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Artist Interrupted
At-Home Mom Creates Art and Family

By Peter Nichols

The Interrupted Artist
To an interviewer, Nancy Bea Miller, C’85, is a moving target. And you never seem to have her full attention—at least not for long. She’s an at-home mom with three blond and curly-haired boys: twins Henry and Peter, ages 7, and Hughie, age 4. Her husband is Paul Downs, EAS’85, a materials science major turned furniture maker with his own business in Philadelphia.

Tidal Wave of Boys
“My day starts with chaos and ends with exhaustion,” Miller summarizes. “In between there’s lots of screaming and lots of laughing and lots of eating and lots of laundry.”

A modern-day family is a perpetual-motion machine: the swarm of life improvised, hobbled together, and set in motion. Miller’s job, each day, is to attend to its wheels and pendulums, springs and things, making sure the many moving parts and opposing forces stay in sync. No nine-to-five; no weekends off. Once in a while, she finds a little time to put brush to canvas and paint a small portion of a small artwork she’s been trying to finish in her crowded studio upstairs. She paints meticulous still lifes, drawn from a life that is anything but still.

Peter and Hugh are at day camp today. Their home, in a working-class neighborhood, is cluttered with the wreckage left behind by the receded tidal wave of little boys: Beanie Babies and bike helmets, Legos and Pokémon cards, a fire truck and a volume of Best Children’s Classics beside a cluster of baseball, basketball, and soccer trophies. A basket of laundry—folded—stands like a sole survivor.

A few of Miller’s artworks preside over the quiet disorder. One, on the living room wall, depicts Peter handling golden, rose-blushed peaches taken from a bowl that rests on a table draped with white linen. A brown teapot sits nearby. In the portrait, a diamond-clear shaft of sunlight illuminates each object, including the child, and seems to underscore the being of everything with shadow.

Outside the house, a hand-lettered sign is posted on the front door: “Remember to close and bungee the gate after you enter, or Henry will escape,” the sign says. A bungee cord, hooked and wrapped around the wrought iron gate and fence, secures the narrow porch and flowerbed from the onrush of traffic just across the sidewalk. “Henry has no fear,” Miller explains, “so he’ll do very, very dangerous things like walk out into the middle of the street and stand in front of a bus.” He’s nearly drowned three times, and last spring he got lost at Zion National Park in Utah. “He’s really quick,” the mom pleads, defending the need to look away once in a while and see what trouble her other boys have gotten into.

Henry is autistic. “It took him about three years to learn where his nose is,” Miller says, bringing her finger up to her own nose. “Your average 18-month old will learn to point to it after you ask him a few times where his nose is. Henry only recently learned to do that.”

Henry has almost no language and little capacity to play with his brothers. Therapists, paid for by government assistance, come into the home to work with and care for him. Miller spends a lot of time on the phone playing ringmaster—shoving and juggling and reacting to the three-ring circus of funders, agencies, and schools that make up the special-needs bureaucracy. “You have to jump through all these hoops constantly in order to maintain it and keep it running,” she says, slipping pepperoni slices, one of Henry’s favorite treats, into the microwave oven and hitting the start button. “And then it breaks down anyway.” The microwave shuts off and beeps. “There are times when Henry definitely looks deep into my eyes,” she says, “and there’s a real soul connection.” She places the pepperoni treats into his outstretched hand. He takes them without looking up at her. “But that beautiful Henry spirit just didn’t mesh with his body,” she sighs, and her child wanders off alone again into the lost world of his mind, a stranger in his own home.

As a little girl, Miller mothered a bevy of dolls and grew up with romantic, still-life notions of golden afternoons reading to her children while the sun slanted through soft, breeze-blown, white-gauze curtains. Instead, she trots beside Henry through an urban heat wave, gripping the end of two bungees that are knotted together and tethered to his bike. “Everything about being a mother has been a lot harder than what I thought it would be,” she pants, “except perhaps toilet training.”

Miller has a bright face and blue eyes, and usually wears her blond hair tied back in a braid. Velcro sandals are strapped to her feet. Her idealism tells her that she should be doing something “important” with her life—something on the order of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. After graduating from Penn, she tried—signing on with Women Against Abuse and Women Organized Against Rape. “I’d just go home and cry,” she confides. “I was too thin-skinned, and it wasn’t the career of my dreams. I really wanted to be an artist.”

