A former metal technician, Gary Miller, 54, has done exactly that. By using things he finds during the course of any normal day at a body shop---small car parts, broken or tired tools, gears, housings, armatures, motors, windshield wiper motors, copper, chrome, aluminum , steel, etc.---Miller has been able to create some amazing sculptures. Where most people think trash, Miller thinks art. Creating a menagerie of animals that Dr. Doolittle would be proud of, Miller has created a wide range of fish, insects, rams and other creatures that wow people and make them happy.
A body tech for 37 years, Miller started in the industry at age 17, when he began learning the business from the ground floor. "I started out like other teenagers, sweeping floors and absorbing as much as I possibly could," Miller explained. "After 5-6 years, I was doing a ton of combo work that was all strictly collision repair. Back then, I could hustle and make a lot of money, well before DRPs existed, because it was 100% flat rate. But over the years, the body shops in the Bay Area started paying salaries while costs kept rising in northern California."
The fish that Miller is now creating for Bass Pro Shops are more realistic, but still just as impressive.
Several years ago, Miller moved to Southwest Missouri, where he could purchase a large house on three acres while still working in the collision industry. During this entire time, he was doing his art, a passion he discovered while attending high school in Sunnyvale, CA. "I was throwing pottery and doing a ton of artwork while in school," he said. "Then, as a senior, I started working at a local body shop and the art kind of faded into the background. Fixing cars is artistic in many ways, so I always have been looking at different shapes and forms that techs run into every day on the job. Eventually, I decided to make some sculptures from items I found while repairing vehicles."
One of his first pieces was for his mother, where Miller took an old can and cut it until it looked like a rose. He then painted it red, and people who saw it were immediately impressed. "I took some old metal and made it into something that looked like it was alive and the feedback was great," he said. "That planted the seed, and then several years later, I started doing my fish sculptures, but I was always thinking about it and planning the pieces in my mind."
Why fish for his sculptures, we asked Miller? "I have always been a wilderness guy, backpacking in Yosemite and spending weeks at a time out there," he said. "I have also been an avid fisherman for decades, fly fishing for river trout all the way to deep sea fishing too. So, it was just a natural progression for me to use animals as subjects for my sculptures, because they are beautiful creatures and my goal is to capture that beauty in my work."
Known for his fish metal sculptures, Miller has also created other animals, like the ram's head in this photo.
For the past 37 years, Miller has been plucking things from the body shops he has worked for and accumulating a lot of objects that no one else could even remotely consider them artful. "I knew that I had all of the skills to turn these parts into sculptures," Miller said. "By doing my combination work for many years, I know how to cut the metal, weld, paint and shape these creations. At first, I was just doing them for friends, mostly for Christmas gifts. A few years ago, I made a salmon for my brother mostly out of nuts and bolts. Most of the parts that I used were from things I found, but I also had to fabricate a few to bring it all together."
Miller's fish sculptures require a lot of time to make, and he eventually wants to take his art to another level. "My goal is to set up a studio and produce more of them," Miller said. "Each piece is like a huge puzzle and I never want to force it. I lay out the parts, but I always carefully look at them before I start welding. They take an average of 30 to 40 hours each to complete, so to take it from a hobby to a profession would be a big step."
Monetizing his artwork got a huge boost when Miller was recently hired by Bass Pro Shops at their headquarters in Springfield, MO as a metal technician to build retail displays and other metal items for the company's 90 North American locations. It's a dream job, and soon his fish sculptures will likely play a role in his new job, he said. "I fabricate things like retail racks, special railings and I am also doing a series of more realistic-looking fish for Bass Pro Shops. They hired me in September, so I am still learning and growing in this position."
Miller also creates insects, including this praying mantis made primarily out of old tools.
With his new career as an artist and a metal technician for Bass Pro Shops, does that mean collision repair is now in Miller's rear view mirror? "Absolutely," he said. "I never have to do collision repair ever again, unless I want to. Yes, I still have deadlines in this job, but they're not as crazy as the ones I encountered in the body shops I have worked for. I want to use my creativity now in different ways. In collision repair, you return cars back to their previous condition, but in this role, I am creating things from scratch, and that is why I love it!"