State of the art: Public artist takes political messages, infuses with part-time art

From the black beanie perched haphazardly on his head, to his black shirt with “Revolt & Rebelle” written on the front, G Clay Miller doesn’t really look like a traditional artist.

That’s partially because traditional art demands lifetimes of work. Miller considers himself a part-time public artist, devoting three to five hours a week to his projects.

Miller, tapping his fingers on a vacant table in Shaffer Art Building, looks over his latest project with a keen eye. A larger-than-life portrait of President Barack Obama stares back at him under a black censor bar.

“Maybe it’ll stay up for a week,” the freshman political science major said with a ghost of a laugh, acknowledging the controversy in his art.

And so it goes for Miller, a public artist who first cut his teeth as a high school junior in Rockville, Md., taking cans of spray paint and scrawling out whatever words he thought suitable, wherever he thought suitable.

“I would just write down whatever dumb things I was thinking,” Miller said, reflecting on his first few spray paint projects. “I never want to be too big of a cliché, but every artist wants to be poetic, so I try to pick everything carefully.”

For a part-time artist, Miller is meticulous in his planning. He said his concerns when working on a project boil down to three facets: who’s going to see it, where they’ll see it and what they’ll think when they see it. It’s almost a science.

His first love, he said, is still photography — he’s been shooting photos for the better part of six years — but his public art has a more direct voice.

The son of two journalists, Miller started as an art photography major before switching to political science to have a bigger say in making change happen, he said. He kept color film photography as an elective — he didn’t want to drop art classes all together.

Miller spent 10 years growing up in Rockville, where he’d drive out to the countryside and take panoramas of rustic barns. He did the same in the city’s center, snapping shots of more metropolitan landscapes.

“I’d tilt the photos, just so they felt a little off, a little uneasy,” Miller said. “And I’d put the one of the barn on the side of a building and write something dumb like ‘Rural America thanks you.’ I took the one of the building and put it on the barn and wrote ‘Urban America says sorry.’”

The idea got Miller thinking. He asked if he could do an installation piece at a high school art show. The Maryland dubstep scene was verging toward explosion, and Miller, wanting to capture the powder keg of the electronic movement in his art, covered a music speaker in blue goop and commissioned a friend to strum guitar chords. With each note, the pulsing goop flew into the air and fell back into place.

“Everyone came over and watched it for a few minutes, and it was captivating just because it was out of place at the exhibit,” he said, before pausing to think for a second. “I don’t think they got it, though.”

Miller uses Photoshop to render his art, but he’s also developed an affinity for using stencils. Wheat paste — an adhesive concoction of water and vegetable starch — is his medium of choice.

But that’s not to say he won’t tinker with new mediums. He’s tried tape art, recently recreating one of Banksy’s iconic images. He said his experimenting is just for fun, though.

On a Saturday morning in Shaffer’s basement, Miller uses tape — and lots of it. Next to a half-finished can of Amp energy drink, he bites off strips of blue masking tape, sticking them to the side of the table to use later. He said he does his best work at night and in the morning.

His newest project intertwines public art with his love of all things political, a sort of call for America’s loudmouth pundits — O’Reilly, Limbaugh, Beck — to just shut up. He spreads the black-and-white politicians’ portraits on the table in front of him, shuffling the papers into order. Through the quiet strains of symphonic indie rock, he criss-crosses the tape over the back of Glenn Beck’s oversized head until it’s all stuck into place.

He flips it over and Beck — censor bar centered firmly over his mouth — stares back. Miller trims around the white spaces and frowns before grabbing a Sharpie to color in the hints of blue tape poking through. He does a celebratory fist pump.

“That’s critical thinking,” he said. “I wanted to do something kind of political, and it became something really political.”

Miller’s chosen playlist cycles through more cerebral instrumentals, and O’Reilly, Limbaugh and Obama get the same tape-and-cut makeover. Miller works energetically, singing under his breath and making small talk during prolonged silences, apologizing for the squeaking paper cutter. He starts thinking about where to hang his series of profiles.

“I don’t care if 10 people or a million people find my work,” he said. “I just hope people look at it and think. It’s really just for me, though.”

Fast forward to a rainy Thursday on the second floor of Shaffer. This isn’t where he intended the project to end up, but it’ll do. He unfurls the portraits from an oversized plastic bag and gets to work.

With a few swatches of tape, Bill O’Reilly is on the wall, leering close-mouthed at a row of lockers facing him. Miller liberally applies more tape until the pundit is stuck, then presses Beck against the wall. In a matter of minutes, the pundits are all up, shoulder-to-shoulder.

On a wall adjacent to the broadcasters, Miller slaps Obama against the wall. Even the president of the United States won’t stick on the wall very well.

Putting the finishing touches on the project before walking away and standing to look at it from a different angle, Miller smiles and gives a brief, approving nod.

In all likelihood, the pundits will get taken down in a week or so, and Miller will move on to a new project. The street artist lifestyle is fast and furious, and Miller doesn’t know how long he’ll keep it up. But once his public art days are over, he’ll continue to pursue other mediums.

Said Miller: “I don’t think an artist really retires from art.”


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