Gourds, stones and Applebee’s bones: That’s what Nancy Lyon Miller’s art is made of.
Those items, and a few more. Miller, a 1964 DePauw graduate, sees a basketful of South American wrist rattles and thinks “art supplies.” The same thought springs to mind when she came upon, believe it or not, some Bolivian goat hooves.
On a visit to Applebee’s restaurant, her sweetheart Bernie was eating a dish called riblets and the tiny bones’ usefulness, post feast, struck Miller. “I had him save them and then I would clean them up here and I’d bleach them a little bit and let them dry. … When I saw that great, big, thick gourd, I just knew it wanted to be something with a big statement around an opening and simple. And I went, ah, I’ve got the riblet bones. So I started laying them on.”
And laying. And removing. And laying again. And dyeing and polishing and stitching and drilling and sawing and skewering and poking and, finally, “Riblet Petals” emerged.
Her creativity, she said, comes from close observation and “a free imagination that I think I was just born with. … There’s something about being close up and detailed that’s very important to me. … One way of describing me and how I approach things is, you’ve heard the expression ‘you can’t see the forest for the trees?’ Well, my version of that is I can’t see the forest for the veins on the leaves on the trees.”
“One way of describing me and how I approach things is, you’ve heard the expression ‘you can’t see the forest for the trees?’ Well, my version of that is I can’t see the forest for the veins on the leaves on the trees.”
Miller majored in art at DePauw, but didn’t settle on a particular medium. “I knew I liked art but I never pursued the art or was encouraged in a super-serious way, like, go to the art museum or take classes all summer,” she said. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”
She landed a job teaching art at a middle school in Arizona, where her husband-to-be was in graduate school. They married; she taught, but disciplining the kids was so stressful that she decided not to return after her first year. And then her husband got cancer.
They moved back to Detroit, their hometown, and he died in March 1966 at age 24. The pain she saw in her loved ones’ faces was too much to bear, so she sought work to escape. Pan Am Airways hired her as a flight attendant on a route from San Francisco to Japan.
To occupy layover hours in Japan, Miller and other flight attendants took lessons from a local woman who applied colorful papers to create small, decorative boxes. Someone tried putting paper to a chicken egg. Miller loved the look, but made a mess. A friend urged her to take the papers home and make at least two dozen products “before you give up, because I know that you can do this.”
The friend was right. Miller perfected her technique and was so enamored that she laid in a supply of the thick, pliable mulberry paper so she and her flight attendant friends could “hang out in my hotel room and drink beer and cover eggs.”
Other friends thought that her eggs – by now, chicken, ostrich and quail – were so appealing that she should show them to the proprietors of an upscale San Francisco gift shop. “So I went there,” she said. “This was the major turning point for me in terms of having some success and confidence.”
The proprietors liked the eggs and asked if she used the same technique on stones. It was “a life-changing question,” she said. “They were so smart and they were so trusting in the fact I might be able to do something. Trusting me more than I might have trusted myself.”
Miller’s stones, which typically would fit comfortably in a woman’s hand, paperweight size, were hot – so hot, she said, that she was able to buy the Indianapolis house to which she retired in 2002 and pay it off in seven years.
Meanwhile, she started tinkering with gourds of every size and shape one could imagine. Still another flight attendant friend took photos of them to a gallery in Seattle, where the owner snapped them up. Though he refused to divulge the name of purchasers, Miller came to believe that her gourds grace the homes of a major software mogul, a magazine editor and two fashion designers.
She doesn’t sell many anymore; she shows them only at CCA Gallery in Carmel, Ind., and says they’re too expensive for most people. But she keeps creating, and has hundreds of gourds in her basement, waiting for her inspiration to strike.
“I don’t see a finished thing in my mind,” she said. “We work together – me and the gourd.”