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I live the life of a happy hermit artist these days. Very few people visit. Maybe they’re uncomfortable with the solitude and silence or being out of cell phone range or the wild animals that live in these woods. Maybe they’re afraid of setting foot inside my rickety temporary quarters while I rebuild the cabin next door to live in eventually. But I love it here, more every week, as the years roll by. It is so incredibly peaceful deep in the woods compared with life in the 5-bedroom, 3 bath house in the Philadelphia suburbs where I lived until a little over 3 years ago.

I worked very hard on that place for 9 years with lots of help, building a quarter mile of boardwalks through the woods, gazebos, a Victorian garden house, a big sun room with Plexiglas roof, ponds, fountains, an elaborate pagoda, gardens and so on. Then one day 5 years ago, I suddenly realized that the whole real estate bubble was going to burst, the Peak Oil Scenario would hit hard, the economy would crash, and there was a good chance global climate change might create havoc, too, within my lifetime! I had to get out of there fast and find a place to hunker down and survive!

It felt like sawing off a leg, but I sold that gorgeous house months before the real estate crash and moved into my temporary quarters deep in the woods of  South Central PA Amish farm country, on 10 acres with a half-acre pond and a rushing stream and a 150-year-old barn that was threatening to fall down. It was the pond that sold me on the place. For many years I have kept koi. This pond is fed by fresh water springs, and the koi are very happy. All 60 of them have names, and they would do just fine without me in this balanced ecosystem. In any weather over 45 degrees, and sometimes in the pouring rain, I sit up on my Tree House Deck under the giant pines and watch the koi swim about  in the pond.

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Sawmill Pond is full of 2-foot koi, bass, catfish, and small sunnies, blue and green gills, and tree frogs. It is surrounded by irises and mulberries in spring and freezes solid in winter. It changes and offers a new and different experience every day.

I haul water for dishes, drinking, and cooking, from the same springs that feed the pond, because I think another spring that services the house plumbing may be tainted by the 30-yer-old cess pool that was dug too close to the water source.

I have 6 small to medium-size dogs with indoor kennels and doggy doors leading outside to two dog runs. Out back in the screened porch there are 4 large talking parrots, a love bird, 4 rosellas, and 8 cockateils. Last summer I remodelled a shed and added a screened outdoor space for my 12 chickens. They lay white, brown and aqua-colored eggs — about 9 eggs every day.

The barn is 150 years old. With lots of help I have worked very hard to save it from collapse, replacing the termite eaten floor, and adding an  inside front support wall, and a new roof. After living in cramped temporary quarters with 7-foot ceilings, I often like to just sit in the barn with a drink and talk with friends or enjoy a thunderstorm with all that great vault of space overhead.

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 The 150-year-old barn is my favorite building on the property, and it now serves as my studio and private art gallery where people can come and see a growing body of paintings on canvas and other artwork.

Living like a hermit in the woods is perfect for an artist. A very good old friend from California visited over a year ago with some trepidation, after hearing all the scary descriptions of my new lifestyle. When he poked his head inside the front door, he exclaimed, “Ohhh!… It’s COZY!” And so it is. I paint at the kitchen table most of the time except when creating larger canvases which I paint down in the barn. But in my temporary quarters I have managed to cram in lots of art also.

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The livingroom is only about 13 ft x 15 ft, but it holds a big inlaid hardwood TV cabinet, an oversized chair and couch, a rocker, two more padded chairs and two inside dog kennels with doggy doors to the outside.

Progress marches on. The barn is saved and functioning as a studio and gallery. The cabin which will become my future home is developing nicely and it won’t be long until I can move in there and begin remodelling my temporary house into a nice studio, office and guest space. In the future I see large sculptures and mosaics in gardens along walkways and trails through our woods and by the stream and pond. I envision a humming painting and sculpture studio and frequent visitors coming to see the work. I have been here for more than three years now, and my dreams are coming true, one day at a time. It is hard work, but I love it, and I believe this is the perfect place for survival and making art and living a happy and peaceful life during these uncertain times.

