Thomas Miller (visual artist)

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Thomas Miller
Thomas Miller.JPG
Thomas Miller at the offices of Morton Goldsholl Associates, c.1958
Born (1920-12-24)December 24, 1920
Bristol, Virginia
Died July 19, 2012(2012-07-19) (aged 91)
Chicago, IL
Nationality American
Education Ray Vogue School of Art, (now the Ray College of Design)
Known for Oils
Commercial Art
Movement Abstract Expressionism
Spouse(s) Anita Miller
Patron(s) Margaret Taylor-Burroughs
Harold Washington
Deloris Jordan
Mosaic portrait of Wilberforce Jones, one of the founders of the DuSable Museum of African American History, by Thomas Miller. It is installed in the lobby of the museum.
The DuSable Museum of African American History, Chicago, IL, where the Thomas Miller mural mosaics (c.1995) are installed in the lobby.

Thomas Miller (December 24, 1920[1] - July 19, 2012) was a prolific graphic designer and visual artist, whose best known publicly accessible work is the collection of mosaics of the founders of DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, Illinois. The mosaics are a prominent feature of the lobby of the museum,[2] the original portion of which was designed c.1915 by D.H. Burnham and Company[3] to serve as the South Park Administration Building in Washington Park on the city's south side. After serving various purposes, the building became the home of the DuSable in 1973.


Early life[edit]

Miller, the grandson of slaves, was born in Bristol, Virginia, where he graduated from Douglas High School in 1937. He then attended Virginia State College (now Virginia State University) which was founded in 1882 as the country's first fully state supported four-year institution of higher learning for African-Americans.

He graduated from there in 1941 after having earned a bachelor's degree in education with a focus on art, and subsequently enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he attained the rank of first sergeant, serving in the 3437 Quartermaster Truck Company[4][5] during World War II.


Although a formal education in art was not available to Miller during his childhood, he pursued his interest with a tenacity that would prove to be a prominent characteristic of his personality later in life. The black libraries that were accessible to him as a child in the south were generally not provided with the art history books that he was interested in studying, but he was able to use libraries normally accessible only to white people to explore the offerings of history's major artists.[6] It was there that Miller discovered Leonardo da Vinci[7] , whose work was an inspiration that continued to influence him to the end of his life.

Miller didn't have the opportunity to formally study Commercial art until he came to Chicago after being discharged from the army.[8] It was there, determined to develop his talent, that Miller applied to and was accepted as a student at the Ray Vogue School of Art. This was not easily accomplished in those days, and he and his fellow student Emmett McBain ". . .were the only African-Americans [there] besides the janitors."[9] The school had been founded in 1916 as The Commercial Art School, and was one of the first colleges of applied art and design in the United States.

By 1946, when Miller became a student, Ray Vogue had a national reputation as a leading educator in professional art and fashion design. While at Ray Vogue, Miller studied commercial and graphic art, and completed his studies there in 1950.

Morton Goldsholl Associates[edit]

Miller began his career as a professional artist with a brief stint in the Chicago offices of Gerstel-Loeff before joining Morton Goldsholl Associates, a studio that was known at the time for its "progressive hiring policies", in that it was one of the few firms then that hired minorities and women in a professional capacity.[10] Because it was a small office with a reputation for innovation and quality, it was a rare occasion when a chance to work for Goldsholl presented itself, and when this happened in 1950, Miller pursued the opportunity with his usual diligence.

Years later during an interview, he described an early part of the discussion he had with Goldsholl (1911–1995): "Morton Goldsholl told me, unlike the other people, that he wanted a designer. And he said that he wasn't hiring me because I was black and he felt sorry for me. He said he was hiring me because he needed a designer. That turned a corner for me."[11]

The road to Goldsholl was not an easy one, considering that it was necessary for Miller to overcome the obstacle that was created by the color of his skin. Although armed with a degree from a respected state university and later training as a commercial artist from a prestigious school, it became necessary for Miller to leave his wife Anita and their two children in the care of her sister in Florida, where the two women taught in the public schools, while he set out to find employment where he would be hired as an equal in his field.

His first efforts were made in New York City and New Jersey, and although he received an offer of employment with the understanding that he could work behind a screen so that his presence would not be obvious to the other designers and corporate clients, he considered this circumstance to be unacceptable. After exhausting whatever possibilities might have existed in the Northeastern United States, the next stop on his itinerary was Chicago, where he landed a job first with Gerstel-Loeff, and eventually with Morton Goldsholl. Miller flourished there, staying until his retirement some thirty-five years later.[12]

Although a relatively small firm by Chicago standards (the office was founded in the early 1940s and consisted of only about a dozen people at any given time, including Morton Goldsholl and his wife, Millie Goldsholl). Goldsholl was considered to be one of the leading graphic designers in the city of Chicago.[13]

