Pointing a Compass Toward the Sublime

Ben Miller occupies the fringes of the art form.
Portrait by Sabrina Hill

After high school, Los Angeles native Ben Miller trekked across the country to study ceramics at Alfred University in New York. But in 2010, he took a glass elective, and something clicked. It wasn’t the fiery intensity of the hot shop or the glossy beauty of the finished product that attracted Miller to the material. It was the untapped potential. 

“Glass has been around for centuries as a utilitarian craft,” says Miller, who relocated to Asheville earlier this year to work as a studio manager at the North Carolina Glass Center. “But as an artistic medium, it is still young enough that you can stretch and expand its boundaries.”

Miller has been occupying the medium’s feral fringes ever since, pioneering a way of working with glass that is revolutionary and meticulous. 

Finding Constellations

His “painstaking process,” so time-consuming it is virtually without imitators, begins with patterned chips of glass called murrini, which are laid out and fused into a single sheet. This sheet is then rolled into a cylinder and coated in opaque powdered glass. From there, a resist is applied, a pattern is cut into the resist, and the exposed monochrome glass is sandblasted away to reveal the intricate pattern beneath. The piece is then heated up and blown into the desired form. Finally, delicate finials are made, and everything is carefully assembled. 

“Nothing can ever be rushed, no steps skipped, and no details overlooked,” says Miller, who fine-tuned the technique he calls “an unhurried conversation” while pursuing his MFA at Kent State University in Ohio. 

The artist’s most recent series culls inspiration from antiquated navigational and exploratory instruments such as marine sextants, celestial spheres, telescopes, microscopes, sundials, and compasses.  

Camouflage in White

“These mechanical devices, which were some of the first scientific tools used to explain the world around us, typically required a specific skill set to be utilized properly,” he says. “With the advent of modern technology, most of these skills have been forgotten or cast by the wayside, and as a result, the majority of people have no clue how to use them, despite the fact that they can recognize what they are.”

Between Black Bars

Riffing on this “tenuous stability between the known and unknown,” Miller has recreated these “sublime artifacts” in such a way that they are familiar but still cryptic.  

“The implication of function within this body of work allows viewers to perceive something recognizable,” says Miller, “while simultaneously obscuring them from completely understanding what they are viewing.”

Locked and Loaded

Like most of us, Miller has never used a marine sextant while sailing the Seven Seas or referenced a compass while bushwhacking through uncharted lands. But he’s still an explorer. 

Orange Horizon (detail)

“I have an exploratory approach to glass,” he confirms. “I view working with the material as an opportunity to push unique ways to create.”  

Ben Miller, Asheville. Miller is represented by the North Carolina Glass Center (140 Roberts St., Suite C, River Arts District, Asheville, ncglasscenter.org). To learn more about the artist, visit 3bmglass.com.  

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