“Carousel Cosmos” Q&A with the artist Chris Miller

TEMPOart is thrilled that Chris Miller of NPD Workshop has extended the temporary art permit with the City of Portland so that the animals of the Carousel Cosmos can live on the Western Promenade through November 2024! To celebrate, we sent Chris some of your frequently asked questions to keep learning about the inspiration for this public art installation and the artist that created.

Chris Miller of NPD Workshop with his creation Carousel Cosmos on the Western Promenade, now on view through November 2024.

What inspired you to make these animals in Carousel Cosmos?

The animals were inspired by all sorts of friendly monsters, like the ones in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.  Friendly monsters are great sounding boards.  They’re great foils and avatars for complex emotion.  They howl and roar the kinds of things that words can hardly say.  

The carousel was also informed by books about the history of science, especially astrophysics.  Probable Impossibilities, By Alan Lightman, is a great one.  It’s filled with beautiful thoughts about what it means to be alive and curious.  Dr. Lightman suggests that the apparent rarity of life in the universe, throughout all of space and all of time, is enough reason to feel kinship and solidarity with all living things, past, present and future.  There you have it.

How did you choose the animals?

Both of my kids went through minor dinosaur fascinations in recent years, so I had the chance to catch up on the fossil record with them.  The boys have moved on to other interests (Pokemon and MLB), but my dinosaur fascination is permanent now.  Every once in a while I stop by the public library to learn about new developments in prehistory.  From those worlds of fantastic creatures, enormous ice sheets, ancient supercontinents and treacherous, sweltering coal swamps, these animals were chosen to meet three criteria:

1.  They had to have roamed this very same place before us, a few thousand or a few hundred million years ago. 

2.  They had to resemble at least one constellation in the night sky, so as to have been characters in the first bedtime stories ever told.  

3.  They had to be surprising!  Some are long extinct and very different from anything wandering around today.  Some are living species that many people don’t realize used to live here, when this part of the world was covered by ice or water.  Some have been spectacularly misunderstood over the years.  During the sixteenth century, a lot of people seemed to think that whales and walruses had legs.  Some actually did have legs, about fifty million years earlier in their evolutionary development.  Here’s what Mark Twain had to say about things like that:  Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.  I chose the animals to be stranger than fiction.  They howl and roar about unimagined possibilities.

What were your influences for the depiction of the characters?

There are a couple of things to say about that.  

My kids have been great readers since long before they learned to read.  We’ve read so many children’s picture books together.  Our family is infamous at the South Portland Public Library.  We used to check out dozens of brightly illustrated  books a day, day after day and week after week for years.  Those years of bibliomania were my frame of reference for how the animals are depicted.  When I close my eyes I see bright colors, bold patterns and cute animals.  

Their appearance also has a lot to do with their relation to the human body.  They were designed as bench seating so people would have an excuse to interact with them.  They’re not behind velvet ropes in a museum.  They’re out in the wild, face to face with all of us.  Hugging is encouraged.  I tried to capitalize on the practical requirements of functional seating to make the animals even stranger and more whimsical than they might otherwise have been.

Method also had something to do with it.  Instead of first imagining the animals by sketching them out on paper, I started by whittling sketch-models from blocks of wood with a pocket knife.   The kids and I painted them one night after dinner.  The animal’s forms are basically those of handmade, hand-held wooden toys, and things of that description weave a certain kind of spell.  They can absorb a lot of good energy – a lot of  kindness, comfort and generosity.  The finished animal benches  are about ten times larger than those first maquettes, but otherwise the same.  I think it shows through.  Whittling, if you don’t know it, is one of life’s great joys.  That might come through in the finished products as well.  Of course the polar bear is a self portrait.  

How did you come up with the idea for a Carousel?

The carousel format was a many-layered thought.  It came from research and daydreaming in equal parts.  I learned a lot about the history, geography and design of the Western Promenade from a close reading of the masterplan that KZLA prepared in 2020.  They called out  a shortage of seating, so I decided to create more seating.  Crowds still gather on the Western Promenade to watch the sun set, which is such a beautiful and profound way to experience our motion through the universe.  The name Promenade itself comes from a history of spectacles, festivals, pageantry and fun.  The elliptical walkway at the end of West Street is a great place to go around in circles, which I thought was crying out  for some slightly more specific purpose. 

I spent a lot of time daydreaming with all of those things in mind.  I was out walking the dog one evening, daydreaming, and the notion of a carousel just fell from the sky.