In 1950 the studio was responsible for the creation of the Good Design Award[14] which had been established that year by the founders of The Chicago Athenaeum: Museum of Architecture and Design: architects Eero Saarinen, Charles Eames, Ray Eames, and Edgar Kaufmann, Jr.. The award has been sponsored by that organization and The European Centre for Architecture Art Design and Urban Studies since it was introduced, and in 2011 their electronics award was given to Eastman Kodak for their Kodak Easyshare Mini Cameras.[15]

The Goldsholls studied under László Moholy-Nagy[16] at the New Bauhaus (now the IIT Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology), and as the studio developed, it became internationally renowned for its creative output, which included animation[17][18][19][20] and the development of branding and packaging for major international organizations like Motorola, Quaker Oats and the Peace Corps.[21] Animation by the firm included commercials for companies the caliber of Gillette and Hallmark, whose advertising budgets would allow them to go anywhere, but who instead elected to come to Morton Goldsholl Associates, "The most successful of [Chicago] animation producers".[22][23] Millie Goldsholl was an accomplished photographer and was one of the founders in 1975 of the Midwest USA Chapter of ASIFA, the International Animated Film Association (l'Association Internationale du Film d'Animation).[24]

The innovation of Morton Goldsholl Associates wasn't expressed only in art per se - for example in 1953 the firm designed "a new line of modern [children's] furniture that was designed to 'grow'" with the child,[25] and was awarded a patent in 1985 (US4501488) for the invention of an "Image processor and method for use in making photographic prints" which was capable of making unusual images using ordinary photographic film.[26]
During his career at Goldsholl, Miller contributed to many of these projects, and was the primary designer at the studio of the new packaging and identity for 7-up in the mid-1970s.[27] [20] "The inspiration for the design just came to me" he said once during and interview. "What better way to represent graphically the effervescence of a carbonated beverage than by using circles as the basis of the design". For this project and others he earned several awards for both himself and for his company.[28]

He was the first African American to break into the mainstream profession of graphic artist, and during the 1950s and 60's was one of few to maintain a membership in traditional trade organizations like The Society of Typographical Arts. Connections such as these were necessary to maintain and advance one's career.[29][30]

Independent work[edit]

Miller's career as an independent artist began unwittingly during the time he was stationed in Europe during World War II. With the shortages caused by the war, Miller's media by necessity was whatever he could lay his hands on - proper paper, pencils, paint and chalk were hard to come by[1][31] - but never one to pass on an opportunity to paint, draw or sketch, Miller took whatever art paraphernalia he could improvise and went out on his free time to artistically record the beauty that was still Europe. This frequently led to a spontaneous commission, where Miller would part with his current project for pocket change (or equally as often by making a gift of it) when a passer-by stopped to admire his work. After the war and while he worked at Goldsholl Associates, Miller continued as an independent artist both by private commission and by displaying his work at various venues. It was at a show at Hyde Park in Chicago that Miller was approached by Margaret Taylor-Burroughs, then director of the DuSable Museum, to create some kind of memorial to the museum's founders. This meeting resulted in the creation of the Thomas Miller mosaics.
Miller also used his talents to copy the works of better known artists for collectors who either couldn't afford the originals or which because by their very nature were unavailable. For these commissions, the "copies" were always made different in some respect, either by a change in the size or color, or by the addition of some feature which only a side-by-side comparison of the original would reveal. This was an opportunity for Miller to study the style and technique of other artists, and served as an educational experience for him.


The papers of Thomas Miller are archived at the University of Illinois at Chicago and include photographs, proofsheets, slides, award certificates, realia, prototypes, calendars, periodicals and samples of his designs for industry.[32] (7-UP, MIC, Betty Crocker's Chicken Helper, children's textbooks etc. are found throughout the papers and in the photographic images, slides and realia. STA: The 100 Show, 1961, 1986, and Simpson Connections Calendar, 1985 were transferred into the Special Collections Rare Book Collection.)

Listing of selected works[edit]

Over the course of a career (both independent and professional) that spanned nearly three quarters of a century, Miller produced over 1000 works of art that include internationally recognized corporate branding, illustrations for books, lithographs, drawings, sculptures, and various other projects. Below is a chronological listing of some of his more important and notable work.

At Morton Goldsholl[edit]

(As chief designer)

(As a supporting member of the design team)

As an independent artist[edit]

  • Founders Mosaics - DuSable Museum of African American History

The founders' murals are Miller's magnum opus, and beautifully demonstrate the creativity that is typical of his work. Unlike traditional mosaic that is made with earthenware or glass tile, these are made from thousands of pieces of plastic that were harvested from plastic egg crate light diffusers which were then individually colored and arranged to create the images in the series. "Anybody can do an oil painting," he said during an interview, "but to take a face and do it with squares is hard. They have to be turned at an angle to catch the light".[37] In addition to portraits of the founders, the series includes a portrait of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the late Chicago mayor Harold Washington, and a collage depicting the history of Chicago.


