With his playground sculptures enjoyed by generations of children, Jim Miller (born 1/25/29) was at heart an artist. He employed the traditional skills of pattern making plus his fine art skills to create a wide variety of distinctive artwork. Jim’s father was Martin Miller, a skilled pattern maker outside of Detroit who ran his own business through the depression and where Jim learned the foundational skills he later brought to his work. He credits his mother, Jennie (Lindfors) Miller, with fostering his love of art.
Jim studied at the University of Michigan (1947-49) and Wayne State (1949) followed by an independent study in Europe with sculptor Ossip Zadkine (1951-52) before succumbing to the draft. He joined an intelligence unit in the Korean War, where he and his fellow soldiers named “Porkchop Hill” and where Jim earned the Bronze Star by saving another soldiers life in an incident he rarely discussed. After the war, Jim studied at Cranbrook Academy of Art (1954-55) and was then hired as an Instructor of Sculpture & Basic Design at the University of Michigan (1955-1960). He left teaching as he was self-described as ‘fiercely independent’ and he wanted to focus on his own work.
In 1960 he started a company, Form, to design and build playground sculptures and equipment. Over the next 21 years, Jim created his iconic work which was celebrated in the Michigan Modern: Design that Shaped America book and gallery showing in 2016. One of his most famous pieces was the Turtle, still found worldwide, with ones on display at Cranbrook, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and in his home town of Birmingham Michigan’s Shain Park. Another was the Porpoise, with the first ever made now on permanent display at Cranbrook. Others included his Moon House, Camel (where many are found in the Middle East), Castle, Elephant, Playwall and Basketball Standard which is still in use throughout the United States. In 1981, he sold Form to Wassau Tile, and focused from that point forward on his artwork using the name Jim Miller-Melberg. Melberg was his grandfather’s last name before immigrating from Sweden when he changed it to Miller; Jim chose to use it in order to stand out from the many ‘Jim Millers’ in the art world.
Jim’s work has been displayed in many galleries, including Michigan Artists Show at Detroit Institute of the Arts (1956), Rackham Gallery at University of Michigan (1958), Play Sculpture Exhibitions at LA Museum of Science & Industry (1971,74), Extended Media – Fresh Visions at Detroit Institute of the Arts (1986), Krasl Art Center in St. Joseph Michigan (1991), Ford Gallery at Eastern Michigan University (1991), Michigan Outdoor Sculpture in Southfield Michigan (1993), Sculpture at the Matthaei at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (1999), Sculpture Invitational at the Crooked Tree Art Center in Petoskey Michigan (2004), the Michigan Modern: Design that Shaped America exhibit at the Grand Rapids Michigan Art Museum (2014) and The Art of Play exhibit at the Lawrence Technological University (2017). An interview with Jim was also featured in the Michigan Modern: Design the Shaped America book (released 2016).
Jim has sold his work privately and through numerous galleries. His most iconic sculpture, Michigan Spring, was approved by the Town of Birmingham Michigan (12/3/18) to be placed permanently in front of the town’s public library in honor of their local artist, with installation planned for 2019.
Jim died November 14, 2017, peacefully, at home, surrounded by his artwork.
In his words found on a notepad near his drawing table after his death: “I am a sculptor – a simple yet extraordinary occupation practiced by man for centuries – perhaps 40,000 years. Translating ideas, feelings and visions into tangible forms. Translating light and shadow into visual poetry to tell a tale: what one knows about life, love, beauty, death, horror of war, tranquility of peace – of happiness.
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