Keith ‘Skip’ Miller

I am going to switch it up a bit today.  For the last couple of days I have written about amazing Canadian women who work with clay, a little sideways path off the road of the Vietnam resisters who came to Canada.  Today, I am turning my focus back on that group of individuals, 117 of them so far, that came to Canada because they did not want to be complicit in the Vietnam War.  One of those young men was Keith ‘Skip’ Miller.  Miller arrived in Vancouver in 1967 to avoid the draft.

Miller has been making pots since spring of 1967 (50 years), although he tells me that he has had to earn his living by a variety of jobs from running a bookstore to being a research associate and archæologist, museum director and curator and adjunct faculty for a few institutions and author of books and numerous articles. He has been a self-proclaimed intellectual hunter-gather for most of my working life.

Miller first studied pottery at the University of New Hampshire where he was majoring in Chemistry.  He wanted a break from all of the technical studies and he was concerned that chemistry could play a role in the war in Vietnam that was just beginning ‘to heat up’.  He did not want to be a part of it.  Miller’s first instructor was Charles “Chuck” Chamberlain who was on a one year contract to fill a position of a faculty member on a year’s sabbatical. Chamberlain had just received his MFA from SUNY Alfred College of Ceramics. After just one semester under Chamberlin’s mentorship, Miller fell under the trance of potter as so many of us have.  Chamberlain felt that the young chemistry student had great potential and told him that he should transfer to Alfred.  Chamberlain even offered to take him there so he could see the school for himself.  Miller wound up staying with Val Cushing and his family.  He was accepted almost immediately and started in the Fall of 1967. There he was mentored and ‘befriended’ by Daniel Rhodes, Ted Randall, as well as Cushing and  Robert “Bob” Turner, whose friendship, personal aesthetic, and sense of craft remained a lifelong guide for Miller.

From the beginning, Miller employed both throwing and hand building in his work,. He mostly made functional work although he admits that often took on a more abstract and sculptural quality than just that of a simple domestic vessel.  Miller loved wood and salt firing – readily admitting that even though he knows all about glaze chemistry, he doesn’t like the glazing process.

Miller to Vancouver, BC, in the spring of 1970 and started work almost immediately at Northwest Handcraft House in North Vancouver.  He was helped by the Friends Service Committee and his friends at SUNY Alfred College of Ceramics who were Quakers.

His early work in Vancouver was thrown with wood ash glazes or glazes high in rutile mixed into ball clay to create ash-style surfaces. At NW Handcraft House he built a large gas-fired kiln and started making large hand-built sculptural vases inspired by living in the temperate rainforest of the coastal Northwest.  To achieve the type of surfaces that he wanted, he often placed his pieces where there would normally have been a bag wall in the kiln to deflect the flames from the gas burners. The direct flame overheated the vessels making the surfaces begin to bloat and actually vitrify, almost like the effects from a salt or woodfired kiln. On occasion, he would use small areas of glaze to bring highlights or texture to his work.

Miller returned to America in 1977 once President Carter’s full Amnesty was announced.  His great interest in nature and his feeling of being intimately connected with Mother Earth and Mother Clay has kept him balanced and focused throughout his life.  Miller has worked extensively in New Mexico where he was the Lead on Forest Archaeology and Tribal Relations (USDA Forest Service) at the Carson National Forest in Taos.  He continues to work with clay.  One of his latest projects has been a series of Mother and Father bowls.  Miller took the ashes of his parents and mixed it with local clay and mica and made pinch pots which he fired in a pit.  The bowls of his parents were shared with his siblings.

 

Author: maryannsteggles

I am a Professor at the School of Art, University of Manitoba where I teach art history and studio ceramics. My current research is on the history of Canadian wood firing, the marginalization of women within ceramics, and the impact of Vietnam era migrants on the history of Canadian ceramics. You can reach me at my e-mail address: maryann.steggles@umanitoba.ca