Thomas Miller died in his sleep at his home at Smith Village in Chicago, IL.[38]


  1. ^ a b [1]
  2. ^ [2] The DuSable Museum of African-American History - Thomas Miller Mosaics. Retrieved 10/07/2009
  3. ^ [3] Chicago Landmarks - Historic Resources Survey: D.H. Burnham & Co. South Park Administration Building. Retrieved 10/6/2009
  4. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2010-11-06. Retrieved 2010-07-10. BLACK ARMY/AIR CORPS UNITS STATIONED IN THE UNITED KINGDOM. Retrieved 2/1/2010
  5. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-07-11. Retrieved 2010-07-10. DDay Retrieved 2/1/2010
  6. ^ [4] Project Muse - Scholarly journals online. Black Public Libraries in the South in the Era of De Jure Segregation. Michael Fulz. Accessed 07/10/10
  7. ^ Fitzpatrick, Lauren (February 18, 2007). "Life by Design - After career overcoming racial obstacles, top graphic artist finds new creative outlet". Daily Southtown. pp. Southland, p.1.
  8. ^ [5][permanent dead link] "African American Designers: The Chicago Experience Then and Now". Retrieved 10/8/2009
  9. ^ [6][permanent dead link]"African American Designers: The Chicago Experience Then and Now". Text of lecture by Victor Margolin, Professor of Design History at the University of Illinois at Chicago,presented in February, 2001 at Looking Closer: AIGA Conference on History and Criticism. Retrieved 10/12/2009
  10. ^ Kirkham, Pat. Women Designers in the USA, 1900-2000: Diversity and Difference. p.64
  11. ^ Fitzpatrick, Lauren (February 18, 2007), "Life by Design", SouthtownStar, Section III Pages 1–2
  12. ^ [7]
  13. ^ [8] The Encyclopedia of Chicago: Graphic Design. The Chicago History Museum c.2005. Retrieved 10/12/2009
  14. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2009-10-09. Retrieved 2010-07-10. The Good Design Award
  15. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-04-30. Retrieved 2012-07-19. Good Design 2011 - Electronics. Retrieved 7/19/2012
  16. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-07-25. Retrieved 2010-07-10. Chicago Film Archives
  17. ^ [9] Millie's films
  18. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2009-03-21. Retrieved 2010-07-10. Up is Down
  19. ^ [10] Paper
  20. ^ Up is Down on YouTube - Narrated by Hans Conried. Accessed 07/11/2010
  21. ^ Metsch, Steve (December 21, 2008). "Pioneering artist honored for his stellar career". SouthtownStar. p. 1.
  22. ^ [11] Millimeter Magazine "The Loop" April, 1975
  23. ^ [12] Millimeter Magazine "Animated Commercials - Their Use (and Misuse) on Television. by Michael Spoorn February, 1976
  24. ^ [13][permanent dead link] ASIFA International Animation Association (l'Association Internationale du Film d'Animation) newsletter. Retrieved 10/21/2009
  25. ^ Lester, Elenore (February 27, 1953). "Modern Furnishings Designed for Children, Growing in Popularity". The Oregon Statesman: 6.
  26. ^ [14] Image processor and method for use in making photographic prints United States 4501488]
  27. ^ The Chicago Design Archive - Morton Goldsholl Associates - retrieved 3/29/2010 Archived 2011-07-25 at the Wayback Machine.
  28. ^ African-American Designers in Chicago: Some Preliminary Findings. by Victor Margolin c.2000. AIGA Journal of Graphic Design, vol 10, no. 1. Retrieved October 13, 2009
  29. ^ [15]"Needed: An Inclusive History of Chicago Graphic Design". By Victor Margolin, professor of Design History @ U of I, Chicago. First published in inForm vol.13 no. 3
  30. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-07-28. Retrieved 2010-07-10.
  31. ^ [16] Conversations at the Edge
  32. ^ [17] Thomas H. E. Miller Design Papers: An inventory of the collection at the University of Illinois at Chicago
  33. ^ [18] Flikr - 7up Decal - 1975. Accessed 07/10/2010
  34. ^ Margolies, John (1976). Design Review - Industrial Design - 22nd Annual. New York: Whitney Library of Design. pp. 98–99. ISBN 0-8230-7149-9.
  35. ^ [19] Motorola Ads
  36. ^ Megan, Greydon (July 26, 2012). "Obituaries - Thomas Miller, 1920-2012 - Artist's ability, prolific nature blazed trail". The Chicago Tribune: Section 2, p.7.
  37. ^ Fitzpatrick, Lauren (February 18, 2007). "Life by Design - After career overcoming racial obstacles, top graphic artist finds new creative outlet". Daily Southtown. pp. Southland, p.1.
  38. ^ O'Donnell, Maureen (July 26, 2012). "Obituaries - Thomas Miller, 1920-2012 - Pioneering artist, graphic designer". The Chicago Sun-Times: 53.

External links[edit]