A South Florida museum showcases burgers, fries and beers, made of glass

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A South Florida museum showcases burgers, fries and beers, made of glass
Artist John Miller amidst his whimsical, oversized glass food sculptures at his studio in Bloomington, Ill., Sept. 29, 2023. Miller’s glistening glass cheeseburgers, hot dogs, doughnuts, extra extra large sodas and other inedible glass edibles will be on display at the Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami in an exhibition called, “Order Up! The Pop Art of John Miller.” (Jamie Kelter Davis/The New York Times)

by Joseph B. Treaster

MIAMI, FLA.- John Miller makes supersize cheeseburgers and french fries — crinkle-cut or curly.

They look luscious. But don’t even think about taking a bite. They are rock hard. Miller is an artist, and he works in glass.

He will be displaying his big, glistening glass cheeseburgers, hot dogs, doughnuts, fountain drinks and a couple of beers at the Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami in nearby Coral Gables from Oct. 27 through Jan. 14, in an exhibition called, “Order Up! The Pop Art of John Miller.”

“His work is fun,” said Sheldon Palley, a Miami collector of glass art and the principal sponsor of the exhibition. “It’s fun to look at. It really gives you a warm feeling.”

Miller, 56, began making giant glass cheeseburgers as a tribute to the good times he has had hanging out in roadside diners around the country. “It’s mostly about nostalgia,” he said in a phone interview, “about being transported somewhere in your past.”

He was inspired, he said, by pop artists Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and, especially, Claes Oldenburg, who made monumental, whimsical outdoor sculptures, and indoor pieces like a 5-foot-high slice of chocolate cake and a hamburger as big as a beanbag couch.

The exhibition of Miller’s playful work is part of a strategy by Jill Deupi, the director and chief curator of the Lowe, to pull more people into the museum from more parts of Miami and nearby towns.

She has taken her audience into the national discussion on race with an exhibition of drawings and prints by Charles White, a Black artist born in Chicago, and with a show of bold prints by Jacob Lawrence highlighting moments in the life of John Brown, the white abolitionist whose hanging by authorities in Virginia in 1859 helped propel the nation toward civil war.

Deupi sees photography as another way of broadening the museum’s reach. Her curator of collections and exhibitions, Caitlin Swindell, presented a show this summer of 20 portraits by photographer Arnold Newman of artists like Picasso, Lichtenstein and Dalí, accompanied by examples of the artists’ own work from the museum’s permanent collection of 19,500 items. It was an introduction of the artists and of Newman’s mastery of the camera for some, and a refresher for others.

Deupi has also worked to make the museum more accessible, cost-wise — after the pandemic slump, she eliminated the museum’s $12.50 admission fee, and suspended the charge for group tours.

One day during the Miller exhibition, a Miami chef is going to be grilling real burgers in the museum’s parking lot. Deupi is advertising the exhibition on public radio — as usual. But this time she is also trying a new form of promotion — displaying Miller’s tiniest creations, glass hamburger sliders, under clear plastic deli domes at restaurants, shops and other places in Coral Gables, Florida. A QR code on the domes leads people to the exhibition webpage. They can then take selfies with the little hamburgers and post them to Instagram, for a chance to win one of the sliders — they sell for $175 each — at the exhibition’s closing party in January.

“The big idea,” Deupi said, “is the democratization of art. It needs to be accessible and fun and needs to resonate with people in their daily lives.”

The museum has an enormous range of paintings, pottery, sculpture and other art from around the world. But its largest gallery is devoted to glass art. The first thing you see when you walk into the museum is a nearly floor-to-ceiling swarm of richly colored, undulating platter-size glass shapes that suggest a flight of butterflies, a creation by Dale Chihuly.

For the Miller show, part of the museum is being turned into something like a diner, with red booths and chrome-trimmed Formica tables — all from Miller’s own collection of vintage diner furniture — and more than 30 pieces of his work. His 1953 jukebox will be playing Elvis Presley, Chubby Checker and Smokey Robinson.

Miller is an associate professor in charge of the art glass program at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois.

He rides motorcycles and collects hot rods. He is a fan of Buster Keaton, the slapstick movie comic, and he loves to clown around. He sees a little of himself in the I’ll-do-it-my-way style of Hunter S. Thompson, the maverick journalist. He keeps a rubber chicken in his tool kit and waggles it around as he gives glassblowing demonstrations at universities and glass centers all over the country. He sometimes startles the audience by slapping a ball of molten glass — heated to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit — with a bare hand, hard enough to leave an imprint. “You have to do it quickly,” he said.

Studying for a degree in fine arts at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in the late 1990s, Miller found the atmosphere heavy and somber. But he brightened up when his professors got into the pop artists. “Their work was big and very loud,” he said. “It blew my doors off. I didn’t realize you could make people laugh with your work. It made me realize I could be myself.”

Miller started making 4- and 5-foot-tall glass goblets and moved on to surreal fries and burgers. For variety, he makes fanciful oversized vases, and key rings and fobs suitable for a giant.

He started going to diners as a child with his parents. He was sitting in Sam’s Café in Champaign, Illinois, on a chilly morning in 1999 when he began to see diner food as art.

“It just popped into my head,” he said. He began furiously sketching a giant crinkle-fry and raced to his glass studio and furnace. In three hours, he produced his first giant glass french fry — nearly a foot-and-a-half long. Soon he was on to cheeseburgers. He said he has made about 50 of them.

“They’re a lot of fun,” Miller said. “They make people feel good. Some people put them in their kitchens. People get hungry and go out to lunch after they see my shows.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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