Capturing the moment
Aspecial gallery opening at the National Museum of the Pacific War began Friday, Sept. 6 featuring drawings showing a soldier’s first-person experience in World War II.
The work comes from New Hampshire native and WWII veteran Charles Miller. His work features simplistic, yet detailed pictures of experiences he had while stationed in the South Pacific during the war.
Miller, an untrained artist who taught himself by reading books as a child in a local library, captured everything he saw, not only through his artwork, but from the descriptions he would write on the art.
Michael Culver, director of the Wright Museum of World War II in New Hampshire, was notified of Miller’s work in 2015 by some of his family members.
“When you’re a director, you get a lot of calls asking to a look at people’s art,” Culver said. “Usually, I ask them how and when it was done, what medium it was and how many works of art there are.”
Culver usually doesn’t feature a gallery if it’s only one or two works. But Miller’s family members had a lot more than that.
“When they answered and said they had about 700 paintings, I said ‘see you tomorrow,’” Culver said.
When Culver saw the works, he said they were in excellent shape.
“The family had kept them under a bed in a box, which was really the best they could do for them to keep them from being damaged,” Culver said.
The features that drew him to the artworks were the simplicity and how well he captured moments.
“The best way I can describe them to someone who hasn’t seen them is they’re like a visual diary,” Culver said. “When you’re looking at these drawings, you’re seeing exactly what he saw. And, with how well he narrates the images through his writings on the artworks, you can almost hear the experiences, too.”
Miller was very humble, Culver said. While his work was great, he didn’t really consider himself an artist.
He also never got the training or schooling to better his talents and he didn’t really puruse art as a career.
“I’m not sure if the resources were available to him at that time, but he could’ve become a great comic artist,” Culver said. “He could’ve taken advantage of the GI Bill to go to school and learn more, but instead, he wanted to keep working in stores. He called himself a common laborer.”
Miller would work odd jobs in the stores and restaurants in the little Nashua, New Hampshire neighborhood known as Railroad Square.
“The neighbors knew him really well because he would be working all the time in several of the stores,” Culver said.
As for his art, Culver said he would often give it away for free if someone such as a former soldier saw it and connected with it.
He did take some sort of profit at times, though.
“One time, he was in a restaurant called Einstein’s Deli, and he drew a seascape on a wall mural. The people at the deli liked it so much and they wanted to have it,” Culver said. “He didn’t charge them, but they let him eat for free there as payment.”
While Miller may have never expected it, his art is now displayed in a museum for others to enjoy. Culver said people usually love the work when they come in, and he feels confident Miller would appreciate that.
Culver explains that when viewers look at “fine” or “realistic” works of art, they are often confused and they wonder how the artist was able to draw or paint it.
“People are taken back by his art and I think I know why,” Culver said. “When you’re a child, you like to draw, but as you get older, a ‘peer thing’ comes where the drawings have to look realistic or they’re judged, so people often quit.
“But Charlie went on and continued his work. So, when people see it, they can understand it because it’s not too complex like a ‘realistic’ type of drawing. They can understand it better.”
Culver said the art was chosen by museums in Fredericksburg and a city in California, after he sent it to them, as well as others.
“We started thinking these were national treasures, so we wanted the show to travel,” Culver said. “We sent out a lot of packages and emails with his work and many museums, including the one in Texas and one in California, got back to us.”
The Wright Museum doesn’t own the artwork, as it’s still owned by the family. Therefore, it can’t be sold.
“The family wants to hold on to those, and good for them,” Culver said. “I like how they think so highly of Charlie that they want to keep it in the family. We’re just glad they gave us permission to display it.”