“I knew I would be an artist from the age of four,” says Edgar Miller, “when I saw a painting of Custer’s last stand that looked so real I could feel the knife that killed him.” Miller fulfilled this calling, distinguishing himself not just in painting but in other media like stained glass, wood, ceramic, metal, and particularly the designing of decorative elements for buildings and apartments.
But seven years ago Miller, the artist responsible for the unique look of some famous Old Town interiors, was in his 80s and sliding into obscurity in San Francisco. A small band of devotees found him there and brought him back to Chicago, and he’s been living here ever since.
Now 93 years old and leaning heavily on a cane, Miller is never without his sketchbook. Until a few years ago, when he lost the use of one eye, he collaborated with stained-glass artist Larry Zgoda on new glass for Old Town buildings Miller himself remodeled more than 65 years ago.
Miller has been part of Chicago’s art history since he enrolled at the School of the Art Institute during World War I. After he left the school he won the AI’s Frank G. Logan Prize for a stained-glass window that is now part of the Art Institute’s collection. Over the years, Miller worked on decorative features for residential and commercial buildings designed by Chicago architects William Holabird and John Root, Howard Van Doren Shaw, Thomas Tallmadge, Andrew Rebori, and Earl Reed. In 1933 he painted murals for the Century of Progress Exposition, which led to a score of other commissions, including sculptures and carvings for churches and synagogues, sculptures for the North Dakota State Capitol, and interior designs for hotels here and in Washington, D.C., and New York. As late as summer 1991 he executed works of art for private collectors. Though some of his work was destroyed along with the buildings that housed it, much is not lost.
Miller cuts a striking figure: He often wears a black beret atop his white hair, and most of the time he is formally attired in a suit, one of his white shirt cuffs fastened with a small safety pin. His floppy bow tie is a remnant of his late wife Dale’s silk-screen designs of the 1930s (“regular ties ended up in the paint,” he says) and his concessions to modernity consist of a down jacket and black high-top Reeboks. His manner is courtly, but on certain subjects his genial expression turns mildly ferocious. He’ll say, “Art critics don’t know anything about art, but simply use their position for the privilege of talking about it” or “Abstract artists don’t convey anything,” emphasizing his comments with a raised index finger, as if delivering a divine message.
Back in 1917, Miller met fellow artist and future business partner Sol Kogen at the Art Institute. Miller, along with Kogen and a dozen others, left the school in protest over what they deemed the administration’s indifference toward their questions about the meaning of art. “The art schools are dependent on making an artist out of unworked material,” he says. “If they get a student who is already self-fashioned, they don’t know what to do with him.” The group, who called themselves “the Independents,” found a haven at Hull House, then under the direction of founder Jane Addams. Miller says she “was amazing to me because she took our concerns seriously enough to offer us the time and the opportunity to work there.”
When the group disbanded, Miller continued using the Hull House kiln for his pieces in terra-cotta, including vases, figurines, and tiles. At the age of 21 Miller married his first wife, Dorothy Ann, and they had three children. After ten years together, they divorced.
Kogen concentrated on expanding the family yard-goods business, opening three stores. But a few years later he gave up the business to study art in Paris. On the Left Bank he saw artists remodeling old buildings into studio apartments, and in 1927 he returned to Chicago with plans to do the same. He bought a three-story brick building at 155 Carl St. (now West Burton Place), which had once been the home of Mayor Fred A. Busse.
Kogen recruited his old friend Edgar Miller, who had a reputation for redoing every apartment he had lived in. Together they tore out floors to make dramatic high-ceilinged rooms and moved doors to create new spaces; the building became 17 apartments with no two alike. Kogen haunted junkyards, vacant buildings, and Maxwell Street stalls for cheap materials that he and Miller converted into utilitarian and decorative objects. Copper from old bathtubs became doors and door handles; wood and tiles from demolished downtown buildings cover the walls and floors. Miller recalls, “Here was secondhand material like good wood, tile, and marble that was distinguished as hell, ready to be destroyed. We salvaged it.” Miller put into motion what he sees as a never-ending process of renovation. To this day he maintains, “It isn’t finished yet.”
