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Facing Home: Paintings and Drawings from Mississippi

Lalie Cathcings OwensAs in life, so it is with art the faces tell the story.

If one were to stroll around The Ashby-Hodge Gallery of Art at Central Methodist University as the curator begins hanging the exhibition which opens Oct. 17, he or she might have the deja vu experience of being on stage during the presentation of Edgar Lee Master's classic early 20th century play "Spoon River Anthology" or of fellow playwright Thornton Wilder's period classic play "Our Town."

It would perhaps be akin to being a silent and invisible spectator among the many community faces historically found on Main Street in small-town America -- a time and place that is slowly but steadily fading from the American rural character. But perhaps not so everywhere especially in the art-rendered faces of the people of Woodville, Miss. - 115 portraits of residents of a rural community of 1,500 souls, a place where well-known Columbia artist and theatre professor James Miller grew up many decades ago and then left to make his place in the larger world.

Titled "Facing Home: Paintings and Drawings from Mississippi by James Madison Miller V," the exhibition is a natural blending of Miller's abilities and interests as a painter with a palette and as a dramatist with a stage. Miller will be present at an artist's reception from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. the opening day. The exhibition also includes portraits from the gallery's permanent collection.

As Miller notes in an artist's statement about his Woodville portraits, "There are no hard truths in small southern towns just faces. Behind those faces of every shade from bluest black to pinkest white and every gradation of hue and shade in between are truths and lies and myths and facts and love and hate and prejudice and respect."

Indeed, as one scans each of the 115 faces on the gallery's walls, part of a larger work of 150 paintings - about ten percent of Woodville's entire population - he or she will see such faces portrayed as the insurance agent, the banker, the bookkeeper, the plumber, the local attorney, the gas station attendant, the veterinarian, the newspaper editor, the grocery store clerk, the pharmacist, the retired teacher and the homemaker, the sum of whose parts represents the whole of a small, rural Mississippi community, as it would in many other small towns across this vast country. And tied to those portraits are names, those quintessentially southern names such as Mary Elizabeth Smith, Tobie Joe Morris, Charlie Mae Dunbar and Alonzo Sturgeon ... a regionalism echoed in the artist's three-name moniker, James Madison Miller, with thChristopher Houghtone "the Fifth" added to signify longevity of family and place (eight generations in Woodville for Miller) if not a slight hint of southern aristocracy.

The "Facing Home" exhibition represents an opportunity that arose for Miller in the winter of 2007 when he was the recipient of a grant that enabled him to take a sabbatical from his position as a professor of theatre at the University of Missouri-Columbia and return home to Woodville to begin his portraiture project of the local residents. The project was inspired by the portrait drawings made in Italy in the 1820s and 1830s by J.A.D. Ingres, as well as the drawings and watercolors of Egon Schiele in Vienna in the first decade of the 20th century and those by West Coast artist Don Bachardy in the 1970s through the 1990s.

Miller's paintings and drawings in The Ashby-Hodge exhibition were made with Prismacolor pencils and several different brands of watercolors. Some of the portraits are combinations of the media. The foundation for the works is Strathmore Bristol Board.

The artist's sabbatical to his boyhood hometown in Mississippi had a measureable effect on him. "I came back with an experience that bolstered my belief in the human spirit and human kindness," he said. "Most of the people that I painted knew me from boyhood" "What I found in the people of Woodville, Mississippi, was dignity, pride, humanity, and the joy of living a day-to-day existence that wasn't necessarily glamorous or even exciting. But that was none-the-less LIFE lived to its fullest."

As a professor of theatre at the University of Missouri, Miller has directed, choreographed and/or designed more than 80 musicals and plays. He has also directed for the Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre and the Stephens College Playhouse. His costume designs, direction and choreography have received awards from the Speech and Theatre Association of Missouri and the American College Theatre Festival.

Miller holds bachelor's and master's degrees in fine arts and has also studied illustration, drawing and design in New York at the Parsons School of Design and the Fashion Institute of Technology.