COREA — Don’t tell Dan Miller to retire. The printmaker and sculptor celebrated his 90th birthday this summer, but, beginning at 7 a.m. each day, he is most likely to be found carving wood in his Corea studio.
A native of Brooksville, Pa., Miller also continues to work as an instructor at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia. This fall, he’ll be teaching printmaking.
The artist first came to Corea over six decades ago on the recommendation of a friend, who called it “the most choice place on Earth.” Miller visited himself and agreed, so he built his own summer home in the woods of the small coastal village on the southeast corner of the Schoodic Peninsula.
He has now returned to the area every summer for 61 years. At his isolated studio, free from outside distractions, he makes art with white pine — the Maine state tree — and driftwood that washes up on the nearby beach. The rugged landscape often serves as his inspiration.
“Nature here is pretty fragile,” he said. “Sometimes, I’d do a print of a whole stretch of trees, and I’d come up the next year and they’d be gone.”
Printmaking and sculpting are almost two sides of the same coin. Miller usually spends the morning in his printmaking studio. He carves and shaves pieces to make woodblock prints, and eventually adds colors. A single print might contain up to 50 distinct colors. Miller says his printmaking style has a Japanese influence, which he picked up while serving there during the Korean War.
Many of his prints are nature-inspired; he also makes portraits of famous figures. The portraits don’t sell well, Miller explains, because customers don’t want to have someone staring at them, but he continues to make them anyway.
“I guess I am insane,” he chuckles.
In the afternoon, Miller switches to his sculpture studio. There, he still works with wood, but his focus is fitting pieces together.
A painter by training, Miller always preferred to make art himself, but ventured into teaching in the 1950s out of economic necessity. A painter by training, he has taught art history and printmaking as well as painting. While the administrative side of education was never to his liking, the job did help him form certain bonds.
“The art field is one of the loneliest fields anyone can get involved with,” he said. “You spend all day alone in the studio.”
Teaching gave Miller a more optimistic outlook. He enjoys helping others create art, and stays in touch with many students, who he considers “like family.”
He is quick to note that being an art student today is more difficult than it was for him in the 1950s. Back then, he says tuition at the PAFA was about $250; now, one year in the school’s Bachelor of Fine Arts program commands a tuition of $37,428. Materials, too, are more expensive than they used to be.
While making a living as an artist has never been easy, Miller said he was encouraged by the growth of an art scene in Corea and surrounding towns.
“There was no place to show work,” when he first moved to town, he said. Now there are numerous galleries.
Miller got his start selling art in Downeast Maine at Pine Tree Kiln, the longtime Sullivan gallery run by the late Denis and Ruth Vibert. He considers that opportunity a great stroke of luck — although, even decades later, he remains surprised by the way his art appeals.
“I’m always amazed by what people buy, or that they buy anything at all,” he said.
Others who follow the artist’s work are less astonished when people purchase his creations.
“He has one of the biggest followings,” said Jane Littlefield, who, along with her husband Kelly, owns Littlefield Gallery in Winter Harbor.
The Littlefields have exhibited several of Miller’s sculptures at their showroom this summer, while his prints are on display at Chapter Two Gallery in Corea. Against the artist’s modest nature, both galleries threw him birthday celebrations.
After the parties, however, Miller was ready to get back to work. He only has a few months in Corea each year; making art is how he makes the best of that time.
“I try to be hopeful about getting back every year,” he said.