Video: Artist Ben Miller fly-casts a painting of the Chicago River on April 3, 2022. (Courtesy of Friends of the Chicago River)
From mid-morning through early evening, Ben Miller cast his fishing line along the Chicago River on Sunday, and didn’t have a single bite to show for the effort.
Granted, he’d never actually dropped his lure into the water. Instead, Miller, an acclaimed artist who paints with a rod and reel, had spent his day angling his line toward a plexiglass canvas some 20 feet away, creating a portrait of the river. It’s a style he calls “fly cast painting” in a nod to the techniques borrowed from fly fishing.
Depending on which “fly brush” is attached to the end of his line, Miller can lay down delicate whispers of strokes or powerful splotches that land with a thump. To add an extra degree of difficulty: He places colors in reverse. When he’s finished with his casting, Miller flips the canvas to expose the actual work that’s been taking shape in his mind’s eye.
“It was astounding to watch,” said Margaret Frisbie, executive director for Friends of the Chicago River.
Though she’d only planned to swing by to catch a bit of the work in progress, Frisbie couldn’t tear herself away and stood mesmerized for hours.
“We were captivated,” she said. “It was magic.”
Miller, who’s in town for the Expo Chicago international art exhibit, had reached out to Friends of the Chicago River in advance of the show. With rivers as his primary subject matter, he’s become an advocate for endangered waterways and has recently begun a series of paintings of environmentally threatened rivers. The Chicago River was a natural fit for the theme, though it’s the first that Miller, who makes his home in Montana, has painted in a large city.
A portion of the proceeds of the Chicago River painting’s sale — his works can fetch in the five figures — will be donated to Friends, but the artwork’s real value lies in what it represents, said Frisbie, who was nearly brought to tears when Miller turned the canvas to reveal his vision of the river.
Miller, she said, came to the Chicago River with no preconceived notions or biases about what the waterway is or isn’t. What he saw, and captured, was the living organism that Frisbie has been fighting to have acknowledged for decades.
“It’s just the river,” she said. “It’s absolutely beautiful.”