Like a scarlet pane of firelight shining from a brick-and-mortar facade, a red door on the 1700 block of North Wells announces the presence of a little piece of magic in the Old Town neighborhood. 

“You just walk beyond that barrier and you leave your life behind—a calm washes over you and you’re in this little village that Edgar Miller created,” says psych-folk singer-songwriter Ty Maxon. “Being surrounded by that creativity woke something up inside of me.”

Maxon is recalling his time as an artist in residence at the Glasner Studio in June 2018. The residency was arranged by local nonprofit Edgar Miller Legacy, which facilitates an exchange between the public and the works left behind by polymathic artist and designer Edgar Miller—they include paintings, stained glass, wood carvings, murals, and “handmade homes” such as the Glasner (which can include all of the above). The future of these artist residencies is in doubt, in no small part due to the pandemic, but they began in 2017: several times per year, the owner of a home that Miller designed has granted a local experimental artist access to it as a workspace. Each residency has concluded with a performance or exhibition of the work conceived in the home.

Born in Idaho in 1899, Edgar Miller moved to Chicago at age 17 to study at the School of the Art Institute and jump-start his career as an artist and designer. On a 1923 poster advertising an arts event called the Cubist Ball, Miller was described as “the blond boy Michelangelo,” and he rapidly made a name for himself with his multidisciplinary approach to art and design. During the 1920s and ’30s, he helped build a handful of live-work spaces for artists on the north side of Chicago, including the Carl Street Studios and the Kogen-Miller Studios, of which the Glasner is a part—he arranged salvaged tiles in folksy mosaics, carved ornate figures into wooden joists, and painstakingly arranged pieces of found glass into geometric marvels.

To “Edgarize” these homes, Miller drew from a toolbox of influences that included Native American totems, Mexican modernism, art deco, and French impressionism. Though he was a master of confluence, his work remains largely overlooked by the fine-art world because of his uncategorizable style. Without Edgar Miller Legacy, it might have faded into obscurity after he died in 1993.

This space on the Glasner Studio’s topmost floor is nicknamed the “Garden of Paradise” room. Credit: Courtesy Edgar Miller Legacy

Spurred by the untimely 2013 death of his uncle Mark Mamolen, a fierce Miller preservationist, Zac Bleicher partnered with like-minded art fans and family members to found Edgar Miller Legacy in 2014. This organization not only works to preserve Miller’s creations but also helps make them available as an educational resource for academic institutions. 

Edgar Miller Legacy’s artist-in-residence program has pushed this outreach a step further, allowing current artists to take direct inspiration from Miller’s work by creating in one of his live-work spaces. The program began with a residency by cornetist and composer Ben LaMar Gay, and since then it’s welcomed around 15 artists, including ambient musician Deidre Huckabay, composer and sculptor Elliot Bergman (of Wild Belle and Nomo), singer-songwriter Loona Dae, and illustrator Hannah Dykstra. 

Artists for the residency are either invited by Edgar Miller Legacy or chosen from a pool of applicants who’ve completed an online proposal. In keeping with Miller’s eclectic approach, submissions are welcome in music, performance art, dance, writing, and visual and material arts. Once an artist is selected, a protracted matchmaking process ensues: the artist plots an ideal schedule, and Edgar Miller Legacy coordinates with the owners of Miller-designed spaces. Most often, residencies have ended up in the Glasner Studio, owned by Bleicher and his family. Artists are free to use their time—which can last from a few weeks to a few months, depending on their needs—to rehearse, record, draw, or simply sit and bask in the grandeur of the space.

Miller’s handmade homes capture an essential quality of Chicago’s arts community: they combine exacting craftsmanship with a scrappiness that manifests itself in their use of found, rejected, or broken materials. These spaces are architectural wonders in their own right, but Miller’s ultimate goal was to build creative enclaves that would endure beyond his own lifetime. 

Cellist and improviser Lia Kohl is one third of experimental trio ZRL, who began a residency at the Glasner Studio in late 2019. “Entering the space with the intention of making art there, I really felt like I was being given a gift, that the space is designed to be inspiring and open,” she says. “There’s such a unique combination of light, airiness, and cozy corners—it’s like being inside the mind of a very creative person and getting to wander around.”

Ty Maxon wrote a song in tribute to the Glasner Studio’s stained glass during his 2018 residency. Credit: Rachel Winslow

Miller-designed spaces are scattered around the Gold Coast, Old Town, and Lincoln Park, and they’ve led many lives in their near-century of existence: they’ve doubled as speakeasies during Prohibition, they’ve been long-running artistic salons, and in the 1960s the Glasner Studio served as a refuge for members of the Black Panther Party. Edgar Miller Legacy attempts to cultivate what it describes as “overlooked artistic genius,” not only through its residencies but also with awards to community members who champion Miller’s work or reflect his versatility, work ethic, and lifelong curiosity. Before COVID, the organization also hosted workshops, lectures, and tours open to the public at various Miller-related spaces around Chicago, as well as at partner sites such as the DePaul Art Museum and Art on Sedgwick.

“Oftentimes, we find that Miller’s story is a prism into many other narratives from that period of time, particularly the 1920s and ’30s in Chicago, which is considered the Chicago artistic renaissance,” says Bleicher, executive director of Edgar Miller Legacy. “The great thing about Miller’s oeuvre is that it grabs you, pulls you in, and it continues to offer more and more. Being able to go into someone’s catalog and see how vast and surprising and rich it all is without any kind of encumbrance or gatekeepers is what makes this [artist-in-residence] program special.” 

