Steve Miller’s Deeply-Rooted Career in Book Arts
For 42 years, Steve Miller has made books. Thirty of those years have been spent instructing and inspiring students in the Book Arts MFA program at UA SLIS, where he has made beautiful books of his own writing, books of words and images by other writers and artists whose work he loves, and collaborative books with his many students and colleagues.
Steve Miller grew up in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, the oldest of five children, with his father, an electrician and his mother, a housewife. Unlike his parents or siblings, young Steve was interested in classical music, insects, plant life and architecture. When he entered college, Miller channeled his childhood love for botany and the outdoors into the study of landscape architecture, which became important to him and shaped how he thinks about things. In fact, the name of his first imprint, Red Ozier Press, was inspired by a plant that grows in Wisconsin. Miller shares, “A red osier is a big, red-stemmed shrub that grows in the lowest part of the landscape. When the land was covered with snow, these beautiful, bright red stems would be so apparent, sticking out of the snow. For me, that symbolized that deep-rootedness of the book making experience and the drama of it, being sunk into the ground.” Trusting his instincts, Miller followed opportunities as they arose, like flags leading to what he should do and where he should go next. He says, “I didn’t imagine a life in books. I just imagined what the next thing could be and followed those leads where they took me.”
As a young poet and recent college graduate, Steve Miller was hooked on book making after his desire to print a book of original poems led him to take a post-grad class in letterpress printing at University of Wisconsin–Madison. “I took a proof of one of my poems that I had set by hand in metal type on some paper made from my old blue jeans, and when I pulled that proof, it was like getting struck by lightning,” says Miller. “Suddenly, it became clear. Everything I have been interested in… words, making poetry, art, materials, landscape, and actually standing on the ground in front of the printing press instead of just floating above as a poet…all of that just came together for me. All I knew was that this is so absolutely fascinating and I wanted to make that book, and once I made that book, I wanted to make other books.”
He thought of writers whose work interested him and whose words he loved, so he reached out and got original manuscripts from poets he had admired for a long time and started making their books. Miller went to Chicago, bought a printing press and brought it to Madison to set up a shop on the second floor of an old hotel and began making books with other poets, writers, and artists. One book led to another, which has led to a vibrant career in book arts.
After three years in Madison, Miller moved his press to New York City and a loft in lower Manhattan to be close to artists and writers with whom he wished to collaborate. Works by unknown poets as well as Nobel Prize winners were printed on his press. As the Book Arts graduate program here at The University of Alabama (the first of its kind in the United States) was beginning, Miller was one of four experts invited to teach a class on letterpress printing during the summer with the very first cohort of graduate students in the Book Arts MFA Program. “It was June and hot and perfumed and it was lovely,” Miller remembers. “The people that I met were great. They reminded me of good, Midwestern folks, and I went away feeling really affectionate about The University of Alabama.” Three years later, in 1988, Miller was hired as the letterpress printing instructor and moved to Tuscaloosa.
Miller says that making books has been a thrilling career with many, many highpoints, noting, “Years of teaching, working with colleagues, administration and service in this Book Arts Program have resulted in incredible graduates who have become leaders nationally in Book Art and I absolutely could not be prouder to see our people out there doing well, being leaders and makers. Our faculty team, Anna Embree, and Sarah Bryant, are both incredible. I am proud that the books that come out of this program all look different from each other. None are cookie cutter or stamped ‘Alabama.’ Instead, we try to bring out the best in our students in technique, in conceptualizing book projects, and let them express themselves with the palette they bring into the program combined with the eye-opening experiences learned in the program, which helps students implement the kind of works they want. As a result, each person’s work looks completely different and I really love that.”
Some of the highlights of Miller’s work in the UA SLIS Book Arts Program range from the pride of seeing students excel to moments working on projects for critically acclaimed writers. He says, “It was exciting to finish printing the title page of a new book by famed Mexican poet, Octavio Paz, who, the next morning, won the Nobel Prize for Literature.”
Miller notes that Book Arts faculty members have traveled often to Havana, Cuba to finish collaborative projects with Cuban artists and authors. “In thinking about the future of our program, Anna and Sarah have developed a project with an artist in Havana to work on a book project that they will be doing over the next year that will celebrate women artists in Cuba, in a place where art and printmaking has been mainly male dominated. This is a great moment for women artists and my colleagues will be collaborating while there and the work exhibited, which is a wonderful signal for where we are as a program. It’s our way of moving forward and taking next steps for the future of the program.”
When asked about the evolution of book making and the impact of newer technologies on the Book Arts, Miller states, “The legacy traditions and historic processes here, such as setting metal type by hand and printing, or the historical bookbinding processes that happen here on the 5th floor of Gorgas — all of these are used in support of books being made now, in 2018, with ideas that come from 2018 or the future. So, the media we use are not limited to the type of legacy tools. This is about making books by hand. For example, I finished a book this summer that employed tri-tone digital printing of photographs on paper. I cut the sheets down after the photos were printed, and then printed my poems onto the sheets. Then I folded, collated, and bound the edition of books. The tools can be various and mighty, or very simple, but we are wide open to the possibilities of might happen in the form of the book.” Miller goes on to comment, “Students are very savvy with social media and they use those tools to get the word out about their work. We will always have students come knocking on our door for whom the book has deep meaning, just the form and the shape of the book. They want to know how to make those things that have had such a magical effect on their lives. I know, for me, I was always sought out books, so suddenly, that concept of being able to make a book of my own, of poetry…that was a life-changing moment. And we will always have those students that share that feeling and want to experience books first-hand.”
When asked about what makes the Book Arts Program at UA so attractive to potential students, Miller notes that students come from all areas of the country, all backgrounds and disciplines to join the program. “People come from all kinds of different perspectives, but when they come here they want to learn how to make books. From the time a student enters the program we are pushing them out into the world, with their own energy and with our support, encouraging them to attend conferences, to intern around the country in the summers, and to take classes in other places. We love to bring wonderful creators here to Alabama so that students can see and meet many people out in the world making books and actively creating. We also ground people strongly in the traditions of printing, papermaking, bookbinding, archives, and the history of the book. We are demanding, and we mentally pave the way for our students, so when they go out in the world they are prepared to be productive and successful.”
As he prepares to retire in June, Miller admits there have already been bittersweet moments, like teaching his last papermaking class. “It was lovely,” Miller says, “but I have new book projects that are ready to go, and other interests that I will now be able to devote my time toward.” Along with his husband of 30 years, Desmond, Miller enjoys sharing their home with 2 big dogs, their 28-year-old parrot, and their foster son, Greggory. Miller looks forward to retirement and the opportunities that lie ahead for his expanding family. “The world of making books is the lens through which I see the world. I plan to continue making books and art and sharing that with others.”