After career overcoming racial obstacles, top graphic artist finds new creative outlet
By Lauren FitzPatrick
SOUTHTOWNERS: THOMAS MILLER
Thomas Miller cemented his adopted city’s history onto the walls of the DuSable Museum of African American History one tiny tile at a time.
In the rotunda of the Washington Park museum, he points out a portrait of former Mayor Harold Washington that’s surrounded by Chicago’s grandest buildings — all fashioned from thousands of painted plastic chips.
“It’s hard to make a face that small,” said the longtime resident of the city’s Beverly community, now 86.
And then he’s interrupted by admirers who’ve come to pay homage to a living form of black history.
“Mr. Miller’s here. Mr. Miller is the artist who made these mosaics,” they say, pointing out the art to gaggles of wide-eyed schoolchildren gawking at the works that span the walls floor to ceiling.
Before capturing the history of Chicago and the founders of the African-American history museum, Miller made history himself after World War II as one of Chicago’s first black graphic artists. The trademarks he helped design are so American a kindergartner could identify them — Motorola’s M, a 7UP logo redesign and trademarks for the Peace Corps, Second City, Hi-C and Quaker Oats.
He came to Chicago because it had the only design school in America that would accept a black man, even a decorated veteran of World War II. He eventually burst through the city’s color barrier at a top Chicago firm.
“Morton Goldsholl told me, unlike the other people, he wanted a designer. And he said he wasn’t hiring me because I was black and he felt sorry for me. He said he was hiring me because he needed a designer,” Miller said. “That turned a corner for me because it made me feel good. I
even think about it now. But they didn’t give me anything. I worked for everything I got.”
Miller was born Dec. 24, 1920, in Bristol, Va., one of five children raised by a railroad brakeman and a cook. His grandparents were slaves. His father was killed on the job when he fell from a train.
As a boy, Miller began drawing his surroundings. He pegs his artistic start at about age 9 when he started spending all his free time drawing.
“I think I got more whippings getting out of work because my mother would always find me drawing somewhere,” he said.
But the scoldings from a woman with an eighth-grade education who sent four of her children to college were short-lived.
“She was hell-bent on everybody getting an education,” he said. “She pushed us hard. That’s why she wouldn’t bother me too much when I was doing art.
“Nothing hampered me from doing artwork,” he said of his high school years in Bristol. “I lettered in football. I lettered in basketball and track, but I’d always go back to doing art. I wouldn’t go to the dances. I wouldn’t go to most of the things high school kids wanted to go to because I’d go home and do my artwork.”
After high school, his obsession carried him through a three-year military stint in Europe during World War II. Drafted into a segregated Army platoon, Miller was sent to Scotland and England and after D-Day crossed the Channel to France. He went on to Belgium and Luxembourg and
finally into Germany.
Along the way, he finagled oil paints and watercolors and painted the sights of his travels on the bottoms of canvas Army cots.
“I got in with the supply sergeant, and I would get three or four of those cots and stretch them real tight, and set ’em up on the end vertically and draw a line across them and paint a picture,” he said.
It was his return trip, though, that opened his eyes. Miller couldn’t get a decent meal back home outside Camp Gruber in Oklahoma.
“When we got back to the States, there were Germans and Italian prisoners of war. We (blacks) could not go into a restaurant and eat. The prisoners of war — 12 or 15 of them — (went) into a restaurant with a couple of guards. And here I am with my men in uniform, and we got to go through the kitchen and sit in the rain to eat. … I tell you this because I think it’s a shame. I saw grown men stand up and cry.”
The work force wouldn’t prove any more open, even for artists.
Accepted into the Ray-Vogue College of Design in Chicago (now part of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago), Miller learned every skill he could, going beyond the requirements.
“I had to be super-qualified,” he said. “I took things in art that weren’t necessary, like airbrushing and retouching and things you didn’t have to do because I wanted to be prepared in case someone would ask me to. They couldn’t use that as an excuse for me being not qualified.”
But even with a degree and a case full of promising samples, Miller had door after door slammed in his face.
“The one thing they wouldn’t accept was me sitting in the studio,” Miller said. “I was told over and over again, I had all the qualifications but I had the wrong color. One person told me, ‘You can work in here in this studio, but you’ll have to work behind this screen so nobody could
see you.’ ”
Times were so tough Miller had to send his wife, Anita, to stay with her sister while he struggled to land a job. Though she was used to simple living conditions — they met on an Army base while she was in the Women’s Army Corps — he didn’t want to submit her to poverty.
Once Goldsholl took him on, Miller flourished in a creative, competitive environment of artists as dedicated and talented as himself.
“I don’t think you could do the kind of work we did and not love it,” he said. “I’d be foolish not to be proud of the work that I’ve done.”
Victor Margolin, an art historian specializing in design at the University of Illinois at Chicago, wrote of Miller: “Even by the 1950s, there were few employers in Chicago who were willing to hire a black designer, although a number of students had proven their abilities in the
city’s best art schools. … Though he won numerous industry awards, Miller always remained in the background, even though he was responsible for some of Goldsholl’s best-known projects such as the redesign of the 7UP packaging and identity program.”
Miller said he knew his work would speak for itself if he were just given a chance.
“I could have quit the whole business, and some people would have,” he said. “I went through all that, and I’m glad I did. I wouldn’t be foolish enough to say that I’d go through it again, though.”
When Miller retired after some 40 years at Goldsholl, he craved something new.
From a nearby office building, he took bushels of white plastic grids used to diffuse fluorescent light and scaled them to create tiny white squares. He painted them in batches, sorted by color, and started cementing them to boards to create mosaic portraits of civil rights leaders and other influential African-Americans.
Michael Jordan’s mother bought one of her famous son. Mayor Washington was impressed by one Miller did of him, which now hangs at the DuSable as part of its permanent collection.
“Anybody can do an oil painting,” Miller said. “But to take a face and do it with squares is hard. They have to be turned at an angle to catch the light.”
He caught the eye of a Chicago artist, Margaret Burroughs, the founder of the DuSable Museum. She commissioned him to do portraits of DuSable’s eight founders, a giant mosaic of Jean Baptiste DuSable, the pioneer settler of Chicago, and another large piece encapsulating the city’s history. These now grace the rotunda entrance of the museum, though no plaque identifies them as Miller’s work.
After his wife of 54 years died, Miller moved into Smith Village, an assisted-living center in the Morgan Park community. He had had two strokes in recent years but still keeps a hand in art by drawing fellow residents and doing art projects with children. A drafting table sits in a corner, covered in past work and current sketches.
The strokes slowed him down, and for a time cost him his memory, eyesight and the use of his hands.
“I wanted to cry because my whole life was using my hands as an artist,” Miller said. “I must have written my name a thousand times in order to be able to sign things and bring myself back somewhat to where I was.”
His bookshelves are full of works about his idol, Leonardo da Vinci, the great Italian artist and inventor, whom he used as a “guide for me to invent and to do everything,” he said.
Miller has never patented any of his dozen or so gadgets, including a compass that draws ovals. But he did draw from da Vinci’s great versatility in his education and work.
He experimented with monotype prints, a process of rolling paint over glass and then laying paper on the painted surface to create a single print. And he started doing the mosaics, he said, because he needed something new to tackle.
“I guess I was just a little obsessed with art,” he said. “I still am. I always am.”
Lauren FitzPatrick may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
or (708) 633-5964.