Cal Poly Distinguished Teacher Michael Miller worked at Cal Poly for 15 years. | Tera Galanti/Courtesy photo

Kelly Trom

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The art and design department suffered a loss this past fall quarter in the passing of Cal Poly Distinguished Teacher Michael Miller. On Nov. 14, 2014, Miller died after battling brain cancer for two years.

Art and design professor Eric Johnson was there for the very beginning of Miller’s 15 years at Cal Poly. In fact, he was the one who made the ultimate decision to hire Miller as department chair in 1997.

“It was certainly one of the best decisions that I have been involved in in all the years I have been here,” Johnson said. “He was a tremendously positive and successful professor. He was a big part of the department.”

Miller stood out in his initial telephone and in-person interviews. Johnson said Miller’s undergraduate degree in political science from Arizona State University helped Miller connect art to society and culture.

Miller’s quality as an artist and knowledge of contemporary and historical art also helped him secure the job. His ability to speak with ease about art during his interview translated naturally to his classroom.

“He was extremely well-prepared for every class,” Johnson said. “He did a lot of prep, whether it was slides, verbal material, sequencing in presentation, so his preparation allowed him to have a large comfort level in the classroom.”

Though Miller had high expectations for his students, Johnson said Miller also had high expectations for himself. Students were motivated by his standards.

Art and design senior Reid Vizcarra took his first Cal Poly art class, Drawing 101 (ART 101), with Miller. Vizcarra remembers Miller’s willingness to listen to student concepts and give them honest feedback.

“He would ask you to show him more and what your original concept was,” Vizcarra said. “He was blunt and maybe some people were turned off by that, but it forced students to be better. He brought an energy to the department; if you saw him down the hall he was always excited to be here around students and the creativity.”

Vizcarra learned some fundamentals of art from Miller that he will never forget. In addition, he appreciated Miller’s attention to the conceptual side of art.

“He was a very intelligent person,” Vizcarra said. “I can’t imagine him ever stopping. He had so much energy and charisma. He always wanted to do more and learn more.”

Art and design senior Lauren Manning appreciated Miller’s care for his students on an individual level.

“Even though I just had him for two classes, I am blessed to have had his wisdom bestowed upon me,” Manning said. “He paid a lot of attention to me and had me pretty much figured out at the end of my first quarter. Whenever I feel like I’m struggling as an artist, I always remember his faith in me.”

She also appreciated what he brought to the department as a whole, changing the focus of the art department from crafts such as jewelry making and glass blowing to fine art.

“He built the fine arts program from nothing, instated the art history side of the department and emphasized conceptual and contemporary art where it hadn’t existed before,” Manning said. “It sounds dramatic, but he’s the reason we’re all here.”

Miller’s contributions to the department went far beyond his stimulating teaching style. The curriculum of art and design would look different if not for Miller’s influence. He created a course, Art Theory and Practice (ART 203), that all three concentrations of art and design are required to take. It deals with contemporary issues that all art students, regardless of their concentrations, will have to face in their careers.

He also created an intermedia course that focused on the connections between video, drawing, painting, television, cinema and more.

“He always made sure people had an idea behind their work and explored concepts,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t just purely a technical exercise, to learn technique only. Technique in the service of an idea is really what he was about.”

Miller taught students how to come up with ideas and then execute the concept into a piece of art.

He was heavily involved in the Thailand study abroad program and spearheaded the growth of the art lecture series that brought artists from all over to talk to Cal Poly art students. He believed in the importance of broadening students’ minds and getting perspectives from places other than the art department.

“He was here, giving all of himself with the best intent, with very little self,” Johnson said. “He had a huge knowledge of himself, a pretty deep spiritual dimension, so he was comfortable. Because of that, he was able to give to others.”

Miller did so through his relationships with the other professors.

“He was the kind of person who was able to listen and hear,” Johnson said. “Sometimes people are a little more wrapped up in their own stuff and don’t hear what other people say. He was very much a conciliator, trying to find common ground with people.”

Art and design professor Jean Wetzel, one of Miller’s colleagues and best friends, attested to Miller’s listening and conversational facility.

“Michael impacted my career in a positive way by sharing ideas and resources with me,” Wetzel wrote in an email to Mustang News. “We talked constantly. He was a wellspring of knowledge on many subjects, and I enjoyed testing out ideas on him because I could count on him to stimulate new insights and ways of approaching an issue or problem.”

Not only did Miller stimulate the minds of his colleagues, but he also genuinely cared on a personal level.

“I have known many brilliant minds in my academic career, but it is rare to find someone like Michael who combines sharp intellect (and wit) with a deep sense of caring for other people,” Wetzel wrote. “He was the real deal: a humane, ethical and compassionate human being.”

Art and design professor Daniel Dove was part of a committee that included Miller in 2005. Miller was one of the main reasons Dove took the job. Dove was teaching at a professional art school before coming to Cal Poly, worried that a polytechnic state school would not have the same sort of emphasis on art practice.

“Talking to Michael during my interview confirmed that there were serious, intense minds that I could learn from,” Dove said.

Miller also taught Dove how to be a professor in a small department.

“Since I am the only painting professor here, I sort of have to hold the torch for it,” Dove said. “I saw the way in which Michael did that with the subjects that he taught. I learned to be much more assertive and a much more comprehensive thinker about how to do things.”

Separate from his professional aptitude, Dove remembers Miller as a fierce artist and a verbally inclined person who could easily translate his complex thoughts to words.

“He was intimidating but had these blasts of warmth and affection that made you feel like you were always dealing with someone who had many sides,” Dove said. “He was a deeply complex individual.”

Art and design professor Tera Galanti, Miller’s wife, wrote in an email to Mustang News that “Michael’s greatest joy was touching the lives of others through teaching and making art. He truly cared for every individual he came to know. With razor sharp acuity and an unparalleled joie de vivre, he held young artists’ dreams close to his heart and guided them on a path of finding their own voice.”

Those who want to celebrate Miller’s memory can attend a memorial Jan. 10 at 1 p.m. in the Business Rotunda (Building 3, Room 213).

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