For Ned Miller of Miller Metals, the artistry of his work comes with his torch and his inspiration to take a hand rail or fireplace grate and create something functional and beautiful. A metal bench appears to float up from the soil in a bucolic garden setting, a bronze cast sculpture with intricate renderings of a lion’s face hypnotizes the passerby and a restored massive wrought iron gate made in previous centuries provides regal privacy. This is the art of our everyday landscape.
During his senior year at Providence Country Day School, the Little Compton native needed a senior project to complete his studies. “My teacher reminded me how much I had enjoyed taking a class with Connecticut sculptor Nicholas Swearer, who had been at school a few years before for an Artist in Residency program.” Ned reached out to the renowned sculptor about doing an internship for school credit. It was to be the beginning of a mentorship that has grown over the years beyond the lessons of sculpture to Swearer and his wife Joan being a valuable influence in Ned’s life to this day.
After high school, Ned worked for Nicholas learning more about the intricacies of welding equipment, the power of heating and bending metals and the art of sculpting. Then it was on to a metal fabricator where he continued to get more experience in the everyday work of making things to pay the bills. Approximately ten years ago, shortly after his father John passed away, Ned made the decision that if he was going to continue in metal work he was going to work for himself. “It was time to go out on my own with the goal of making functional art, putting a more creative spin on the work with railings and furniture being the most obvious opportunity,” he says.
When Ned begins a project he tries to add an element to the design connecting the piece to the customer. “With an order for stair railings for a nautically themed ‘man cave’ basement I presented the idea of braiding the steel round bars, not easy to do, to give the effect that it looks like boat rope. The customer loved it.”
Tucked away on a dead end street in Warren, Miller Metals is located in a steel cavernous windowless building, formerly occupied by an iron works company, adjacent to a two-family home the artist owns. Income from the extra rental unit and the sublet of some garage space help contribute to Ned’s business, allowing him to keep doing what he loves to do. His office space on the second floor of the garage is dominated by a massive and, no coincidence, steel roll top desk with brass inlays, which is buried under sketches and piles of paperwork reflecting the one man operation. “Up until a year ago I was doing 95% of everything from quoting, billing, creating the work, to delivering and installing it. I was stretched real thin,” Ned says. He took the big step to hire an extra set of hands to help with the work.
When it comes to marketing and promoting his business, Ned is the first to admit his weakness. “I am so bad at marketing my own work,” he says. “After ten years in business I finally bit the bullet and hired a website designer a few months ago to do my website and I still need to write descriptions for the photos. I’ve done well with word of mouth but it is a slow process to do it that way. It’s tough for me to compete with things moving so fast, people posting their work online, which is wonderful because it links so many people together who would never be connected before. But if you don’t do it, then you can miss out.”
An effective advertisement is when he drives his truck, which features a sculpture that also serves as a rack across the back window. Functional by protecting the back glass window, the eye-catching piece is finished in various shades of orange and red, resembling rays of light emanating from a setting sun. “I often get people asking about it in parking lots, or thumbs up as they drive by” Ned says, and it has generated some business by customers requesting it.
Ned appreciates the collaborative process. He recently completed an ornate hand railing for a Manhattan retail store thanks to a contractor from Bristol who had heard about his work. He is also currently finishing a 32’ drink rail for a bar in Providence made of stainless steel sheet metal with mahogany trim details in with another “functional artist” Stephen Kinnane of Little Compton. Upcoming orders will keep Ned’s work in Warren with railings for The Harbor Animal Hospital the recently renovated Handkerchief Building and galvanized bike racks for the new food incubator, Hope & Main on Main Street (read our story about Hope & Main here).
Ned, whose daughter Imogen turns five-years-old this month, loves the lasting effect of his art, “I always knew I was going to use my hands. I always had a desire to create things and thought it might be carpentry. But it was the heat and versatility of working with metal which has fewer constraints than wood that got me. When I first began as a young kid with the metalsmithing it was all about the torch, the sparks flying. As I have gotten older it has become more about the permanence of what you can create as a metal fabricator artist. I love that long after I’m gone, my work will live on.”
5 Palmer Avenue, Warren. 401-662-8900.