Extraordinary Life: A Free Spirit With A Passion For Sculpture

Special to The Courant

Marjorie Miner was a free spirit and independent thinker, creative and outgoing. When she found herself bored in a new environment, she dropped by the senior center — and took some lessons in sculpting. Her passion for sculpture sustained her for more than 30 years, until she died earlier this month at the age of 101.

On July 23, Miner celebrated her birthday. The following day, without notifying her family, she walked into a health center and announced that she intended to end her life by refusing all food and drink. Over the next two and a half weeks, with good humor, the support of her family and friends — and a trip to the hairdresser — she attained her goal. She died Aug. 9 in Hamden.

She was born on July 23, 1916, to Martin and Rellie Kux in Cleveland, where she was the youngest of three children. Her father was injured when she was young, and after high school, she went to work to help the family.

She met Harold P. Heller on a double date — he was her girlfriend's date, but he flirted with her, and after their marriage in 1941, she and Heller, a young engineer at RCA, moved around the country frequently until they ended up in Bayside, Queens, where they raised three sons.

After visiting friends in Monterey, Mass., they bought a dilapidated house there which they renovated and furnished with treasures from the town dump. The showpiece was a vinyl-covered, claw-footed bathtub in the living room where they and guests liked to sit and read among the red cushions.

Miner started a mail-order company to sell knickknacks she had made or decorated herself, including a yard stick in a burlap sheath, and painted baskets. Some items she described inventively: "Snatcher in the Rye" for example, was the name for toast tongs.

She took a job as a legal secretary with a small law firm in Queens, and as she acquired the necessary skills, she realized that there were few aids available to train new employees. She wrote "A Guide and Compendium for a Lawyer's Secretary," a book with legal forms taht was published in 1973, and was later revised for medical and dental secretaries. She taught classes in secretarial work at local colleges for several years.

Miner, who had a large, extended family — her father and mother had siblings who were married — enjoyed entertaining and was known for baking, especially her buttery European pastries and cookies. Her husband died suddenly of a heart attack at 64 during one of the family parties.

A year later, she offered to give an engagement party for one of her young relatives, and she met the new fiancé — as well as his recently widowed father. The two widowers began to date, and she married Walter Miner, a Long Island surgeon, in 1983.

After she moved to his house in Wantagh, on Long Island, she found herself in a new environment with no family and friends. Then, in her late 60s, she went to the local senior center and visited the art room. She began taking classes in clay sculpture from a local artist. She was captivated by the new medium, and began making whimsical and figurative pieces. Some were cast in bronze.

After her husband retired, the couple moved to the Whitney Center in Hamden in the 1990s be closer to Walter Miner's son, a Middletown nephrologist. In addition to knitting elaborate Christmas stockings for every member of her vast family, Miner frequented the art room, where she continued to sculpt several times a week until her death. She also enjoyed making collages, many using photographs of her friends and family.

Maishe Dickman, a New Haven area potter who is also an exhibits technician at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, has fired thousands of Miner's pieces since Miner moved to Hamden. "She would probably come over here and spank me, but I call her the Grandma Moses of clay," he told The Courant in an article on Miner's sculpture earlier this year. Her inspirations come from real life — someone in the exercise room — or an Internet image, or a photograph. Miner gave all her sculptures away.

Dickman returned from vacation in late July to learn that Miner had sent him new pieces to be fired, and was asking for them. He stayed up all night, condensing the firing time, in order to be able to return the pieces to her as soon as possible. "She was absolutely delighted," said Dickman, and gave him a thumbs up.

Dickman said her small, varied sculptures fell into the category of outsider art: "People who are compelled to create and have no formal training. ... She made beautiful pieces which would capture the essence of whatever she wanted to convey."

"I don't have any particular style," Miner told The Courant. "It has to do with my mood and what I feel inside that day. Sometimes I feel in my fingers that I can't wait to do it." One piece, entered into the Connecticut Senior Juried Art Show in 2015, won second prize.

Walter Miner developed Alzheimer's disease, and Marjorie cared for him for three years — then turned the experience into a book. "For the Alzheimer's Care Taker: Helpful Hints" was self-published, but she donated the $600 she made from sales of the book to the Alzheimer's Association and gave the group the right to publish her book on its website. Walter Miner died in 2008.

Marjorie's zest for life continued. Her flair for dressing in bright colors and well-coordinated jewelry and accessories never flagged, and she wore red leather jackets with red slacks, and colorful socks (without shoes) around the retirement community. To compensate for some hearing loss, she corresponded frequently with her children, grandchildren and numerous nieces and nephews by email, and used the Internet easily. She wrote her autobiography and read her poems at events at Whitney Center, where she stood out with her brightly painted walker, stylish white hair and bangs, and upbeat attitude. "Her smile was captivating," said Skip Peck, a friend. "She attacked life. She stood out."

Michael Bergman is an internist who has cared for Miner for decades. While he has many elderly patients, "she was an extraordinary one." Despite her age, Miner had no real health problems. "She was unusually capable. ... She was really smart, and really adaptable, and it's that kind of maintaining purpose in life that had to do with maintaining her longevity," Bergman said.

Miner is survived by her sons Ross, Peter and Glenn Heller; two stepchildren, David Miner and Mary Kaskan; 10 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

A week or so after she had stopped taking nourishment, her son Peter asked if she expected to hang on and see the eclipse, still several weeks in the future. "She just laughed," Peter said.

"She displayed the strength, courage, and firmness of conviction that had characterized her whole life."

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