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Guided by Linoleum

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Floor it: Bill Miller's "New England Churchyard"
  • Floor it: Bill Miller's "New England Churchyard"

In the early 1990s, members of the Industrial Arts Co-Op began visiting Pittsburgh's ready supply of abandoned industrial buildings, seeking materials to recycle for art projects. Among the stuff scavenged by Bill Miller, a group co-founder, were scraps of linoleum and other patterned flooring.

At first, Miller used it all simply to matte his paintings. But soon, the linoleum -- sorted, cut, carved, pieced together like a mosaic -- was the artwork. Eventually, Miller would parlay the medium into a livelihood, even as his art, and his audience, increasingly became a function of his materials.

True linoleum is fabricated primarily from solidified linseed oil and various gums, on a textile backing. Miller, now of Silver Spring, Md., uses newer vinyl products, too -- really, any kind of synthetic flooring. None of it lends itself to delicacy of technique: The material manifests in the blocky contours of folk art.

Yet that makes the array of colors and rhythms Miller creates only more remarkable. Pieces such as 2005's "Back in Beckley," for instance -- a boy foregrounding a bucolic valley -- have the depth, flow, vividness and play of impressionist paintings. But they're composed of chips and strips of up to several dozen specimens of flooring.

Miller, 44, isn't a folk artist. The Cleveland native studied at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh and spent much of the 1990s as art director of In Pittsburgh newsweekly. In 1997, he left for New York, where he was art director of the weekly Long Island Voice and, after it folded, a designer at The Village Voice.

About five years ago, Miller moved to Maryland to focus on his art. "Once I got the chance to concentrate, I was able to make it work," he says.

While finding raw materials these days less often involves trespassing, Miller still depends on serendipity for the patterns and colors he uses. Recently, visiting the Catskills, "I got all this stuff out of this house that was old," he says. "Every flooring that this woman had was something I had never seen before."

The typically antique quality of flooring material suggests the realm of memory; Miller's works include portraits of his grandparents and his late father, and serenely sensual landscapes. Nostalgia is inevitable when your medium carries the indentation of a chair leg, ghost of a sitter long dead. "I feel like I'm taking part of someone's life and using it," he says.

Indeed, even with such works as a series on the Kennedy assassination, the audience can conjure its own associations, recognizing patterns from a vanished family kitchen or corner drugstore. Miller's commissions have included one from a man who wanted him and his brother depicted together in their youth.

Vintage Linoleum Works, Miller's upcoming show of recent pieces at Pittsburgh Center of the Arts, is his first solo show here since he left. It's at once a homecoming -- booked by Miller's old Industrial Arts colleague George Davis -- and a departure. While Miller's work has garnered solo and group shows around the country, the venues, unlike the PCA, have tended to highlight folk or outsider art.

Miller prefers to be called a "recycling artist." But, he admits, "It's just nice to find a place for the stuff, really."

Vintage Linoleum Works Opening reception 5:30-8 p.m. Fri., Jan. 5. Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, 6300 Fifth Ave., Shadyside. $5 donation requested. 412-681-0873 or www.pgharts.org

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