In the Garden: Bill Miller Returns to Shelter Island with DieFirma

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Artist Bill Miller on location at dieFirma. Sophie Griffin photo.

Off a back road past Wades Beach, nestled back into lush greenery, there sits a different kind of garden. Populated by colorful stainless steel flowers, abstract hanging bells, and dozens of linoleum “paintings,” dieFirma East, which opened July 21, is the New York arts organization’s summer outpost on Charlies Lane on Shelter Island. Featuring the art of Bill Miller, whose work was shown at the same outdoor location last summer, and the sculptures of the late Gloria Kisch, dieFirma East brings great art, and the people who come to see it, into nature.

Way back in the spring of 2020, Miller was supposed to have a showing of his work at dieFirma’s space in Cooper Square. However, a pandemic got in the way, and like so much else, the show got canceled.

Guests enjoying Bill Miller’s work on view at dieFirma on Shelter Island.

“I felt a responsibility and a commitment to get his work out in the world,” Andrea Stern, founding director of dieFirma, said in a recent phone interview. “And so this idea of doing a show out here, outside, came about as a way to make sure that Bill wasn’t going to go into the tank. And to make sure that his work, all this work that he had dedicated so much time to, would get out, be seen. We had this plot of land that was kind of wild and we had the idea to carve out paths and make it a garden.”

After a successful first year, dieFirma is back in the same space, but with more art — by Gloria Kisch in addition to Miller — and more events, from Q&As with Miller and local artists or artist-adjacents to workshops led by Miller himself. For the workshops, visitors can make their own linoleum tile in Miller’s style, to take home with them.

Miller’s works are collages made from linoleum. Hundreds of small, colorful cut-outs come together to form portraits, or still-life scenes, or landscapes. Placed out in the garden, some of the more nature-based images bleed out into the surrounding foliage.

Miller, who’s based in Pittsburgh, originally did more traditional paintings, but he started to collect linoleum scraps in 1994. By ’95, he had enough material to begin to make collages. His artistic process starts in the dumpster: Miller has to source from a declining supply of linoleum, so it’s tricky to find the stuff. He has help, though, from donors he calls his “linoleum angels.”

“Frances,” a linoleum collage by Pittsburgh-based artist Bill Miller.

“I fell in love with the material because it was being thrown away. It looked like paintings to me,” Miller said during a recent meet up in the garden gallery.

The hunt for new raw material is part of the joy of creating. By now, he has a studio full of linoleum. Made of tar cork and linseed oil and finished with enamel paint on the facing side, linoleum was invented in the 1890s and stopped being used in the 1950s. It originally was very high-end, but as time went on it became cheaper and more widespread. Miller explained that he can differentiate linoleum from different eras: in the ’20s, it was more floral, oriental, art-nouveau style, in the ’30s and ’40s it became much more geometric and graphic. On a floor, as the layers go down, it’s almost geologic.

“Miller draws inspiration directly from the raw material, as well as from the scuffs and scrapes of its previous lives,” wrote Stern in describing the artist’s work. “The flooring is a witness and teller of history. Miller doesn’t modify the surface, instead choosing to transform its plainness into complex pictorial arrangements, while letting its own material legacy speak.”

Miller is sharing the garden space with Gloria Kisch, an American painter and sculptor who died in 2014. Her metal, colorfully-painted flowers sit to one side of the garden’s acre, and in another area her geometric bells hang, next to two stainless steel benches she made.

“She was an East End artist,” Stern said. “She had moved out 20 years ago from the city to Flanders where she set up her workshop … She lived and worked out here for 20 years and had relationships with a lot of the local art institutions. She showed her work at Guild Hall a few times.”

“[Kisch] died suddenly in her sleep, and at the time that I was getting my MFA and I just felt that she hadn’t made a plan, obviously, for the end of her career. And I wanted to get her work out in the world,” she added. “We thought that the work is outdoor work and we hadn’t shown it in Long Island. This was really her home, this was very much her stomping grounds. And so I thought it would be a nice pairing to have Bill and Gloria together.”

dieFirma East is located at 1 Charlies Lane, Shelter Island and is on view through August 8. Tickets for workshops or Q&As can be purchased at in-the-garden.eventbrite.com. For more information visit www.diefirmanyc.com.

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