By Michael J. Solender
As a young man of 19, Chris Miller had a chance encounter as a day laborer working construction on a large residential home in Denver, Colo., that would turn out to shape and influence the trajectory of his professional career.
“I was on a summer job which got me into plasterwork,” said Miller, 53, recalling his serendipitous exposure to what would become his life’s work. “The workers doing the plasterwork needed a helper and I ended up working with them. The person who taught me remarked with the skills I was learning and the ability to use various tools, I could go anywhere I wanted.”
For Miller, that journey has navigated a history-lined road of ornamental plaster restoration, metal work and creative craftsmanship linked in time to artisans of generations past. The Iowa native has traveled the across the country with his talent working on projects as diverse as plaster restoration to historic buildings on the campus of Yale University and molding repair for private homes, to exhibit fabrication for Disney theme parks and serving as prop master for Matthews Playhouse.
“My work involves ancient handicrafts, specifically blacksmithing and ornamental plaster,” said Miller. “I love the history of applied arts. Creating something from your surroundings, both useful and beautiful drew me to each. I refer to my work as rooted in history because that is what draws me to the art forms I choose to work in — plaster and metal work both are rooted in history in technique and materials.”
Miller came to Charlotte in 2006 with his wife, visual artist and painter Lynne Miller. He began his work then as a sole proprietor of Miller Restoration, where he contracts with individuals and businesses on handcrafted projects, including custom plaster sinks, furniture, moldings and historical repairs. One of his more significant projects found him commissioned to rescue segments of a hidden dome in the First National Bank Charlotte building that was destined for a dumpster. He took molds and preserved hand carved plaster details before they were destroyed.
Though doing plaster work for years, his exploration of smithing and forging is relatively recent, beginning in 2016 after finding inspiration from the History Channel show, “Forged in Fire.”
“I worked with a roof thatcher on a job once who said, ‘With the two of us, a blacksmith and a candlemaker, we’d have a village,’” said Miller. “It stuck with me as blacksmithing is another traditional craft.”
Miller is quick to connect his craft with those playing their trade through the generations.
“When I work on an historic building, it’s fascinating to see the work of and think about the craftsmen that were there before me,” said Miller. “I think about who the person was who did the original work. Craftsmen of the past started as apprentices, journeymen and the like and worked their way up through the trade. That was their art, that was how they exhibited their creativity.”
He looks to use his ASC Creative Renewal Fellowship to expand his skill base and spend more time focused on creating a body of work representing his ideas and interests. Miller recently attended a Penland School of Craft workshop, Introduction to Pattern Welding, where he learned to use different metals, each reacting differently to acid etching to create intricate patterns.
An Instagram post of a hand-forged chef’s knife he worked on landed him a commission.
“I’m excited to evolve my career into new directions,” said Miller. “As long as the work remains rooted in the past.”