Lynn Abbie, former president of the Chicago Art Deco Society, a 350-member group of collectors and aficionados, gives high marks to Miller for his “superb use of space in problem areas such as tiny urban lots,” and for being the first to use industrial glass for ornamentation along with stained glass. “Miller was a master at recycling materials–actually junk,” she says, “but in his hands they became jewels.”
With some help from his assistant Jesus Torres, Miller hand-carved entire wooden staircases, balusters, refectory tables, and benches, incising motifs of animals and plants; he designed, cut, and painted stained-glass windows; he tiled the fireplaces; he combined woods and laid new flooring designs. Outside, Miller ornamented the building with frescoes and mosaics and built a protecting wall of brick inlaid with colorful tiles to create a private courtyard, with wildflowers and a rock garden with running water and goldfish.
Miller’s contributions did not go unnoticed. In 1930, when he exhibited his stained glass, beaten copper, paintings, ceramic work, and black-and-white drawings at the new Cinema Art Theatre on Chicago Avenue, Chicago Daily News writer Douglas Hardy called him a “Master of Mediums.” He wrote that Miller “should hang up a shingle with that line printed on it in black letters. It is hard to believe that any other creative artist in Chicago can work in so many fields with so much surety and so much success.”
Earl H. Reed Jr. proclaimed in the August 1932 issue of Architecture magazine that “a new luminary has risen in American decorative art. Each fresh product of Edgar Miller, designer-craftsman, of Chicago, is proof of this. Signs of an exceptional creative versatility abound in the Carl Street courtyard. . . . In that fascinating place materials of every sort [are] taking beautiful and appropriate form under the urge of a powerful imagination.”
While Kogen and Miller were finishing work on Carl Street Studios, as the apartments were named, they tackled three brick buildings (one Victorian and two newly built) clustered together at 1734 N. Wells. In all their dealings Kogen was considered the businessman and building designer, and Miller the craftsman and contractor. According to Abbie, the buildings they worked on laid the groundwork for Old Town’s distinctive style.
Just as important as the aesthetics were the functional innovations. Leaded glass windows with clear glass made beautiful patterns of illumination and maintained privacy; ordinary brick walls (with a few lines of inlaid tile for decoration) kept out street noises; tall windows on one side of a room faced smaller windows that opened onto courtyards, encouraging cross drafts.
Miller and Kogen’s partnership wasn’t the perfect friendship it appeared to be. Miller claims he was never paid for his work even though the two were ostensibly partners. “I would make tiles, cast plaster models, sculpt a figure, and some time later I would find things I had done months or years before on other buildings,” he says. “Sol had stolen them from me. I was so busy, I knew things were missing, but I couldn’t worry about everything.” Miller’s brother Frank, 92, says, “I came to Chicago in 1929 and was shocked at what I considered a bad deal for Edgar. Sol owned both Old Town buildings, and Edgar didn’t own anything. Edgar got to live rent-free in the unfinished studio apartments, but as fast as the apartments were completed, Sol would rent them and Edgar and his wife would move into another unfinished one. Edgar was earning his living doing advertising artwork for Marshall Field’s and other stores as well as working on other commissions–the stuff just poured out of him–yet Kogen paid him nothing for the building jobs.” In the mid-30s the two parted ways.
Don Anderson, an artist and free-lance writer who was an art student in the 40s, remembers visiting people who lived in the apartments on Wells Street and Burton Place. He says, “Sometimes my friends and I would go by the houses just to look at them. They were the epitome of design in those days.” He remembers hearing that Kogen was “clever. He didn’t have the reputation for creativity and broad spectrum of artistry that Edgar had, but he was an entrepreneur. If it wasn’t for Kogen, we wouldn’t have those apartments. This was a Depression period, unlike anything we’ve experienced since, and yet partly because of Kogen, Edgar kept working.
“Edgar needed Sol Kogen as much as the reverse,” adds Anderson. “Edgar got free food, free room and board. When people recognized his talent, he had a stage to present his theories. Kogen let Edgar take his time and be as creative as he wanted. Plus, Kogen helped create an innovative architecture, using reject material, that resulted in Edgar’s imprint on Chicago arts and crafts.”
