It was the Impressionist painter and sculptor Edgar Degas who said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” Golden High School art teacher Tim Miller’s portrait projects help his students, and their subjects, see the world and themselves with refreshing new perspectives.
Miller has been teaching at Golden for 17 years after spending the first decade-plus of his career as a graphic designer. The son of a longtime DPS teacher, Miller decided to make the switch because he was “tired of being in front of a computer every day.” He said the transition was smooth because of his passion for working with kids and for showing others how to nurture their creativity—and the move also may have been touched by fate.
Around 2002, Miller was nearing 40 years old and uncertain about changing careers. He met with a Metro State University guidance counselor who told him he’d need only two semesters of classes to earn his teaching credentials. The bad news: One of the required courses began that evening and wouldn’t be offered for another year. “I signed up right there and never looked back,” Miller said. “It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
Since then Miller has inspired countless students about the wonders of creative expression. “I’ve learned that you need flexibility, patience, and a sense of humor, especially with artistic types,” he said. “You have to be flexible in grading because the students are less concrete and more abstract than typical kids. At first I thought I needed to treat each student the same, but over the years I’ve realized how much like a psychologist you have to be.”
About a decade ago, he hit upon an idea for getting the kids out of the classroom for “life lessons”: They divided into small groups and roamed around downtown Denver talking to homeless people. They gave out lunches in exchange for being allowed to take the people’s pictures, then they went back to school and created portraits from the photos. They also wrote a “reflection paper” once the artwork was finished to discuss what the experiences meant to them personally and creatively. Miller has since led similar projects at children’s hospitals, retirement homes, and assisted-living facilities. One recent endeavor, at the Golden Pond Retirement Community in Denver, was featured in a 9News segment this past March and detailed how surprised and delighted the seniors were with their portraits.
“These assignments help you get to know the character of the person before you draw them, which really helps the process,” said Gabe Messa, a 2019 Golden High School graduate who participated in two portrait projects. He also was honored this year as one of the winners of the Congressional Art Competition, the prize for which was a trip in June to Washington D.C. to see his work on display at the U.S. Capitol.
Messa, who is headed to CU Denver this fall to study art, is one of many students Miller has developed over the years at a time when STEM-focused education is far more in vogue—not to mention better supported and financed—in public and charter schools. But this trend away from the arts hasn’t diminished Miller’s convictions about the importance of arts education. He said that JeffCo’s public schools are committed to providing these options, which are especially valuable for students who may be more right-brained than their peers (and often insecure about it during adolescence). “Art keeps a lot of kids in school,” Miller said. “Some students struggle with the whole high school experience, and they basically live in the art department. I open my art room at lunchtime, and a lot of them just come in and hang out with students who have the same feelings about what they want to do with their free time.”
One such student was Messa himself, who’s been drawing throughout his childhood and, in Miller, found a teacher who could help him realize his gifts. “Tim is a very kind, nurturing person,” Messa said. “He gives positive but honest feedback that really propels your work forward.”
Now 59, Miller plans to keep instilling this motivation in all his students for at least a few more years—and his own motivation is helped along by his PERA retirement benefits. “I do have some regret about not starting [at teaching] right out of college, because I’d have 39 to 40 years [of teaching experience] by now,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many teachers say we wouldn’t be teaching if we didn’t love it, but it’s the kids and that retirement that keeps you going. It’s just an added benefit to have the retirement that others don’t.”