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Sawmill Run as it rushes toward the Susquehanna River. I often enjoy the half-hour hike beside the stream, through 78 acres of incredibly beautiful Pennsylvania State Game Land to the river.

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Sawmill Road becomes so rocky and uneven as you approach the Susquehanna River that it is nearly impossible to make it through in a vehicle without four-wheel drive, but it is a wondrous hike.

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“Aix-en-Provence,” by Kevin Miller, 24″ x 24″ oil on board. (SOLD) In 1970 this was Kevin Miller’s first “Provence Style” composition

In 1969 I was a dirt-poor 20-year-old art student in Aix-en-Provence, France, attending classes at the “Ecole des Beaux Arts” and the “Institute des Etudes Francaises pour les Etudiants Etrangers” — the foreign students’ division of the “Universite d”Aix Marseille.” My long hair parted in the middle, wispy goatee, and wire rimmed glasses made me an easy object of ridicule for the sophisticated French students. I trudged through the streets in my long trench coat, enduring their cool sarcasm while reading Jean Paul Sartre in the original French and sketching furiously in a black book I carried. I still have that sketchbook to this day, 40 years later.

My dear old landlady was Madame Marbain, from whom I rented one room overlooking the “Place de l’Opera.” Her artist father had known Matisse, and she recalled sitting in the great master’s lap when she was a little girl. Eventually she married an artist herself. It was my great good fortune to find myself in her home, because she was well connected at the “Ecole des Beaux Arts,” and insisted that they admit me, when she discovered that I could draw.

One day I drew a very earnest self-portrait and showed it to her. She laughed uproariously and finally said, “Is that how you really see yourself? Well… It is the serious young men, like you, who grow up to be FUN old men!” She was uncommonly intelligent and had the infallible eye of a professional art critic. I always showed her my drawings and paintings, because in an instant she could put her finger on the weakness that still needed work, while acknowledging the strong points in the pieces as well.

 Madame Marbain could not pronounce the name “Kevin,” so she approximated the syllables with two French words and called me “Coeur-vin,” which means “Heart-wine.” She was my confidant, my teacher and my landlady, but she treated me like “Coeur-vin,” and I benefited enormously from her guidance, her discipline, and her love, all three in equal measure.

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“Old Tree Town,” by Kevin Miller, 2003, 11″ x 14″ acrylic on canvas. (SOLD)

I was taking a sculpture class from a friend of Madame Marbain’s who was a professor at the “Ecole des Beaux Arts.” Our assignment was to copy a great mask by the French master Poussin. The 4’6″ tall professor seemed pleased with my work on the mask after her 10th tour of the class during which she offered critiques and advice to the students. So I decided that my copy work was done and it was time to alter the mask and make it my own. I deepened the eye sockets, added luxuriant hair and full lips — I romanticized it. The next time Madame Professeur came around, she flew into a screaming rage when she saw my mask. “How dare you presume to improve upon the great master Poussin!” she roared, and ripped off the nose. “Do you think you are better than one of the greatest artists who ever lived?” and she gouged out the eyes. At first I could barely breath for the shock, but then I found that my facility in French suddenly tripled in an instant and I had plenty to say to her. However, I don’t remember a word of it, because her very top student, a stunningly beautiful, tall, cool, young French woman, sauntered over to the scene of violent wreckage and conflict, looked down upon the little professor, and said matter-of-factly, “What are you doing?… His mask was better than Poussin’s.”

Then I made one of the biggest mistakes of my life: I left the class and never went back. I never went back to that sculpture class. I never went back to the figure drawing class where I had shocked the French students with my photo-realistic nudes. I never went back to the “Ecole des Beaux Arts.” I was young and stupid. I did not know what a remarkable opportunity I was privileged to enjoy. I did not understand the value of abusive criticism and I certainly did not yet know how to transform it into thick skin and inner resolve. But Madame Marbain and her friend the short professor and all the classes I took at both institutes, offered me the best and most intensive education of my life. Everything I experienced in Aix-en-Provence and Paris changed and influenced my life forever, and for the better.