Aleck Gingiss, who lived at 155 W. Burton for a few years in the 1950s and for a while was a partner of Kogen’s in some other neighborhood enterprises, remembers Kogen as “a nice warmhearted, brilliant man who was a good architect and a great artist.” Miller also gives Kogen some credit as an artist, saying, “Sol could sit down and turn out a fairly realistic portrait. He knew how to transfer the general sense of a form to the paper.”
Kogen retained ownership of 155 W. Burton, living in one of the apartments with his wife and daughter and continuously remodeling the structure until his death in 1957. In 1936 Miller moved to the now-demolished Normandy House building on Michigan and Tower Court, across from the Water Tower. He lived in an apartment upstairs, using another one for a studio, while he designed the interior of the restaurant downstairs. Frank Miller worked as his assistant for a while, then became head barman at the restaurant.
During the late 1930s Miller collaborated with architect Andrew Rebori on several other residential buildings, notably the Frank Fisher building at 1209 N. State, and with architect Edgar A. Guest on a three-story apartment building at 2150 N. Cleveland. The Frank Fisher Apartments are a fine example of art moderne or “streamline” style, with curvilinear walls and windows. Both buildings have the Miller characteristics of living rooms with glass blocks or stained glass extending up two full stories, plaster reliefs, murals, and hand-carved doors, again with animal and plant motifs.
In 1940 Miller married Dale Holcomb, an artist he met in 1933 when she was sketching portraits in the Century of Progress Exposition. As he describes their life together, his voice cracks and his eyes well up with tears. He says, “I married a woman who was my friend and we had a nice life together.” He smiles at the memories: “We used to give parties and I enjoyed that more than anything. We made gingerbread cookies and decorated them, and I painted dishes to give as gifts to our guests. Everything I’ve done was because I enjoyed doing it. We were married more than 20 years and spent part of the time in Mexico, where I studied Mayan drawings. We had two boys, and now they are very peculiar people.”
Jo Mead, who had a design studio in Chicago for 30 years and sold wall sculptures made by craftsmen from Miller prototypes, says “Dale was Edgar’s greatest supporter and helped him with his work. She was also a great artist. They had a mad household with people coming and going. She kept it all together.”
Miller seemed equally at ease working in everything from wood and glass to clay and metals. He says, “I never had a fear of an unfamiliar medium. For instance, I realized I could carve, and just tackled it immediately. The ideal way, for example, with wood, is to take hold of it and carve it through to the end. One thing I realized: if you ever want to do something, do it.” Back in the 30s, Miller says, he saw a demonstration of batik, just then coming into popularity among artists. He asked the artist to show him the techniques, and when he couldn’t afford the price of the lessons, he went to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, found an article on the subject, and taught himself.
Frank Miller remembers when Edgar was four, “Father put him up on a counter and gave him pencil and paper, and Edgar drew a pocketknife, complete with every detail. He’s never done anything else but art.”
“When I was around eight years old,” Edgar says, “I would walk all over, looking at nature and animals, and go off and visit the Blackfoot and Bannock Indians, who were fishing and hunting up and down the Snake River. While they were dancing or performing their ceremonies I would sketch them.”
Edgar Miller spent his first 14 years in Idaho Falls, Idaho, the second of five children. Frank says their mother was a schoolteacher who taught Choctaw Indians in what is now Oklahoma before coming to Idaho. “Mother was a lady,” he says, and Edgar adds that “she was hung up on names and lineage” to the extent of naming her youngest son Fauntleroy (he later changed it to Eugene). Edgar says, “Mother had the unbelievably silly idea of dressing me in a black velvet jacket. Out in Idaho’s cattle country that was ridiculous, and I was picked on and chased home almost every night–until I made a tomahawk and hit a tough kid with it.”
Both parents had their own dreams. In Frank’s unpublished memoir, “Bees in His Bonnet,” he writes, “My Father, Dr. James Edgar Miller, respected optometrist and watchmaker, after twenty-eight years, decided to become a beekeeper, and in 1911 harvested 52 tons of honey. After reading an article in a magazine about enormous yields of honey in Australia, at the age of 57 he sold the International Harvester truck, the cow, all his bees, filled the cellar with root vegetables, the pantry with flour, rice, beans, lentils and dried fruit, to feed those left behind for many months” and took his oldest sons, Frank and Edgar, who were then 14 and 13, to the other side of the world.
