Local Painter Uses Fly Casting Technique To Paint Disappearing Rivers For Chicago Art Exhibit
By Tucker Harris EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – Snow and ice begin to melt along the Gallatin River on a warm but overcast March day and the sound of a fly fishing line snaps in with a steady beat. Rather than hitting the water, however, the fly brush at the end of the line shoots acrylic paint onto a canvas for over 3,000 strokes.
At the end of the day, Bozeman-based fly-casting artist Ben Miller completed a 48-by-96-inch painting of the Gallatin River. The final product will be part of his Endangered Rivers series, an episode at EXPO CHICAGO from April 7-10. Miller is one of 16 international artists selected to participate.
Miller creates his homemade fly brushes by replicating the look of traditional flies with fabric and cord that work well for transferring paint from the rod without ruining the canvas. (He tried using real fishing flies, and it didn’t go well, he admitted). He then ties the brush to the end of a fly line and mimics throwing it into a river, but instead lays the fly brush on a canvas.
“One of my favorite things about fly fishing is of course the casting part: that rhythm and control,” Miller told EBS as he made the trip from Bozeman to Chicago. “And that perfect trip: that feeling of seeing that fly get stuck in the current, then seeing a fish come out of nowhere to grab it and suck it up… And thinking about how to see that trout too with a fly that you tie up,” he continued.
The Endangered Rivers series includes Miller’s fly casting work from his time spent along the banks of rivers stretching across the West, including the Gallatin, Yellowstone and Jefferson Rivers in Montana. With this series, Miller hopes to tell the stories of the rivers and raise awareness.
“I think one of the reasons why [art] should be created for a greater purpose,” he said.
Priced at $22,500, half of the proceeds from the sale of the Gallatin River 3/25/22 coin will benefit the Gallatin River Task Force, a local non-profit river conservation organization.
In 1986, Miller received his first fly rod from his grandfather at age 8. With feathers from his family’s chickens, yarn from his mother’s sewing kit, and yarn, Miller began learning to tie his own makeshift flies with his fingers where he grew up in western Washington.
From there, he was hooked.
Miller grew up studying art at Washing State University and spent 12 years teaching art before moving to Bozeman in 2016. He was fascinated to discover how to capture trout suspended in the river through oil painting. ‘oil.
In 2016, he decided to combine his two passions: fly fishing and painting rivers.
He tied a sock to the end of a fly line, dipped it in paint, set up an easel with a canvas, and tried to throw the sock on it.
“I’m pretty sure I missed the first few times, but all of a sudden there was a connection and bam, the paint was flying everywhere,” he said. “And then I knew I was onto something.”
Fly casting, for Miller, is very much in line with the fly fishing experience that hooks anglers spending long days on the river, he said. “It’s just now the experience I’m living, I can also share it with other people.”
Fast forward seven years of trial and error with homemade techniques, canvases and flybrushes (“more mistakes than tries,” he joked) and Miller found himself at studying water from an ice flow on the Gallatin River on March 25 behind the Riverhouse BBQ & Events, creating his latest piece on the Montana River for EXPO CHICAGO.
Arriving at work at 10 a.m., he was able to walk on the ice, set up his easel, and study the details of his subject: the refractions of light on the surface of the river, the rocks, the movement, the earth tones. As the temperature rose, the ice began to melt. By adding earthier tones as more sediment appeared in the river, Miller was able to capture the changing conditions of the river throughout the day.
Where Miller chooses to set up shop for a paint day is important to him. He doesn’t just want to paint where there’s a lot of action, he said.
“I would like to talk about different parts of the river, rather than one very selective part in most circumstances,” Miller said.
Atop the ice that day on the Gallatin, Miller’s intimate study of the river went far beyond what the casual passerby would observe. “I saw one shade with more of a greenish gray top,” he said. “…I couldn’t see the stones all the way to the other side, so you’ll see at the top of [the painting] more current… and you’re dealing with a sort of muted palette instead.
Miller used three separate rods of different lengths and weights and many different flybrushes to replicate the Gallatin River section. The heavier Winston Spey 8 weight rod splatters more paint on the canvas but has precision limitations, while the smaller Winston Pure 4 weight rod creates smaller splatters with more finesse.
He paints on the back of the clear polycarbonate plexiglass, but the final paint is actually on the other side of the canvas. His very first marks are concealed as he continues to add layers of paint, but this is what viewers see first when he flips the paint over to reveal it.
Gary Snyder, a New York art collector and gallery owner, introduced Miller and the piece to viewers on March 25 before the canvas was returned.
“When I first saw Ben, I thought it was like Jackson Pollock and abstract art,” Snyder said ahead of the March 25 reveal. “And when I got to know Ben, I realized that he was painting the river; he was a realist… These paintings are very representative.
Miller hopes to publicize the rivers he painted throughout the West at the Chicago exhibit.
“All of these rivers have their own story,” he said, “You tell the story of what happens, or what happened to make this place what it is, I think. “There’s a lot to be said for not only being able to tell stories, but making awareness of different places more accessible,” Miller said.
Miller’s Endangered Rivers series will be on display April 7-10 at the ninth annual EXPO CHICAGO, the international exhibition of contemporary and modern art, at Navy Pier’s Festival Hall. On Sunday, April 3, Miller will be live to paint the Chicago River as his final piece for the exhibit.
To visit benmillerartist.com to see all his works for the next exhibition.