Casting an artful brush
The idea came to him during a phone call. The artist and avid fly fisherman was talking with his brother when he suddenly wondered whether it would be possible to combine his two loves in a way he hadn’t seen before. Could he use the same tool to catch fish as well as make art illustrating their natural habitat? Could he paint the rivers he loves to fish with a fly rod instead of a brush?
“A good fly fisherman is going to be really precise with their presentation,” says Ben Miller (’01 fine arts). “If you’re going to be that precise with where you cast, why can’t you use that same motion as a means of painting? You go out there and you experience the river, and you create art in the same manner.”
As soon as he hung up, Miller grabbed his fishing gear and painting supplies, and headed to the creek behind his house. “The urge to try this was overwhelming,” he says. “There was a moment there when it just felt so good to be doing what I was doing.”
It still does. And Miller has been developing his unique technique ever since. The fly cast artist, now based in Bozeman, Montana, can be found at the Gallatin, Missouri, or Madison, casting his paint-laden line onto an easel set up next to or in the water to capture “the mood of the river. I’ve never heard of anyone else doing this,” he says. “It’s such a foreign concept to most people.” But, “to me, it just makes so much sense.” (See video below!)
Miller grew up in Darrington, a small lumber town in Snohomish County. His parents, Budd Miller (’75 animal sciences) and Diane (Johnson) Miller (’75 general studies), met at WSU. Miller studied art in Pullman for four years, then spent a year at Central Washington University to earn a K–12 teaching endorsement. After two years of teaching high school art in Cowiche, outside of Yakima, he returned to Darrington to work at the same high school he had attended. He taught there for ten years before moving to Montana to be closer to the famed rivers and streams and rich heritage of fly fishing.
Miller’s been fly fishing since he was eight years old. “I love fly fishing,” he says. “My grandfather showed me when I was young, and I was hooked. I’d go fishing with my brothers. My parents would let me ride my bike like a mile down the road to this small creek almost every day, and I couldn’t wait to do it. I would usually meet a friend, and it was amazing. We’d catch so many fish.”
Today, Miller has two rods for fishing and three for painting. Standing on the riverbank or in the water, he applies paint to a piece of yarn affixed to the end of his line. He casts the line to paint the same way he casts a fly to fish, but the target is a custom-built, seventy-pound, seven-foot, aluminum, A-frame easel typically set up 20 to 28 feet away. From afar, it looks like he’s fishing.
“Why paint with a fly rod?” an onlooker once asked him. “Why fish with one?” Miller answered. “There are far more effective ways to catch fish yet millions of folks around the world have subscribed to the fly fishing method.”
Initially, Miller tried painting with flies “but a fly cannot take the abuse of hitting a hard surface over and over again.” He also traded canvas for plexiglass to explore “the idea of trying to push the depth of water.” But, just as with the flies, the force of the line caused the material to shatter. Now he uses Lexan—an ultra-durable, clear polycarbonate—upon which he typically paints both sides to achieve his desired effect.
Miller paints fish in his studio before heading outdoors to paint water “from a fisherman’s perspective. A stream is nothing more than a moving palette of color,” he says, noting he paints “backwards,” adding highlights before painting the deeper, darker depths—instead of the other way around. “When you are fly fishing you look down at your fly box and make two decisions about your fly: what size and what color. I have a palette on my arm for mixing paints to match the stream, and I make the same decisions about paint: what size and what color.”
Miller uses resin to give the illusion of depth and refracted light. Sometimes, he incorporates a wooden frame to give a piece a rustic look. He’s tried painting year-round, including in Montana’s sub-zero temperatures. “Your line freezes in mid-air. Some days,” he says, “it’s just counter-productive to go outside. You understand where you are and hunker down and wait it out. If it’s a day you can go out and fish, then it’s a day you can go out and paint.”
Miller dreams of owning his own art gallery. He also hopes to expand Dutch Rogue Cove, his fly cast art business, as well as his reach—traveling around America to famed fly-fishing destinations, such as Wyoming, Colorado, and the Catskills.
He calls fly fishing “a meditation. You get the rhythm of the water and the casting, and pretty soon you’re one with the river. Whether you’re catching fish or not, that relaxation is, I think, why so many people do it. Creating a painting with a fly rod is part of that—and trying to memorialize this moment, this river, this place and time.”
Top image: Miller casts and paints (video frame Amanda Determan)
By Adriana Janovich for Washington State Magazine