b. Idaho Falls, Idaho, 1899–d. Chicago, 1993
James Edgar Miller was born in Idaho Falls, Idaho; his mother was a school teacher and his father a watchmaker and optometrist and eventually a bee keeper. Miller developed a talent for drawing at a very young age, later recalling: "I started drawing as soon as I got hold of a pencil." He determined to become an artist at age 4, after seeing a painting of Custer's battle at Little Bighorn (which was likely a lithograph), and apprenticed at a local architecture firm at age 11. After moving to Australia at age 14 with his father and brother, he tried to sell drawings to a Melbourne publishing company. He took some art classes, but was too young to take life-drawing with live models, so he quit classes and worked with a lithographer before returning to the United States (and avoid conscription into the Australian Army). He finished high school in Idaho Falls and earned a scholarship to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC).
Miller arrived in Chicago in 1917, boarding at the Hull House and when World War I intervened, he served briefly in the army before returning to SAIC in 1919. Classes failed to challenge Miller, however, or answer what he felt were the deeper questions about the meaning of art; he dropped out before earning a degree. He did have the chance to study with visiting professor George Bellows, and joined a like-minded group of artists who called themselves the Independents at Hull House. In addition to Bellows, Miller found another mentor in Alfonso Ianelli, and worked as an apprentice in Ianelli's design studio. Miller eventually taught ornament, interior decoration, drawing, and design at SAIC. In the early 1920s, he opened a small, modern art gallery on Pearson Street called the House at the End of the Street. When it closed, he ran a gallery on the top floor of the Dill Pickle Club, which was a hub for Chicago's Bohemian fringe made up of intellectuals and radicals, writers, artists, playwrights, and poets.
By the mid-1920s, Miller began architecture and interior design work, remodeling homes and apartments with artist Sol Kogan and architect Andrew Rebori. Through Rebori’s connection, Miller became the artistic director of the Street of Paris section at the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition, for which he painted murals and backdrops. Now best known for his contributions to Chicago’s architecture, Miller was unusual for both designing and executing the work himself. He worked in multiple media: stained glass, tile, fresco painting, wood carving, and sculpture, and strove to create what he called a “total environment.” Most of his works remain as part of private homes with a few exceptions, such as wall decor for a cocktail lounge at the Standard Club in the South Loop, which depicts the Chicago fire.
His figure drawings in the Friedman collection show a keen eye for capturing likeness and gesture—the result of a lifelong passion for careful observation through drawing. Most were sketched during the Depression and show a sympathy for the vicissitudes of the times.
Art Beat Chicago. Artist Edgar Miller. August 8, 2011.
Cahan, Richard, and Michael Williams. Edgar Miller and the Handmade Home: Chicago’s Forgotten Renaissance Man. Chicago: CityFiles Press, 2009.
Yochim, Louise Dunn. Role and Impact: The Chicago Society of Artists, p. 260. Chicago: Chicago Society of Artists, 1979.
Artist Image: Edgar Miller / Mike Tappin, photographer. Chicago Reader.