What inspired you to become an artist?

It’s worth saying that my artistic practice went quiet for many years.  There were too many other things going on in work and in life.  Until just recently, I didn’t feel like I had accrued enough life experience to say anything especially worthwhile.  It’s only within the last ten years, since becoming a parent, that I’ve started seeking out and getting these kinds of commissions.  Parenthood came with some bizarre side effects.  First I experienced an unexpected feeling of openness, followed by a clarity of purpose.  Then I came down with an alarming hyper-sensitivity to truth and beauty.  Raising kids turns out to have supercharged my imagination and amplified my sense of wonder.  Those things are contagious after all, and worth trying to spread around and share for their own sake.  I feel compelled to do that.  

Art of any kind is still just one facet of my livelihood.  I’d love the opportunity to make more art.  In the meanwhile I’m still trained as an architect and still love to practice architecture in different capacities.  Before architecture I worked as a fabricator, building interesting and challenging things for other artists and different organizations.  It wouldn’t be so terrible to do that again in the future.  I love solving mechanical and construction-related problems.  I love learning how to use new tools.  I love the athleticism of hard physical work, at least sometimes.  I love making messes and making noise, getting dirty and getting sweaty – then cleaning up, washing off and sleeping well.  

On the other hand, sometimes I have the sudden and overwhelming need to know something about a random topic like botany, astrophysics or Mesopotamia.  I’m always looking for new things to read.  I’m always looking for new ways to justify my nonsensical reading habits. I love to think, to write and to engage in conversation.  I love to look at art and to experience art that other people have made.  There’s so much knowledge out there.  You could live for a thousand years and never run out of things to see, to read or to learn.  

What else but art could a person make, to scratch all of those different itches at once?

Does location (or possible locations) impact your strategy/thinking for the size and medium of the installation?

Yes, probably to a fault.  I love a great site, and don’t even know how to make anything that doesn’t respond to cues from some specific place.  If you study architecture they drum that into you.  Someday, maybe soon, I would love to take some time to figure out a more object-centered studio practice.  I tried it briefly about 20 years ago, and might take another crack at it.  

After site and location, materials are my next favorite obsession.  They can be a huge challenge for public installations, which need to be somewhat blast-proof.  Temporary public art can be even trickier.  Every material has its own unique set of mechanical properties and working characteristics.  Every material has its own history, context,  personality and soul.  Every material has traits that you can address with a calculator, and others that you certainly can’t.  

What’s your next project?

My next project is to find permanent indoor homes for seven large, colorful wooden carousel animals, which are only scheduled to stay on the Western Promenade until November.  They’re made painstakingly from painted ash wood, which unfortunately isn’t durable outdoors in the longer term.  Ax handles are sometimes made of ash wood.  It’s extremely dense and tough, but not especially weather-resistant.  The animals will need to move indoors somewhere.  After that  they should last another century or two without any problem.  One of the particularities of my agreement with TEMPOart, is that TEMPOart has never owned the animals.  They belong to me and will continue to belong to me, heaven forbid, unless I can find them new, permanent indoor homes by November.  If anyone has any ideas or suggestions, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me directly.  

The Children’s Museum and Theater of Maine, here in Portland, is interested in finding donors to help them acquire two of the animals.  If anyone is curious about those sponsorship opportunities, again please send me a note.  Since they were made in a public spirit, it would be great for some of them to stay in public settings.  

Besides arranging wooden animal adoptions, which has proven to be surprisingly time consuming, I’m also working on a tiny, interactive museum of natural wonder.  It’s very small for a museum but fairly large for a sculpture, about fifteen feet tall if you count the tips of the tails of the mice on the weathervane.  It will be covered in scales and branches.  It will have three doors, forty dormers, thirty-one eyes and a planetarium.  It’s a permanent public commission on the University of Maine campus in Farmington, due in early August.  

Last but not least, I’m still waiting for the green light to put an enormous sleeping bear in Bramhall Square, which will be one part of a more extensive renovation of that space.  Recently I’ve heard that the Bramhall Square renovation has been pushed back to 2029 on the city’s schedule, though that might be a placeholder.  There’s some hope that the groundbreaking will happen sooner.  Fingers crossed.

Pineapple on pizza?

Absolutely.  I would eat it with ham or Spam, freshly picked or from a can, with a fox or on a tram.  Thanks for reading if you’ve made it this far.  Aloha!