We are walking along the white wall that holds Bill Miller's artwork at the Yard Dog Gallery as he explains how exactly one begins a career of scavenging abandoned buildings for art materials.
"I was a member of this group in Pittsburgh, and what we did — it was the early/mid-nineties — was we would go into the abandoned mills and build a big sculpture in the space ... it was like the whole city was in decay," Miller says.
Miller makes collages of vintage linoleum. Not the modern plastic sheeting, but the original: thick, dense painted sheets of cork and tar.
"It was a way to call attention to things that people forgot about," Miller says. "These big factories, big spaces where they were just boarded up, condemned or whatever. It was just our idea to go in and see what we could do with it.
"We could rip the piping out, rip everything out, build something. Usually they were big animals; a big monkey, big owl, that kind of stuff."
Miller, with shaved hair and glasses, stands by his work, juggling a plastic cup of water.
"By scavenging and driving around looking for material, I started finding linoleum in people's garbage, and I started picking it up and using it ... I was a painter at the time, so in a way it was trying to make paintings with different material."
The pieces resemble paintings more than you might expect, with textures that belie a depth of field and range of colors that are no longer fashionable to have on one's floors.
Often they have a time-worn layer of sooty grit — one even has its original sale sticker. Some have colored art deco dots and triangles, others are textured blue waves, flower patterns, or have nursery rhymes painted on their surface. Most have a crackled sheen.
Some patterns and colors are really special, says Miller, "You find some with a dent where the family had a heavy table." It's this personal connection, the years of life that are literally ingrained in his work.
The subject matter, then, is appropriately personal. The large centerpiece of his new exhibit, "Childhood's End," is an assemblage of some of the most iconic images from the 1960s, rendered in Miller's near-comic style. He pulls images from Vietnam, Kent State, JFK's assassination, into a single, devastating tableau.
This, I discover, is his favorite, because of the time involved. How long do his pieces take? A few of the smaller ones may be done in a matter of days, but this piece "took months and months."
The work is painstaking. Once a cache of linoleum is found, it is then worked into the piece, depending on what its function might become. Blue may become the sky, or dim purple waves are used to give the ground a sense of queasy, uncertain movement. The design on the linoleum is then scraped off subtly to create depth, borders, and lines.
Certain forms are more challenging than others. "Like the eyes here," Miller says, pointing at a face. "I look until I find a piece that will work in just that spot." Working with vintage linoleum goes hand in hand with discovering it, and so Miller is constantly searching in old houses and empty older buildings, he says, "Because this is all old material. It's not anything after 1950."
He'll often get invited in to remove a floor from older folks' homes. A case of the artist as demolisher, I ask? "I do a little bit of demo," he says, his face widening into a grin. "Sure, I can do that."
‘Bill Miller: New Work In Vintage Linoleum'
When: through Sept. 26
Where: Yard Dog Art, 1510 S. Congress Ave.
Information: 912-1613. www.yarddog.com