“We left in 1913, and went to the wrong place at the wrong time to raise the wrong thing,” says Frank. Australia was then experiencing a devastating drought, the worst in about 20 years. He says “there were other droughts there every three years, but we hit the bad one.”
But Edgar remembers Australia differently. “I was so tremendously interested in the sights that I was carried away by it day and night,” he says. “We were living in a little house in the foothills and there were three or four ancient eucalyptus trees on top of this hill. Now, the rest of the country was second-growth small trees, but these were ancient trees. There was something magical about them when you saw them in the moonlight on that hill. One night, I was awakened by the sound of a curlew, a bird which has the most weird sound, and I got up and went out on that hill. I have painted that scene several times, because it was the peculiar explosion of several realizations. There was a feeling that there is something larger than the earth.”
When the father discovered that Edgar, then 15, was preparing to run away to New Guinea to “study the birds of Paradise and flowers and the fascinating natives who made themselves up,” writes Frank, he arranged to send Edgar to art school. But young Edgar wouldn’t stand for it. “I had been drawing for so many years that I was bored stiff in school and went down the street to a lithography house, and even though I had never done this kind of work, with my techniques in crayon, pen, and ink, I fit right in,” says Miller. “Unfortunately, father learned that I wasn’t going to art classes and sent me home to Idaho.”
After completing three years of high school Edgar was sent to Chicago, to the School of the Art Institute, where a cousin could keep an eye on him. Even this plan failed when, as Miller says, “My cousin Joe had to go home because his father, my uncle Charlie, had a herd of cattle in Montana which froze standing up.” Miller stayed in Chicago. “I was trying to find out what art was about. That was a quest that started very early in my life: What were you accomplishing? What was involved?”
Miller claimed he never got any answers from anybody except artist George Bellows, who taught briefly at the SAIC. Miller says, “I met him in the halls of the Art Institute after he gave a talk and asked him a question: ‘What does a line do? What is a line?’ On the back of my sketchbook he made the rectangle of the canvas and said, ‘Now, look on your canvas. Although it is invisible, the diagonals from corner to corner cross in exactly the center.’ From those few words I realized that these invisible diagonals are not invisible to the artist at all: they are very obvious, but they’re invisible to people in general. He gave me the most intense ten-minute discussion of art that I’ve ever had.”
Seventy years later Miller searches through his sketchbooks and displays charming animal drawings with hundreds of straight lines and arrows dissecting the compositions. He says, “From that talk with Bellows I realized the enormous amount of invisible structure that is underneath painting. That you can control the organization, and that if you haven’t that, you haven’t anything. A picture is a control of that space. All the straight lines go to the edge of the picture, so that the eyes don’t wander anyplace outside of it. You either understand form or you don’t.”
Most people find these analyses incomprehensible and, frankly, boring. Tim Samuelson, preservation specialist with the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, confides that he sent some architecture buffs to visit Miller and they returned with the opinion that Miller was “losing it.” Samuelson laughingly told them, “That’s Edgar Miller being Edgar Miller.”
After he left the Art Institute Miller spent four years as an apprentice starting in 1923 to another talented artist-craftsman, Alfonso Ianelli. (One of the mausoleums at Saint Mary Cemetery, at 87th Street and Pulaski in Evergreen Park, has exterior stone carvings of the stations of the cross by Ianelli; inside Miller modeled 13 statues of saints, four-and-a-half feet high). Miller also tried teaching art history at the School of the Art Institute for a few years, but quit in 1927. He says, “Most of the students were searching for nice-looking partners and wasting everybody’s time.”
Miller went back to stained glass, his work in that medium bringing him awards and press mentions. However, it was his paintings and commercial commissions that brought him financial security. It was not uncommon for prominent people such as architects Holabird and Root to pay $10,000 for portraits, and Miller also did works for hotels (the Statler in Washington, D.C., and the Pierre and the Waldorf- Astoria in New York), industrial buildings (Pabst Brewery in Milwaukee), universities (Northwestern University’s Technological Institute), a state capitol building (Bismarck, North Dakota), churches, mausoleums, banks, hospitals, and shopping centers. Once he even painted murals for the interior of a private plane.
