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This Kansas Artist Turns Sand, Rocks And Machines Into 'Magic'

Julie Denesha
Most of Mike Miller's sculptures have an element of movement to help capture the attention of his audiences.

A vintage Vornado fan hooked to a bicycle wheel pushes a tumbleweed in a circle. Two sandstone rocks grind against each other to create a small pile of fine sand. A clockwork movement sends a feather swinging in an arc.
It's the work of Kansas sculptor Mike Miller. Each of his kinetic sculptures in a show at the Leedy Voulkos Art Center is a moving combination of a natural object and a manmade machine.

At the front of the gallery, four buttons set the machines running, with 300 feet of wire leading into a maze of 20 extension cords that turn on seven light bulbs and 26 motors. The collection of artful machines creates a mechanical symphony that whirrs, grinds and purrs.

"It's beautiful stationary, and if you didn't know any better you'd think it was a really an amazing show," says Gallery Manager Erin Woodworth. "But then you go to push the buttons and it’s like, A-ha!"

"We're all used to machines that are so complex that they might as well be magic," Miller says. "I like the idea that you can look at a machine and, if you sit there and look for a minute, you can say, 'Ok that gear turns that chain, which makes that shaft spin, which makes that over there do this, which makes this go up and down.'"

Miller says the sculptures combine his two passions.

"I always have loved machines and I always have loved natural things," he says, "so I just kind of fell into this idea that if I can keep using a natural object and a mechanical object and put the two together then I can put across little pieces of that idea."

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Miller tightens screws holding two sandstones in his sculpture 'Sand Maker.' The two rocks grind against each other creating a pile of fine sand. Some of Miller's works needed a little adjustments before reopening on First Friday.

Miller lives out in the country, about an half hour Northeast of Wichita in a farmhouse built in 1912. Most of the objects he uses are donated to him from friends and people who know his work.

"I hook the trailer up to the car and go get whatever people want to give me," he says. "So I've just got a salvage yard of stuff that people have given me and that I've collected over the years, 90% of which I will never use. But I don’t know which ten percent I will use so I have to keep it all."

Woodworth says visitors have been transfixed by the sculptures.

"On First Friday people just wouldn't leave," she says. "They just wanted to investigate and figure out where did this part come from and where did this piece come from? How did he make this, do that?"

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Tweaking the speed of his tumbleweed was on Miller's list of items to adjust during a visit to his show at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center.

That's part of Miller's goal. He says he wants his work to hold viewers' attention long enough to get them to think about the processes that create movement.

"I got into the kinetic thing because it holds the viewer," he explains. "Artist are always trying to tackle: How do we get people to spend a little bit more time and think about it and look at it and see what's there? Movement naturally holds your attention."

Everything is a machine according to Miller. A tree is a machine. A rock is a machine. The sun’s a machine. But he separates them into two different categories.

"There's natural machines that are made in nature, and then there's manmade machines."

It's important for people to understand how the machines around them work, Miller says. He wants his art to let people peek into the moving gears just beneath the surface.

"Feather as a Machine" Sculptures by Mike Miller continues through October 26, in the main gallery of the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, 2012 Baltimore Ave., Kansas City, Missouri 64108 .

Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter @juliedenesha.

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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