Show and Sell
Her father had been a commercial artist, and there were always pencils and paper and paint lying all around the house. As long as she can remember, she’s given in to the impulse to make doodles and pictures, “without thinking.” Following a four-year program of study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, she worked part time as an art conservator and spent the rest of the time creating her own art. Her paintings have been displayed in local galleries, and modest sales allowed her to patch together a living that she loved.

A former English major, she alludes to the novel Cat’s Cradle to help elucidate her creative urges. In Kurt Vonnegut’s darkly funny story, the deity creates a world of mud and then commands some of it to sit up. “‘See all I’ve made,’ God tells all the newly made mud-beings, ‘the hills, the sea, the sky, the stars.’” Miller adds her own gloss on the author’s teleology: “The whole purpose of human beings, these little mud people, is to look out and say, ‘Wow, look at this! This is great, God!’ And then they just lie back down again. That’s what doing art is: It’s saying, ‘Look at this! This is wonderful! This is beautiful!’”

After becoming a mom, she turned to cartoons and managed to sell a few to magazines and published a collection, Twin Toons, based on her experiences. Unlike painting, cartooning did not require long planning and a substantial investment of time for preparation and clean up for each session. It was small enough to fit between back-to-back bouts of mud and blood and poop and tears that crowd the life of a stay-at-home mom. “I could run upstairs, either flesh out some ideas or do some inking or something, and I could stop instantly and then run downstairs to take care of the kids.”

As the children have gotten older, she has been able to spend more time in the studio painting the dozen or so works she shows and sells each year. After a successful show last January, at which almost all her paintings sold, another gallery invited her to contribute to an exhibit in May. There wasn’t enough time to paint enough works, no matter how much she wanted to do it. “To be honest,” she admits, “most of the time I’m just too tired or a child gets sick or there’s a Henry crisis—and there’s always mounds of laundry.”

Miller used to paint much larger canvases with lots of figures, but the mud wrestling of motherhood now sets the parameters of her artistic genre as well as the size of a painting’s frame. “I had all these grand visions that shrank dramatically to these very small, six-by-eight still lifes that I could leave set up and work on in increments. Now I’m doing little, intimate visions of domestic life, which is my life. Working within these constraints has made me look more deeply at the small world around me.” She’s won a number of prizes over the last decade, and art buyers are sitting up and taking notice of the little gems she keeps pulling from the mud.

Bungee Cord Life
At mid-afternoon, it’s time to pick up Peter and Hugh at camp. Miller ends up heading home with four kids in the family’s white station wagon. Compared to doing something “useful” like growing food or curing cancer, she laments, making art still feels like a “stupid luxury.” A small print of a Madonna and child—what Catholics call a holy card—is propped in the car’s open ashtray.

On the way home, the mom and her happy crew of campers stop at a playground. The kids, coiled tight in the back seats, spring out as soon as the doors fly open and scamper up monkey bars and down slides. Peter dangles from the frame on which the swings are hung, tick-tocking to and fro like a pendulum. Hughie flops belly first and sprawls across a truck tire, suspended by a chain. He turns languidly on the slow-turning wheel. Miller’s eye turns from one moving part to the next. She sits down on one of the benches but is yanked up again by the bungee cord of motherhood.

“I have to poop,” announces Hugh. There’s a note of urgency in his voice. Miller hurries him along to a nearby building. Her eye, like an endlessly turned worry bead, turns once more toward a bank of dark clouds moving in from the west.

Some of her artist friends think the small pieces she paints are not “serious art.” After her show earlier this year, she took one of them into her studio and showed her a big painting of Hugh contemplating a frosted donut across a chin-high tabletop arranged with apples, pottery, and a kewpie doll. The tableau is cleansed with warm light and a stillness that seems to be holding its breath. The work had been propped against the wall for a long time, and Miller was struggling to cover what felt like “acres of canvas” with paint.

“That’s what you should be doing.” the girlfriend glowed. “This is the best painting: It’s better than anything that was in your show.”

“Yes,” agreed the interrupted artist, “and I didn’t have time to finish it—because I have children.”

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