One of his most playful murals is enshrined in the Edgar Miller Room, a refectory at the Tavern Club on the 26th floor of 333 N. Michigan, Holabird & Root’s distinctive art deco skyscraper of 1928. Love Through the Ages, a mural Miller painted there in the late 50s, is described by club historian Bruce Felknor as “an airy treatment of the most profound memories of humankind,” beginning with pictorial allusions to Adam and Eve, then moving on to cave drawings, and finishing up with an astronaut on the moon–a decade before one actually went there.
On the second floor of the Art Institute, outside the architecture department’s gallery, are two examples of early Miller creations. The first is a leaded glass window with bird designs. In 1925 Miller entered this piece in the Art Institute of Chicago’s 23rd Exhibition of Modern Decorative Arts and won the Frank G. Logan Prize. In each of the window’s ten panels are pieces of hand-painted and colored glass embellished with etched abstract designs resembling feathers, stars, and flowers and a zigzag border, all reminiscent of what is now called Pueblo Deco style. At the same time the heavy lead cames, or rods, that hold together the panes of glass remind you of medieval illuminated windows.
Two seven-foot-high translucent sandblasted and acid-etched glass renderings of the goddess Diana show the influence of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs held in Paris in 1925, where the term art deco originated. There’s a cool icy green cast to the glass, and the half-naked figures are posed on an unbroken plane, one depicting Diana with a bow and arrows, the other with a stag and a pair of falcons. These panels are from a series of seven Miller made for the Diana Court of Holabird & Root’s Michigan Square Building, at 540 N. Michigan. Completed in 1928, the eight-story building was demolished in 1973. The focus was a central rotunda with a large fountain depicting Diana, designed by the eminent Swedish sculptor Carl Milles. Miller’s panels were set into the curved wall of the rotunda and lit from behind. Recently restaurateur Arnie Morton donated four of the panels to the Art Institute. (None of them are presently on display.)
Constructed between 1939 and 1941, Northwestern’s Technological Institute, on Sheridan Road in Evanston, is full of Miller designs. Outside bas-reliefs, carved in limestone, depict the history of applied sciences through those who influenced it and their inventions: McCormick and the reaper, Fulton and the steamboat, Gutenberg cranking out his Bible on a hand printing press, and the Wright brothers and their plane.
The largest apartment at 155 W. Burton Pl. is a veritable living museum of Miller’s artistry. It is lavishly endowed with evidence of his creativity in the 20s and 30s: paintings, tiles, windows, frescoes, and carvings. In a niche on the living-room wall is a 2-by-17-foot mural of a verdant forest, painted in earth tones and incised with simple geometric designs around the border. Here are spiritlike wild animals in the styles of Gauguin and Rousseau: tigers, little birds, and climbing animals interspersed with abstract plantlike designs flowing over and around and into another graceful and sinewy animal figure.
Artists Bob Horn and Larry Kolden are craftsmen who have been renovating the Burton Place building for seven years. Kolden, a former professor of art at Southern Illinois University, said, “This building is a constant inspiration for us to find new ways to do each project. The owner, Mark Mamolen, trusts our judgment as long as we keep the original motifs. He feels these apartments are a showcase for Edgar’s work. This is about him.” Horn, who worked on the Wells Street building for eight years before he started at Burton Place, says, “In the 30s Sol and Edgar found cast-off copper bathtubs in alleys and cut them up for decorations. Now we use new copper for the same purpose. We always try to enhance Edgar’s work and complement it with our point of view.”
The bedroom of the grand apartment is now one enormous room, where once there were three small ones. In 1986 Mamolen, a buyout entrepreneur, commissioned Miller to create new work for the spaces. Horn remembers, “I rolled out clay for him and asked him to use a fish motif for the shower. We have a kiln in the basement where we fired everything.” Miller designed more than a dozen tiles: a salamander with starfish, a red sea horse, a pink octopus, a green jellyfish with a school of fish swimming by. Above the bed are a series of stained-glass windows Miller created with the help of artist Larry Zgoda. Titled The World, the work depicts Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden with flamingos and other exotic animals, all under the sun, moon, and stars, which are colored in translucent, lollipop colors of vivid pink, orange, gold, red, cobalt.
