstract creations are built out of free-flowing designs that grow up from individual elements in a "biomorphic, extemporaneous process" to create something that deserves to be.
"And most people say 'Yeah, whatever, but it's pretty and I like it,' " he adds.
Information from: Herald & Review, http://www.herald-review.com