AKRON — In six decades, P. R. Miller has called many places home: Mars, a scrapyard and town landfill, a Stark County farm, an outdoor art studio in south Akron.
And for the past year, Miller has made himself at home in a place no one else has for years. The eccentric yet earthy character has settled in and redecorated Akron’s pristine Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens as its first-ever artist-in-residence.
Miller, who doesn’t actually live on the estate grounds, visits almost every day to check his sculptures and talk shop with those who are curious about his imaginative work.
Calling himself The Grizzled Wizard, Miller is using his residency to showcase his peculiar art and to reach out to others with a message about recycling.
“My entire life has to do with recycling. That’s all I’ve ever done and probably all I’ll ever do,” Miller said.
His childhood, on the tail end of World War II and during the ease into what he calls our culture’s rampant consumerism, sprouted his disdain for the quest to amass ‘stuff’ and create trash.
Miller, now 60, is a native of Mars, Pa. He was raised in the scrapyard his father managed and today admits the town dump was his playground. He funded his art degree from the University of Akron “on the back of a garbage truck” and later became a demolition contractor.
All the while, he developed his wacky imagination into artistic motivation. He built on his first public artwork exhibition — as a 9-year-old, he painted a grape tree mural on his mother’s garage door — and reveled in the positive reaction it garnered.
“It was fabulous. I’ve been doing it ever since.”
More than a year ago, Miller was invited to apply for a project at the prestigious Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens.
Local artists and architects would be selected to build treehouses there as part of a special project in the summer of 2007.
Miller’s sketched idea earned him a spot on the list of high-profile locals to grace the property with their work.
His Flower Pergola — worlds apart from every other treehouse built — was one of the most popular in the exhibit.
Miller’s work isn’t exactly commonplace, and many don’t even accept it as art. Instead, they say it’s trash or junk, accusations that are part of what ran Miller off his Stark County farm a handful of years ago.
In the late 1990s, township and county officials accused him of running a junkyard on the property and contaminating the soil and water. Miller called the property his studio and questioned how car batteries and paints stored there — in the name of art supplies — were any worse than those dumped into a landfill.
“My life revolves around watching people consume and dispose of things they really shouldn’t have had in the first place,” Miller said of his motivation.
Rather than see perfectly good art supplies dumped into the ground and buried, Miller salvages badminton rackets, parts of jungle gyms, legs from an old trampoline, GOJO soap mixing tanks, CDs, cable ties, electricity meters — anything that somebody’s throwing away — for his work.
Add to his reduce-reuse-recycle mantra his theatrics and belief that he’s a wizard with supernatural powers, and you’re in for a real treat.
Response to P.R. Miller’s pergola pushed authorities to name him Stan Hywet’s inaugural artist-in-residence, an honor bestowed in January. As part of his program, Miller was commissioned to create at least 100 flower sculptures to be scattered around the grounds.
He’s exceeded that, taking every opportunity to place another piece of his work in an unexpected location. And he’s going to keep creating the sculptures until he’s out of ideas or materials, neither of which is likely to happen anytime soon.
“As an artist, my job is to alter your reality,” Miller said.
“I am a visionary artist. Everything happens in here,” he said, tapping his forehead.
Miller paints and tethers together gaskets, fan shrouds, discarded ceiling fan blades, hollow radio woofers and spinner rims to look like flowers, then mounts them atop stems made of car exhaust pipes, golf clubs or ribs from hoop barns.
He calls his work “visual bubblegum.”
“As soon as I see pieces, I say ‘Oh, I’ll weld this to this and that and that and then wow!'”
Miller has also used five-gallon bucket lids, plastic bottle caps, brass radiator drops, hot extruded plastics and even bowling balls to add the perfect touch to his sculptures.
The only supplies he buys — the only things to come from somewhere other than a Dumpster or landfill — are welding wire and mis-mixed house paints.
“The universe is my oyster. It’s all out there,” he said.
As part of his residency, Miller uses the spotlight to teach others, young and old, the benefits of recycling and ecological stewardship.
It’s a mission he’s been carrying on for years, driving his beat-up purple Ford Ranger with his Grizzled Wizard logo on the doors to visit schools and groups and dramatize how upset Mother Earth is with human behavior.
“Americans are absolutely, so tremendously, terminally stupid that they have to just throw everything away,” he said.
“They can’t reuse it, they don’t know how to give it to somebody, they don’t know how to recycle it, they just buy, buy, buy, buy, consume, consume, consume.”
“It’s what we have done to the planet. My job is to clean it up.”
In schools, he shows a video of his home studio replete with literally tons of art supplies, “100 times what you can even possibly imagine,” he said.
It’s all trash. But with his unique spin on it — creating a new use, a second life — P.R. Miller turns it into treasure. And he invites everyone to try their hand at reducing waste, reusing, recycling.
“”It’s all about teaching people to recycle,” he said. “That’s my whole purpose in life.
“This art stuff? It’s just for fun.”