On one wall is a series of untitled lithographs by Miller dated 1939 showing what seems to be the stages of love as seen through a cynic’s eye: in the first a young boy and girl are looking at each other adoringly and innocently: puppy love personified. In the next the boy is down on one knee, proposing; the third has the two locked in an ardent embrace; in the fourth he is an older, heavier man in a stark rehearsal room, chucking a young ballerina under the chin. One is reminded of a similar series by Charles Dana Gibson, depicting the stages in a woman’s life as she evolves from a young, sylphlike creature before her marriage to a matron with a thickened body, then to a grim birdlike figure in black widow’s weeds.
In a loft apartment at 1734 N. Wells is a low wall fronting a balcony; its golden wood is carved into distinct panels pierced with highly stylized forms of flowers, plants, fruit, and creatures. Though both sides of each and every panel are carved with dissimilar forms, Frank Miller said it took his brother only a day and a half to do this entire work. When asked to comment on the carving recently, Edgar stared at it for a few seconds and said, “To discuss it or describe it as you would the furniture or objects in a room is completely stupid. It’s a different language.”
At another collector’s house are two of Miller’s watercolors, one of a childhood cat, the other of “Bossie,” the cow that Frank describes as “a member of the family.” Both paintings look like the work of an Oriental master: the simplicity of the design, the broad black brush strokes, the unusual colorings, the Chinese red signature. The reposing cow has an almost human face, blue horns, and russet coloring–and you would swear that the tail is switching.
The green-striped cat, with eyes like huge jade beads, suggests a ferocious Bengal tiger stalking determinedly through the forest. On closer examination, it turns out to be a spoiled house cat in a grouchy mood, claws extended, raking furrows in its owner’s carpet.
Frank owns a dramatic painting by Edgar of a figure standing in a clearing of towering trees on an indigo night and gazing upward at rolling clouds illuminated by the moon and stars. The moonlight casts a mystical glow earthward and emphasizes the smallness of the figures. Frank explains, “Edgar and I were camping on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. It was a beautiful spot and we built a fire of great big pinecones. I was going to gather more cones and we both looked straight up to see this beautiful sight.”
Miller departed from the plant and animal themes in his work in the 30s for the 201 Tower building, at 201 N. Wells, currently being restored. Just above large plate-glass windows on the Lake Street side are silhouetted forms in pierced lead: one man works with a pick and shovel, another carries a sheaf of wheat, another pushes a plow–all surrounded by meticulously executed rococo scrollwork.
In the early 40s Miller had been bringing in enough work that he was able to buy a mansion on North Sheridan and a piece of land in Michigan. Almost 20 years later, when his popularity waned as design styles changed, he sold the land at a large profit. Even now Miller complains, “The only real money I made when I had to make money was from buying land.”
In 1967, flush from that sale as well as the sale of the mansion, he moved the family to Florida with the idea of designing houses and hotels with Dale. They bought the Roxie Motel in Clearwater and planned on constructing a resort but had difficulty getting permits for the work. Miller kept busy sketching architectural plans and painting; he also had a job carving wood doors for an apartment building in Sarasota. Then Dale became ill in 1978 and soon died, and Miller moved to San Francisco, where his two sons live.
“I was very disappointed with the quality of art in San Francisco,” says Miller. “The trouble with that city is that it’s full of egos. That’s the most unfortunate thing that happens to an artist–he’s only expressing himself. Personality doesn’t have much to offer. A person who is limited to himself has nothing to say to anyone else.”
In 1975 Jannine Bour, a model and fashion designer, returned to Chicago after living briefly in Los Angeles and went apartment hunting in Old Town. She saw a For Rent sign on a massive carved door at 1734 N. Wells and entered through a wrought-iron gate into a little courtyard with a fountain. Disappointed to find out the apartment had just been let, she called the landlady to convince her that she, Jannine, should have the apartment.
