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Sculpting a life: Jim Miller-Melberg

Carina Hume - September 22nd, 2008
Walk into Petoskey’s Crooked Tree Arts Center and you’ll think you’ve walked into a sculpture garden. Taking over the art center entrance and Edith Gilbert Gallery is an in-your-face art installation by sculptor Jim Miller-Melberg. With vivid colors, stark whites and eye-catching forms, this exhibit is striking enough to captivate even the youngest child.
Follow Miller-Melberg’s life through early sketches – including figures, nature and sculptural concepts – maquettes, small-scale sculpture from which larger pieces evolve, and the finished product, through November 15, in the exhibit, titled “Jim Miller-Melberg: An autobiography in drawings & sculpture, 1946-2008.”
Nearly 100 working sketches and photos of finished outdoor sculptures are framed in collages on the walls, combined with 40 pieces of sculpture, including sculpture in the round and relief sculptures (three-dimensional wall pieces).

AN ARTIST’S VISION
The concept for the sculpture display was born four years ago.
“I showed [Gail DeMeyere, CTAC visual arts director] some of my work to familiarize her with what I was doing, and she thought it would make a very good educational exhibit,” says Miller-Melberg. “So, we decided …that we would make a kind of autobiography of the exhibit, showing drawings and the development of a sculptor’s life, in a sense.”
A Birmingham resident, Miller-Melberg’s outdoor sculpture, “Two Figures,” is also a part of CTAC’s Art in Public Places, sponsored by Moran Iron Works and the Frey Foundation. The project displays seven pieces of massive outdoor art in Northern Michigan communities on a rotating basis.
For close to 20 years, Miller-Melberg designed and manufactured playground sculptures, such as basketball hoop supports, precast turtles and camels, creating a company called Form, Inc. Sold in 1981 to the Wausau Tile Company in Wisconsin, the business still makes playground sculptures, to this day.
“My turtle, one of my products I designed when I was still teaching at the University of Michigan, in probably 1959,” says Miller-Melberg, “was donated by the company who is now making my products, and it’s over in the (Petoskey) library park. It’s part of the exhibit, in a sense.”
One hundred turtles have been shipped to China recently, and 40 more camels, originally a commission – a picture of them is part of the exhibit – have just been shipped to Saudi Arabia.

HANDS-ON EDUCATION
At age 79, Miller-Melberg has been creating art most of his life. “My Finnish grandfather was a painter,” he says, “and somehow or other it was always encouraged, and I started drawing when I was probably old enough to hold a pencil.”
He credits his father with giving him his early sculpting skills.
“My father was a pattern-maker in Detroit,” explains Miller-Melberg, “and he had his own small shop. He had four sons and we were all trained in the pattern-making business [which] involved woodworking, working with foundry (casting metals), working with wax, working with various materials…I think that’s how I got my start, just working in the woodshop since I was about seven years old.”
Although he’s received art instruction at the University of Michigan, Wayne State University, Cranbrook Academy of Art, Ecole de la Grand Chaumiere in Paris and pursued independent study in England and France, Miller-Melberg’s sculpting education is unconventional.
“I love the idea of universities, because you meet so many different kinds of people,” he says, “but I think that my basic education was my own interest in the work, visiting museums, traveling in Europe – in England, France, Italy – and just seeing all the wonderful things that had been done through the ages. So that’s an education, just looking, and observing, reading.”

A SCULPTOR’S LIFE
Fortunate to have sustained a sculpting career, Miller-Melberg understands that making a living as an artist is challenging.
“It’s very, very difficult to make a living being a sculptor, but that was always my intention. I had never intended to teach, so though I taught for three-and-a-half years at the University of Michigan, it was sort of an aberration. I had always thought artists and sculptors and painters should make a living doing their work.”
“I started out doing mostly woodcarvings…but because of my background as a pattern-maker, I’ve done cast iron, cast aluminum, cast bronze…modern materials, such as plastic, fiberglass materials, plaster. The only thing I’ve not done is stone carving, which I had hoped to do at one time,” admits Miller-Melberg.
“I think I’m best at carving, but I do a lot of modeling, too. Obviously, you have to model in clay and I model in wax, too, for bronze casting, but I’m pretty adept at most materials.”
Ideas for new pieces come to Miller-Melberg from nature and observation, and he credits his former wife – a concert pianist while she was alive – with inspiring him.
“What gives me the greatest pleasure is kind of inventing new things, new shapes, new ideas,” he says, “but, still, I love looking at other people’s work, because you learn from looking.”
“I do a lot of drawing from nature,” he says. “I do small sculpture, little studies in wax; if they’re good I have them cast in bronze. I’ve been working on some of those, too.”
His advice for those just starting out? “The whole art world is in turmoil,” he says. “There’s all kinds of things in the world to look at. I’m concerned that maybe there’s not enough emphasis on skills – basic skills – like carving, putting things together with your hands, working with your hands. There’s a lot of computer work done now, which is very nice and very interesting, but I think it’s very essential that people start doing things again with their hands.”

WHY VISIT THE EXHIBIT?
“I think it’s interesting to see the life of a sculptor,” says Miller-Melberg. “How one develops from a very early age – one drawing dates back to when I was 16 or 17 years old – and some of the relief sculpture, I was about the same age. And also, I think it’s interesting because I’ve done such a variety of things; I attempted to bring sculpture to public life through sculptures for playgrounds and street furniture.”
“[People] should see it,” Miller-Melberg finishes, with a laugh, “because I’m the only person in Michigan who shipped camels to Saudi Arabia.”
Visit the Crooked Tree Arts Center in downtown Petoskey, now through November 15 to check out Jim Miller-Melberg’s autobiographical sculpture exhibit. Hours are Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission is free. For more information visit www.crookedtree.org or call
231-347-4337.

 
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