Studio Visit: Ken Miller in East Hampton
Artist Ken Miller’s work is representative – both of its subject matter and of the artist’s own experience and essence. From his studio in East Hampton, Miller creates pieces that are vibrant in color and filled with movement and life – much like the artist himself. A former model, he first came to the Hamptons as a summer houseguest in the ’80s, often staying with people in the fashion industry. Miller remembers “staying with the creative director of Grey Advertising, and the Italian actress Elsa Martinelli, also a house guest, made pizzas for us the Roman way, while telling us stories about what it was like to star with John Wayne in the 1962 film Hatari, and Kirk Douglas in the 1955 flick the Indian Fighter… I have to say Elsa’s pizzas were the best I ever had to date!”
In 1990, he purchased his own house in East Hampton, entertaining houseguests of his own. In 1993, Miller released a coffee-table book published by Rizzoli entitled The Hamptons: Long Island’s East End. “Its magic here, even on a cloudy day there is drama in our environment and such beauty and peace… but, when the sun comes out it just sparkles. There is nothing like it.” Happily, he and partner Kenneth Roberts Detelich now call Northwest Harbor home. “My studio is here, and it’s one of the happiest and creative spots I know. It’s my home.”
You had a career in modeling and worked with lots of talented photographers – did that lead you to start making art, or were you always creating?
I think that I was always artistic. I would often draw in high school and college, taking classes whenever I could. I was also interested in architecture, often doing model renderings of buildings. I put my drawing on hold during my modeling days and subsequent photographic carrier, although I was always interested interested in drawing and painting. Then everything went digital in photography I decided to stop doing photography professionally and turned my artistic expression to oil painting. In my early days as a painter, I used many of my photographs of the Hamptons as subject matter. I refined my painting skills at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan and at the Art Barge in Amagansett.
How has travel affected the art work you make?
Travel exposes the soul to culture diversity and in so doing helps to develop a person in ways that are indescribable. I found people all over the world to be happy with much less then what we take for granted in the US. Happiness isn’t about possession of the material, but the spirit and love of life, about discovering, and finding good friends to enjoy the beauty around us. I’ve found artistic and spiritual inspiration almost everywhere I go. In India it all became about the vivid colors I found everywhere I looked – I’ve painted market places, Temple worships, portraits, and have developed a series of paintings called the Colors of India. I was so taken by the smiles and happiness I saw in the children’s faces that I photographed a black and white series titled The Children of Cambodia. I broadened my own art collection by acquiring various treasures I discovered in Vietnam. New Mexico was about space, form, and muted colors. I was inspired to capture the grandeur of the Rio Grande and Taos while there. Japan helped me to develop an Asian sensibility which translates to my Koi paintings. Grace in movement – a ballet of fish.
What was it like modeling in Asia in the Eighties?
Modeling in Asia was my awakening. It was the first time that I lived and worked in a culture that was so different then ours. During the 1980s the Japanese used only caucasian models. We were treated like celebrities. Everywhere we went we were noticed and given the VIP treatment. I had amazing accommodations, a three bedroom apartment in Nishi Azabu, a very upscale area of Tokyo and at the time quite the luxury. I worked daily there, six days a week spanning a period of two and half years. To this day I enjoy the memories fondly, so I would say that I do miss those times. The Japanese were considerate, polite, and eager to share their culture with me. I had only one negative encounter during my stay there. One day on the bullet train to Mt. Fugi for a location shoot and as I was being taken to our seats, I passed an older man who glared at me and said, “Remember Hiroshima!” and I responded by saying, “Remember Pearl Harbor.”
I’ve heard about “all the Kens” – tell me more.
The two current Kens (Ken Miller and Ken Roberts Detelich) met via the photographer Ken Haak in 1983 briefly at the Underground in Manhattan, and 6 months later on a photographic shoot for the Ken Haak book, Summer Souvenirs. Ken Roberts and myself were both models at the time and I quickly became friends with both Ken Haak and Ken Roberts. We both modeled throughout the 1980’s, and Ken Haak’s studio on East 30th St. became a source of artistic inspiration for us. I eventually became Ken Haak’s assistant and learned photography and dark room developing and printing techniques through him. Ken Haak had a strong sense of composition in his work, which I also developed throughout the years as a photographer and now a painter. Ken Harper, the broadway producer of The Wiz, also became a member of the “Ken group” so their were 4 of us having lots of fun back in the day, working and also dancing our hearts out at Studio 54, Paradise Garage, Area, the Mudd Club, the Palladium, and so on and so on.
Tell me again about your book ‘The Hamptons’ – what was the impetus for this project?
We bought the East Hampton house in 1990. We were in love with the East End. Natural beauty was everywhere; the sea, the farms, the wetlands, the dunes, all perfect inspiration for artistic expression. We were compelled to share the beauty of our surroundings with others. We went to Bookhampton to purchase a coffee table book of the area to send to our mothers. The only book we could find was The Houses of The Hamptons which was an architectural book and didn’t capture the beauty of the landscapes and seascapes. So we decided to produce our own book that would capture the totality of our new surroundings on the East End. We come up with a proposal that was well received by Rizzoli, an the rest was history.
Do you have a favorite story from producing the book?
Yes, one evening I was meeting George Plimpton who wrote the introduction to my book and Anne Hearst at George’s Sagaponack home. When all of a sudden Kirk Vonnegut sprang from between the hedgerow with twigs stuck in his hair. Kurt was George’s neighbor and joined us for dinner, a brown beverage in a glass with ice and seemingly very comfortable. It was a very interesting and wonderful way to be introduced to an an iconic American writer.
Some of the homes that are in your 1998 book are now gone – describe what the Hamptons has lost (or gained) during the time since you did the book project.
Many of the houses were lost by fire. Also, many of the landscapes in the book are no longer there. Many vistas have been developed or enclosed by hedges or other plantings. The Hamptons has lost it’s space and the farms. It’s losing, or has already lost, the indigenous fishermen who spoke a dialect of English I had never heard spoken before until meeting Mr. King. This was truly a summer place that enjoyed more diversity in people then but also more diversity in it’s beautiful landscapes. We have gained more infrastructure since then. That is welcome and we still need more infrastructure to accommodate the amount of people who actually have made it their home. It is no longer that sleepy in the winter. What we have left in our natural environment must be saved and treasured, because it’s still a very special geographical region.
Give us some of your favorite things to do out east – food, shopping, beaches, where would we find you?
I love the ocean and being near the sea. I love water sports, swimming, diving, boating, body surfing, and water skiing. It would be difficult for me to live away from the ocean. I couldn’t ever be land locked! So, you would often find me at the beach – Wainscott, Egypt , and Wiborg are my favorites. I also enjoy hiking the dunes at Napeague, clamming, and driving my Jeep on the beach at sunset or sunrise or to a clambake… I am also a foodie. I enjoy cooking and hosting dinner parties in my Northwest Harbor home. My favorite restaurants in the winter are the East Hampton Grill, 1770 House and Sam’s.