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“Victorian House,” by Kevin Miller, 2003, 11″ x 14″ acrylic on canvas. (SOLD)

One beautiful day I hiked out of town and sat down on a hillside to sketch the Provence countryside. When I returned to the United States I painted the oil painting, shown at the top of this posting, from that sketch. It was the first of many paintings in this style, which owes so much to Aix-en-Provence itself, and to Cezanne who lived in that region and became the father of cubism, in my opinion. Everyone likes to insist that Picasso and Braque invented cubism. But the roots of cubism are clearly visible in the landscapes of Cezanne, painted in those same hills that I was privileged to roam.

Decades later, my beloved octogenarian father surveyed the many paintings I had done over the years in this style and proclaimed it to be my “Provence Style.” The label has stuck, and I am happy with it. The painting shown above has hung in my parents’ living room for nearly 40 years and it still does.

 

 

 

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Here on Sawmill Pond the tree frogs have been singing in multi-part harmony as part of their annual mating ritual. Every year the first warm evening of spring brings the great frog orgy — green frogs, brown frogs and red frogs all ballooning their throats, trilling ecstatically and creating the next generation wherever you look. On that evening anyone walking around our half-acre pond has to be careful not to step on deeply preoccupied couples. My six dogs love to chase them back into the water. Over the next several days there are large thick ribbons of frog eggs all along the sunnier side of the pond at the water’s edge. That’s the situation today — many ribbons of frogs eggs that look like coiled snakes in the shallows. Soon there will be millions of tiny tadpoles all around the edge of the pond. The frogs are still here and I am so grateful. I have lived in other places where they disappeared, and their song was not heard again. I will do whatever I can to keep them alive and healthy. After all, they were here first.

“Sycamore Farm”

April 21, 2009

Here is “Sycamore Farm,” finished just an hour ago.

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“Sycamore Farm,” 20″ x 24″ acrylic on canvas by Kevin Miller

29″ x 32″ framed and ready to hang 

Many sprawling sycamore trees grow near the lower Susquehanna River where I live. The Amish and Mennonite farm buildings in this area are often painted white.

Today I will finish my 18″ x 24″ Provence Style painting, “Sycamore Farm,” which owes a lot to Cezanne and Picasso and Southern France, where I studied at L’Institut des Beaux Arts many years ago. Below is an example of another painting in the “Provence Style.”

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 “San Clemente Hills,” 11″ x 14″ acrylic on canvas by Kevin Miller. (SOLD)

Loosely based on my former home in San Clemente, California

 

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Kevin Miller works on “Fallen Angels,” his 6 ft x 8 ft oil painting on canvas

This is the beginning of a discussion about art and life deep in the woods. I sold my big 5-bedroom/3-bath house on 1.1 acres in the Philadelphia suburbs, just before the real estate crash and bought 10 acres, just a 20-minute walk through beautiful state game lands to the Susquehanna River in South-Central PA 12 miles north of the MD line. Some people call this area “L’il Alabama.”  I decided that it was better for my ultimate survival to move from an upper middle class celebrated home to an old, rickety house in the woods where cell phones don’t ring and you could yell your lungs out and nobody would hear you. Most people thought I was crazy. Some still do. 

Then the whole world economy crashed and I knew I had been right. My fortune 500 business consultation work slowed way down, and I began concentrating on my chickens and the half-acre pond with 60 2-foot-long koi, and my 6 dogs and 16 parrots, and making art — all kinds of art — like multi-media constructions made from junk mail, plastic trash, and dollar store finds — and Provence Style landscapes and still life paintings inspired by Cezanne and Picasso and Southern France — and fantasies — and good old abstract expressionism. Art of all kinds is good. I cannot and will not limit myself to one form of expression. But I am more than happy to limit myself to the infinite world of nature’s beauty within these ten acres most days.