R.A. Miller started making art when they took away his driver’s license. A prominent figure in Southern Folk Art, he spent his early years as an itinerant preacher and farmer.
Driving up and down the street with a loudspeaker mounted to his 1936 coupe, Miller shouted the good word. When he couldn’t drive anymore, Miller picked up his tin snips and went about finding another way.
Let’s pick up the tale and spin a story for you about R.A. Miller. You might just see the light.
The Story of R.A. Miller
Born the youngest of eight children to a widowed mother, Reuben Aaron Miller never knew his father. The story goes that Mr. Miller was involved in a land dispute with another man and met his maker on Christmas Day 1912.
Born in July 1912 in Rabbittown, Georgia, R.A. Miller missed his father’s presence for most of his childhood. He grew up hunting, fishing, and cotton farming to help his family get by.
By age 12, Miller decided it was time to move on from formal education. He dropped out of school and went to work in a cotton mill. To hear Miller tell it in the documentary Lord Love You: The R.A. Miller Story, he lived a rough life.
As a young man, Miller felt drawn to ministry but decided to wait since he had too much going on. So he waited. And waited. Finally, one day, R.A. decided it was time to “get right.”
Once on the straight and narrow, R.A. preached for the Free Will Baptist Church. He drove all over Georgia, shouting out the good news. Known for his fiery preaching, Miller was also something of a faith healer.
But all of those years working outside finally caught up with him. At the age of 65, Miller retired due to complications from glaucoma. He drove his car back up the hill and parked it in the old chicken shed.
From Preacher to Artist
Idle hands, as they say, are the devil’s playground, so R.A. Miller set about making himself busy. He took old tin roofing and let the spirit lead him. One of his uncles made whirligigs when he was growing up, and R.A. decided to try his hand at it.
In 1977 he began growing a new crop. Tin whirligigs, devils, angels, and a fellow named “Blow Oskar” popped up all over his property. Over the next few decades, Miller’s Outsider Art grew to icon status.
The 1988 exhibit Outside the Mainstream: Folk Art in Our Time at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta raised Miller’s status as an artist. Passionate Visions of the American South ran for four months at the New Orleans Museum of Art in the early 1990s.
Miller’s devils, chickens, and figures reside in permanent collections worldwide. Quite a journey for a man who couldn’t drive.
Is R.A. Miller Still Alive?
Miller suffered from chronic eye problems related to his glaucoma. His sight got so bad he had to employ assistants to paint his figures in his final years.
In 2004, he moved into a nursing home after an eye infection robbed him of his eyesight. After that, it was just a matter of time. Two short years later, in March of 2006, R.A. Miller went on to meet his maker.
What Inspired R.A. Miller?
R.A. dedicated his life to preaching. When he could no longer do it in person, he relied on his art to do the telling. His work revolved around religious themes and included the phrase “Lord love you” painted along the edge of most pieces.
Because of his religious inclinations, Miller felt it was important to expose the devil. He talks about different colors of devils as influencing humanity in different ways—Black for evil deeds, blue for depression, and other colors representing the ills of humankind.
“Blow Oskar” represented his cousin and the world around him, and National Geographic magazines inspired his animal creations. His work also features churches he visited, American flags, crosses, and angels.
Miller incorporated patriotic themes in some of his whirligigs, but many are just fun to look at. He explored various methods for building the spinning objects, settling on discarded 2x4s and bicycle wheels.
What Are Some of R.A. Miller’s Art Pieces?
Miller used the things around him to create his art and used paint, marker, and old tin as his primary mediums. Like his preaching, he didn’t set out to make specific things but let the spirit guide him. A few themes kept coming back to him, and these works represent some of his best.
According to Miller, his cousin inspired the Blow Oskar character. The first version of it was over 20’ tall. Miller continued making Blow Oskar figures for the rest of his career.
This piece has the characteristic shape of the original. A square-ish hat and outstretched arm are the hallmarks of Blow Oskar pieces. And while some of the Blow Oskar figures feature patriotic colors, Miller painted this one with green and red but kept the stars and stripes theme.
In the documentary Lord Love You: The R.A. Miller Story, the filmmaker asks Miller why he creates work with devils in it. He sits next to a hanging red devil and simply says, “Because I want to hang him.”
This piece takes the devil and turns him into a comic figure. Marker and paint on particle board are common in Miller’s best-known works. Flanked by birds and plants, this devil has a mischievous grin and is ready to cause trouble with his pitchfork.
Come to Me
Always a preacher, Miller often included sermons in his art. Another devil piece, the church-going Devil in Come to Me, represents the hypocrite.
The text reads: He sang “Oh How I Love Jesus” on Sunday. On Monday, he’ll curse and steal and life and whore hop and drink. The ways of a drinker is the ways of hell. It will bring you to the want of bread. Jesus said “Come to me and I will give you rest.”
This piece looks like an illuminated manuscript from the 13th or 14th century with the crude figure and handwritten text. Not quite monk calligraphy, Miller’s hand shows his lack of education and difficulty seeing.
Was R.A. Miller’s Work in a Music Video?
If you were in college in the early 1980s, you’ve likely seen R.A. Miller’s work before. The band R.E.M., based in Athens, Georgia, created a twenty-minute video, Left of Reckoning, with filmmaker James Herbert.
They filmed on Miller’s property and incorporated his whirligigs into the film. Michael Stipe was a huge fan, and the band included footage of the whirligigs into the video for their song Pretty Persuasion. Miller’s inclusion in the video brought him international attention and helped launch his career.
R.A. Miller Tastefully Blended Religion and Art
R.A. Miller was a preacher first and an artist second. To hear him speak about his preaching is to begin to understand his approach to making art.
Let the spirit move. In a sense, the whirligigs catch the movement of the spirit and send forth his message just like his old 1936 coupe did. Lord Love You.
Do you have a favorite art piece by R.A. Miller? Let us know in the comments below.