Many traditional residencies require artists to immerse themselves full-time in the space, but the Edgar Miller Legacy program offers more flexibility. Participating artists don’t have to relocate or leave their day jobs—they choose when to visit the Miller-designed space and for how long, and they get to decide how to use it. “We think that we’re a distillation of Edgar Miller’s legacy—that artists get to be part of an experience in a way that’s almost like a class or seminar,” Bleicher says. 

Ben LaMar Gay used the program’s inaugural residency to create a suite of musical and spoken-word pieces called The Manipulation of Lines & Breff in summer 2017. He spent his time in the Glasner Studio, inspired by the comfort of the three-level townhome and its interplay between light and color to channel childhood memories of “pure earth,” secret gardens, and smiles and sassafras. 

“Edgar Miller is a part of this performance,” Gay says in a video that EML created to detail his residency. “We don’t know each other, but somehow our lines have crossed.”

Miller’s spiritual presence connects many of the artistic products of the residence program. Other owners of his handmade homes have also contributed to the power the spaces can exert upon the imaginations of the artists who work in them. In 1969, the Glasner Studio was owned by Lucy Hassell Montgomery, a wealthy white woman who used her money and influence to support civil rights activism. During the worst of the FBI’s COINTELPRO campaign against Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton, less than two months before his assassination by police, she invited him to stay at the townhome. Footage survives of an interview with Hampton recorded in the space by a guerrilla video operation. 

Loona Dae at the Glasner Studio, where she did a residency in fall 2018 Credit: Courtesy Edgar Miller Legacy

Singer-songwriter Loona Dae did her residency at the Glasner Studio in fall 2018. “I feel like the energy in the space was really strong, and I tried to tap into that knowing the history of the space and how it was a compound for the Black Panther Party,” she says. “As a Black woman, I felt really empowered knowing that there were always individuals strong in character and talent frequenting that space.”

Edgar Miller Legacy is acutely aware of the connection that Black artists can feel to the Glasner Studio, and the organization’s artist-recruitment philosophy prioritizes inclusion and equity. “We are definitely looking for artists who are part of marginalized communities, because these opportunities haven’t been offered enough to women, people of color, or LGBTQ+ artists,” Bleicher says. “That’s how we feel is an important way to use this program that has such limited capacity, to make sure we focus on those groups.”

Multidisciplinary artist and performer Lakshmi Ramgopal, who also performs as Lykanthea, spent several weeks at the Glasner Studio as part of an EML residency in summer 2019. “Our approach resembled Edgar Miller’s in the bringing together of disparate influences into a cohesive whole,” she says. Ramgopal worked with dancer Asha Rowland, violinist Johanna Brock, and cellist Erica Miller on a music-and-movement piece called Some Viscera, an exploration of birth and death inspired by birdsong and lullabies. She hopes to release it in album form next year. 

Ramgopal has staged site-specific shows in nontraditional venues, including Lincoln Park Conservatory and the park outside Garfield Park Conservatory, and she wanted to use the entirety of the Glasner Studio in her performance. “Our work is motivated by the idea of memory and sharing memories,” she says. “I think about houses as being repositories of memories—good and bad.”

Treating the Glasner Studio as an instrument unto itself, Ramgopal enlisted the chiseled banisters, the earthen tiles, and the dazzling colored light from the stained-glass windows as supporting characters. Even the creaking wooden floors became part of the performance, as the audience followed the ensemble from one room to the next.

“One of the things that’s really beautiful about the Glasner Studio is that staircase that runs from the first floor up to the third, which resembles the trunk of a tree,” Ramgopal says. “I had us positioned at different points along the staircase, so the audience would see us as birds perched on a tree and move with us through the house. It was a really interesting creative challenge, and it was one of our best shows.”

The Glasner Studio inspires artists in the EML residency program in other ways too. Many describe it as a sanctuary where the pressures of the outside world seem to be shouldered instead by its many carved animals and stained-glass characters. 

“Throughout the course of our residency, we would discover ‘Easter eggs’ that Edgar left for visitors,” says Zachary Good, who plays clarinets and recorders in ZRL. “A tiny painting of a squirrel on a tile, an iron railing shaped like a snake, stained glass that changes dramatically with the light.” 

ZRL recorded Our Savings in the Garden of Paradise room during an Edgar Miller Legacy residency.

These Easter eggs inspired ZRL to honor the whimsical details in Miller’s work in the music they developed at Glasner, released this summer on the album Our Savings by Chicago label American Dreams. “The space informed a lot of what we did before and during ZRL’s residency,” Good continues. “We recorded Our Savings with the intention of making an album of improvised music. This meant we didn’t really plan anything until we got to the space. The top floor of Edgar Miller’s Glasner Studio was exciting for us because it provided an ideal environment to record, rehearse, hang, drink seltzers, and dream big.”

Maxon says his song “Dagger” is a tribute to the stained glass encircling that topmost room at the Glasner, nicknamed the “Garden of Paradise” room. “I saw the Garden of Eden, crossing the River Styx, and the land of the dead in those windows,” he says. “There’s a story going on in the stained glass, and it started bleeding into the songs a little bit.”

An encounter with Edgar Miller’s many and varied works—tempera grassa on canvas, glass panels painted with intricate details, meticulous mosaics, hand-drawn wallpaper—makes it clear that his creative life had no end. His influence continues to evolve as his art finds new people to appreciate it today. “You get a sense that more is possible when you see his work,” says Bleicher, surrounded by jewel-toned light in the Garden of Paradise room. 

The artists who have created in the presence of Edgar Miller’s legacy have demonstrated that Bleicher is understating the case. It’s not so much that you get the sense that more is possible—you get the sense that anything is.

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