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Quizzing Mr Whizzo | A conversation with Ian Miller

For those of you who are unaware of Ian Miller’s work he started his career over 40 years ago and has been a real force in the ‘Fantasy’ and storytelling genres. He has created two graphic novels: Luck in the Head, with co-author M. John Harrison (Victor Gollancz, 1991), and The City with co-author James Herbert (Pan Macmillan, 1989). Has worked as an art editor for Interzone Magazine and as an art consultant for Games Workshop Ltd, and had publications of his work The Green Dog Trumpet, Secret Art 1979 and Ratspike 1989 amongst many others.

There are many ways of descriptively trying to pigeonhole Ian Miller’s work. A Modern Heronymous Bosh, a Russian constructivist with really bad dreams, Edgar Allan Poe with a pen, but each lacks the understanding of Ian’s constant striving for experimentation and love of storytelling.

Ian studied sculpture at Central St Martins in 1967. He switched to the painting faculty in 1968, and at this time the formal style of teaching had gone out of the window. He spent the whole time never touching a coloured tube of paint and worked only in black and white. When he graduated in 1970 his tutors though unsure of his work, congratulated him on his persistence.

At times your work can be very busy or surreal, and you seem to be giving the viewer a sneak peek at some other world. Are you often asked to explain your images?

‘Providing insights that people seem to crave is not easy.’ Ian remembered once having produced a large 6-foot pencil drawing of the Last Supper (based on the Michelangelo image, with windmills and all), that was hung in a friend’s house. They had a friend to stay who used to be a Franciscan monk and he would spend hours just staring at the image and swore that there was a hidden meaning within the image, a mysterious presence. Perplexed by this they called Ian to ask him about the part of the image just above the head of Christ, to see whether there was answer. He thought for a moment and replied ‘I believe I rubbed something out around there’.

Ian had a exhibition in Brighton, and gave all the pictures arbitrary numbers then created what he termed an emotive cypher and attached a word to each number ie : DOG 22, Grass 114. (purely random associations) According to one of the curators a large group of teenagers came into the exhibition and spent the whole afternoon trying to find some hidden message/meaning in the exhibition imagery.

I asked Ian if anyone had accused him of taking mind-altering substances to see the nightmarish images he produced. ‘It’s a kind of fallacy that to produce my kind of work you need to be a terrible depressive or suffer from some sort of strange malady. He feels in his case ‘Some people I suppose are just born broken’.

On your web-site there are a number of short stories that you have written, is writing important to you?

‘I write as much as I draw now and recently a literary agent said the nicest thing about my work, he said Ian your writing is as fucked up as you’re drawing and the voice inside my head shouted Yes! I’ve arrived’.

Ian has recently written a theatre piece called the Shingle Dance. It’s a strange tale of the bizarre and traumatic rehabilitation of a dancer called Max Helter, after he losses both of his legs in a dreadful accident. (See Ian’s website at ian -miller.org). The Arts council provided funds to develop this project and Ian is relishing the chance to work with a choreographer and theatrical producer.

During the mid 70’s he worked for Ralph Bakshi on the feature animation Wizards and later on Coolworld. Ian also did some pre-production work for Shrek. Although, before you say I don’t remember any gothic buildings or daemons, unfortunately the team Ian was working with were dropped after one of the production heads took a look at the images and said ‘This stuff is way too scary for kids’.

Recently Ian has been working as a concept artist for DNA (the company who made Jimmy Neutron) and has expanded upon his experience of working in film production. DNA studios are based in Irving Texas USA and Ian has been working on a new production called the Ant Bully, which will be distributed by Warner Brothers and Tom Hanks Playtone Company.

Ian said it was a funny experience working in a studio where people are furiously slaving over keyboards with objects that exist in non-tactile space, and he was at the other end of the room with a pot of ink and a dip pen making a mess. ‘Many people have commented on the differences in my styles but, both styles influence each other. I love to experience mark making in both tight and loose ways and at the moment using the computer to work with has given me even more options’.

Adobe PhotoShop is great to work with as it gives me the opportunity to take my black and white images further. It’s just hard sometimes to stop playing with stuff’. ‘Whilst working for DNA the art director rushed in and asked me why I had sent him 16 files which weren’t flattened all of the same picture. I replied its just in case you didn’t like bits of them and they are all subtly different. You see the shadow in this one is deeper, the red in this one is less…..15 minutes later he walked away with a strange smile on his face.’

Ian said that he loved to work in pre-production for films where you get the chance to work with such creative and skilled individuals, and alongside fellow artists like Fred Gambino and Mike Ploog.

‘It has been such a great experience at DNA where everybody has been helpful and supportive from the top down. At one point during my visit, Nickelodeon had just upgraded their computers and monitors. The management of DNA then gave away the old equipment to those who wanted it and it was funny to see people at the end of the working day proudly clutching equipment and trying to fit it all in their cars.’

What is the secret to your success?

‘A sense of humour is really key, and the ability to except a lifestyle which involves feast and famine. It is a fallacy to think that things get better from higher up on the ladder and after being in the industry for a certain time. I still get some very odd and unreasonable requests but I try to take the rough with the smooth and look for work which my not be the best paid but at least it could turn into some interesting work.’ For example Dave Mckean for his new film Mirror World asked if Ian could work on the pre-production. But due to others commitments and lack of funds Ian suggested using some his old work. He later found out that his images were manipulated and created into wallpaper for one of the sets in the film. Not something that would have happened under normal circumstances, but the result is really exciting.

So the next time you are wondering around Brighton take a moment to see whether you can see the strange gothic edifices that inhabit the world of Ian Miller. Try to imagine what gems lurk beneath the facades of this city. One such treasure is kept well hidden in the guise of a man and his dog quietly strolling through the streets. Ian, his wife Jenny and their dog Jesper have been very kind in letting Caroline and myself invade their afternoon, and would like to thank them for their time and hospitality.

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