John Paul Miller, Goldsmith
1961 CLEVELAND ARTS PRIZE FOR Visual Arts
The first Cleveland Arts Prize to be awarded in the visual arts was given to a man who had set out to be a painter, but instead made an international reputation in a very different art form: gold jewelry. In 1961, the same year John Paul Miller was awarded the Arts Prize, examples of his work were included in an international exhibition at London’s Goldsmiths Hall.
Northeast Ohioans had known and admired Miller’s work since 1949, the year of his first appearance in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s annual May Show, which he won several times in the course of the next 25 years. Indeed, his distinctive creations were in a very real sense made possible by his dramatic rediscovery, as a young teacher at the Cleveland Institute of Art in the late 1940s, of the secret process of attaching tiny beads of gold to a gold surface without the use of solder, a technical feat that had been perfected by the ancient Romans and lost with the fall of the Roman Empire.
Born April 23, 1918, in Huntington, Pennsylvania, as a young boy Miller (whose mother died when he was two) moved with his family to Cleveland. There he attended Hough Elementary School and Shaker Heights High School, Saturday morning classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art and later at the Cleveland School of Art (CSA), where he studied enameling with Kenneth Bates, awakened an interest in painting and design. And in the fall of 1936, Miller enrolled in CSA’s industrial design program.
It was the accomplished silver jewelry of a fellow first-year student, Frederick A. Miller, that made John Paul want to master the techniques of working with silver. Soon he was producing rings and brooches, drawing on what would remain two lifelong sources of inspiration: classical music and the natural world. He would also be deeply influenced by several of his teachers: Kay Dorn Cass, Paul Travis, Walter Sinz, Carl Gaertner and Viktor Schreckengost. John Paul and Fred Miller would later share a studio, influencing and enriching one another’s work, for many years.
After graduating in 1940, John Paul taught for a year at CSA before he found himself learning to drive an Army tank. Perhaps prophetically, he was to spend his entire tour of duty illustrating field manuals on tank tactics at Fort Knox, Kentucky (famous as the repository of the U.S. government’s gold supply). In any case, he became obsessed with the idea of rediscovering the lost Roman technique of gold granulation.
It was shortly after returning to his faculty position at CSA in 1946 (the school’s name was changed to the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1949) when he came across a treatise written by an archeologist at the American Academy in Rome that speculated on the ancient technique of granulation. It was enough to push Miller in the right direction. It seems gold melts at a much lower temperature in the presence of copper than either metal does normally. By causing copper to oxidize on the surface of gold granules, then heating the gold, Miller provoked a reaction that allowed him to join even larger pieces of gold with no visible joints, making possible the creation of exquisite shapes and designs.
His work was to win attention at 1953’s Designer Craftsman U.S.A. show and one-man shows at the Art Institute of Chicago (1957) and New York’s Museum of Contemporary Crafts (1964), as well as international recognition at the Brussels World’s Fair, the Objects U.S.A. traveling exhibition (1970), the Museum Bellerive in Zurich (1971), the Vatican Exhibition of American Crafts, and the Great Jewelry of the Ages exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In 1994, the American Craft Council presented him with its gold medal for artistic excellence. His work is owned by the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Contemporary Arts and Design in New York City, the Minnesota Museum of American Art in St. Paul, Vassar College, Yale University, and the Fleischman Collection.
For the 40th anniversary of the Cleveland Arts Prize, he was asked to create a gold seal ring to be given to recipients of the newly created Robert P. Bergman Prize.