After living there awhile, Bour fell in love with Glenn Aldinger, a doctor living in the adjoining apartment. They married and combined their apartments–one with Miller touches, one without.
Then Bour set to work with a vengeance, incorporating her own love for art deco into Miller’s details. As she researched his style she became obsessed with his work and discovered a nucleus of like-minded admirers.
Zgoda, in researching the glass and sculpture work of artists and architects who flourished in Chicago in the 20s and 30s, kept coming across hundreds of examples of Miller’s work, all of which he photographed. He began haunting antique shops and collecting pieces by Miller, including carvings, paintings, painted plates, and illustrations.
“I assumed he was long dead,” says Zgoda. “Then I met Lynn Abbie of the Art Deco Society and I said, ‘You keep writing about Miller [in the society newsletter] as if he is still alive,’ and she told me he was and living in San Francisco and gave me his address. Edgar and I began corresponding, and when Edgar came to Chicago in 1984 to receive an award from Chicago’s Tavern Club, I invited him to collaborate on a commission for two stained-glass windows depicting the archbishop and a retiring priest of the Church of the Epiphany, at 201 S. Ashland.” Miller worked for a week in Zgoda’s studio on North Pulaski. He made the drawings, chose the colors, and painted the glass. Zgoda cut the glass, fired each piece, assembled the window, and installed it. It was the first of many collaborative projects.
Zgoda joined up with other Miller fans when Fleming Wilson, another Miller devotee and a close friend of Bour-Aldinger and her husband, followed up on a classified ad Zgoda had run calling for art and artifacts by Miller.
Bour-Aldinger met Miller briefly in 1984 when the Tavern Club brought him here to receive its Bonifex Maximus medal for the murals he painted there. “Miller walked by the Wells Street building with his brother Frank and was introduced to me by an older tenant who knew him,” she says. “He was charming but shy. He walked through my living room and said, ‘You have considered the space admirably.’ I was thrilled.”
On a trip to San Francisco in 1985, Fleming Wilson impulsively looked up Miller in the phone book and called on Christmas Eve to ask if they could meet. Until then none of Miller’s Chicago fans had dared to contact him. (“To us, that would have been like talking to Picasso,” says Bour-Aldinger.) Miller invited Wilson over, and the two spent the evening together. Later Wilson excitedly called his Chicago friends to suggest that they collaborate on a book about Miller. Mamolen and the Aldingers then flew west. What they saw shocked them. Bour-Aldinger recalls, “The place was smelly and in disarray, artwork was strewn on the floor, a couch stood upright on its side, and Edgar was barely talking. To tell you the truth, at first we thought he was an artist gone mad.”
Still they persisted with the project, deciding a videotape about his life and work would be more appropriate. Bour-Aldinger began the work with several friends that year and has plans to edit 70 hours down to a television-program length of 50 minutes. “When we began the project, we wanted Edgar to be credited for all the wonderful whimsical things he did in these buildings,” she says. “Little did we realize when we began the months of research how much work he had done in other mediums and how diverse it was, and that he was a well-known artist in earlier days.”
Miller, then 86 years old, returned to Chicago five days after the meeting and the Aldingers gave him a small apartment on Wells Street. As the group researched more intensively, they saw that the project would take longer than they’d expected and apologetically explained to Miller that whenever he wanted to go back to San Francisco, he should. His response was blunt: “If I go back I won’t live to be 90.”
Miller stayed, living in the Wells Street apartment for a brief time, until his health started to give out. The group persuaded Frank Miller and his wife, Josephine, to care for Edgar in their north-side home. He stayed with them for three years, but when Josephine became ill in 1990, Edgar went back to one of the Old Town buildings. Frank said, “I was unable to care for him in the way they could. I’d have to throw away my chisels and give up my own work. He gets much better care there.”
Until recently Edgar lived in a one-bedroom apartment in one of the buildings he and Kogen renovated years ago. Mamolen and the Aldingers shared most of Miller’s expenses, with some of the money coming from Miller’s social-security checks.
