Resilience of artist is as inspiring as her talent

May 04, 2012|Kate Coleman

I won't hang a picture in my house unless it somehow connects with my life.

An oil painting of my Keedysville farmhouse — by my late father-in-law — holds court above my kitchen table. My friend, Neale, rendered my Hagerstown home in watercolor. My sister etched a portrait of me sleeping in an antique iron bed under a quilt. (I look a little pig-nosed, but I love it.)

I don't yet have anything by Shirley Fout Miller, but I'm hoping to remedy that soon.

About 50 pieces of her work are on display in an exhibit titled "Lady With A Quill Pen" at Washington County Arts Council gallery through Saturday, May 26. There will be a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, May 11. Prints and notecards of some of her images will be available for purchase.

My connection with Shirley is strong, although I've met her just once. I know her story because my friend has been sharing pieces of it since she and her husband became Shirley and Dick Miller's neighbors in 2004.

"I made an apple pie. When are you coming over for coffee?" Shirley welcomed them in her typically witty way.

I admire her talent as an artist, but it is Shirley Fout Miller's resilience that amazes me.

She was 12 years old in 1938 when she contracted tuberculosis and was quarantined at the State Sanatorium in Sabillasville, Md., for four years. She made good use of her confinement, nurturing her interest in art, design and history, teaching herself to draw, earning a correspondence certificate from the New York School of Interior Decoration (now Design).

With no hope for her recovery, Shirley's parents took her home where she remained bedridden. Experimental surgery in 1948 — two four-hour operations sans anesthesia — were successful and gave her a future she'd been told she wouldn't have.

At 23, Shirley traveled to Washington, D.C., to study with two prominent artists.  Apprenticeship completed, she began creating illustrations — Christmas cards, fashion ads, pamphlets and diagrams. Clients included housing developers, manufacturers and hospitals.

In 1950 Shirley graduated from Hagerstown Business College, where she'd met Richard Miller; they married in 1951. Work took them to Chicago, where Shirley was picture editor for a textbook publisher. She had an award-winning interior design business in Columbus, Ohio.

It's fitting that the "Saint James School Student Art Exhibit" will accompany Shirley's show at the gallery. The Millers' strong connection to Saint James began in 1968 when Shirley wanted to include an image of the school in the 1969 Washington County Historical Calendar she'd been asked to design, according to an article in the Fall 2010 edition of "Review," the Saint James School magazine.

Shirley also did a calendar — published for 17 years — for Colonial Williamsburg. She served with the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection and the press bureau at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Shirley produced a handful of paintings in oil and acrylic, but most of her artwork is pen-and-ink drawings and pen-and-ink with watercolor.

I look forward to seeing that artwork and the lady with a quill pen at the gallery.

Kate Coleman covers The Maryland Symphony and writes a monthly column for The Herald-Mail.

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