His fans had become his family. Bour-Aldinger and Miller spent time at the Aldingers’ log-cabin retreat in Michigan. Glenn Aldinger, an emergency-room physician, monitored Miller’s health and prescribed medicines; Mamolen checked on Miller and took him out to dinner. Bogumila Wilczewski, the Aldingers’ cleaning woman, tended to Miller’s needs three times a week, preparing meals and shaving and bathing him. Bour-Aldinger’s sister, Claudette, came over regularly to make coffee and put his place in order. Friends dropped in, but Miller spent a lot of time alone, with two Siamese cats for companions.
Then, in 1991, Miller took a fall down a staircase. He ruptured his spleen, causing a hemorrhage that resulted in his losing sight in one eye. Frank says, “The accident really stopped him in his tracks. He can’t read or paint anymore, and he has sort of given up.” Edgar says, “This has made my work very difficult. I am so disorganized physically that I can’t control space in composition very easily anymore and I can’t carve or paint.” His sketchbook became a journal, in which he wrote: “From here on everything is crazy . . . I’m going blind. It will be gradual–I hope.” He adds, “The end of my life is a nightmare. It is broken into thousands of separate reactions–and each one is out of my control. I lose my balance, and before I am fully conscious of it, I’m staggering into an unintended explosion of impulse not very far . . . from ordinary insanity. I have no orderly control of my legs.”
One evening last December Miller left his Wells Street apartment and made his way down to the Burton Place building. At some point he became disoriented and asked passersby for help. The police were called, and according to witnesses Miller became combative. He was restrained with leather cuffs and taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Older Adult Psychiatric Unit. But the doctors felt Miller was too frail to be released without an evaluation, and they recommended that he receive round-the-clock nursing care.
Miller returned to his old apartment, this time living under the watchful eye of a series of nurses. Then Karen Flowers, an artist who at one time had worked caring for Miller, decided that his apartment was too drafty, the stairs too difficult. After consultation with Aldinger, she bundled Miller up, popped him in a cab, and took him back to her Uptown apartment, where he’s lived ever since. She says, “From now on, wherever Edgar goes, I go, and vice versa.”
Miller and Flowers often go out to dinner and to art openings. Recently he and Larry Zgoda renewed their plans to collaborate on the design for a third window for the Church of the Epiphany. But Miller still goes back to his buildings to visit. Last summer he would sit in a rocking chair in the courtyard he fashioned at the Wells Street building 60 years ago, gently stroking “Kitty,” as he calls both his cats. Miller was still musing about the process of creativity, 89 years after he saw the painting of Custer that influenced his life’s work.
“We have always known that we had two hemispheres of the brain, but we did not know enough about ourselves to realize what that meant: that there are virtually two different people in our brain.
“The left hemisphere controls verbal awareness and is unconscious of musical sound, is tone-deaf, color-blind, and blind to space, although to talk it has invented words–and numbers–so that you know that 10 feet is more than 3 feet, but it’s all a kind of mechanical realization, part of the verbal pattern that is entirely different from the other brain that is able to recognize something that is 11 feet long exactly.
“Art comes from the right hemisphere of the brain that attempts to see whole things and the left hemisphere tends to avoid whole things and will take the first avenue that leads to a logical conclusion of some kind so you don’t have to worry, it’s done. You have an illusion of accomplishment. You’ve solved the problem. That’s too bad, because that is the point at which you stop learning everything.
“A lot of realization can come without having a logical pattern. You sense it, but you couldn’t argue it. You have to expand to see a larger picture. It’s a sensation. Many people don’t have the courage to go beyond a certain point in any direction and as soon as they are aware that they are going in that direction they have a tendency to say, ‘Now wait a minute’ and they clamp down and bring in the commonplace world they know so well and that is comforting.
“Your rationalizations will give you good reasons not to do things. Rationalization is a thing that can destroy courage, particularly where something has to be decided. There’s always a damn good reason why you shouldn’t do things and you either have to give in to it or break through it and every time you break through it I think it’s easier the next time. It’s a very valuable thing you do when you break through even if you do silly things.
“Use the right hemisphere of the brain–‘Unless you be as little children are you’ll never enter the kingdom of heaven’–and don’t be overwhelmed by the left. Realize that life is a hell of a lot bigger than you think it is. Yeah. I’m sure of it.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.