Trib Magazine: Homes
The art of home
Artists Dutes Miller and Stan Shellabarger don't just live with their art -- they live inside an ever-evolving installation of their own making
Dutes Miller, seated, and Stan Shellabarger in their Avondale living room, filled with works by artist friends and colleagues. Among the items are pieces from Michael Rae's "Rock-n-Roll" series. Using unfinished wood, the Chicago artist created sculptures of a guitar, amplifier and speaker box. (Bill Hogan/ Chicago Tribune photo)
Wherever you find it, not long after you make your way into the couple's Avondale apartment you see past what might appear to be clutter and begin to understand: You're inside a living work of art. Miller and Shellabarger, who have been together 19 years, 12 of them spent in the same two-bedroom apartment, surround themselves with objects they love; all visible and very much within arm's reach.
"We collect these things because we like them and we want to use them,'' said Miller. And they do, every day.
The apartment functions like a lifesize shadow box. The walls are lined with contemporary art, much of it made by artist friends and acquired through purchase, gift or swap (Shellabarger builds frames for artists in exchange for art). Curios, totems and bibelots, a heady mix of the culture high, low and everywhere in-between, nestle side-by-side.
If all these things share a theme in common, it's that they reflect the keen eye for detail, shape and emotional wattage shared by Miller and Shellabarger. Everywhere you look ? walls, shelves, tabletops, window sills ? there are objects begging to tell a story. A wooden Buddha sits serenely on the soap dish in the bathroom. A growing pile of white chicken wishbones preen in a clear glass mason jar on the kitchen shelf. Eyes Open, a wall sculpture by Los Angeles artist John Parot, creates the face above the bed.
Evident, too, in the collections are two somewhat contradictory strands: a tongue-in-cheek innocence that can stray toward camp, and an honest reverence for vintage goods worn by time and usage.
One of Shellabarger's favorite possessions, for example, is an old Ekco spatula that belonged to his mother. The handle long ago melted down to a puttylike knob while the paper-thin metal flippers have eroded into soft, undulating lines. The years, he noted, have transformed this mass-produced utensil into something unique, personal.
Despite the size of their (ever growing) collections, Miller and Shellabarger never index or catalog their items, simply finding what they need when they need it. They also do not dust. Well, OK, hardly ever. But the kitchen counter and stove top are spotless, an indicator that the home never sacrifices function for art. In fact, they not only live but work there.
While they use items from their various collections only occasionally in their artwork ? most notably in the silhouettes they cut of each other ? Miller and Shellabarger don't draw a dividing line between themselves, their lives and their art.
Colorfully tattooed, they sport long, luxuriant beards that stand out amid the timid whiskerings of most men, and which make featured appearances in their silhouette art. Film critic Roger Ebert certainly noticed when the pair made an appearance in the 2011 movie "Jamie and Jessie Are Not Together," a gay musical comedy by their friend, writer/director Wendy Jo Carlton. The men, wrote Ebert, "pop up all during the movie and are never explained."
"We were the Greek chorus, but we couldn't really sing,'' Shellabarger says with a wide grin.
Miller, 47, and Shellabarger, 43 met as art students at Illinois State University in Normal. Represented by Western Exhibitions, a well-regarded Chicago contemporary art galley, the pair have had numerous solo and joint shows. Yet both hold day jobs. Miller is a baker at Letizia's Fiore Ristorante in Chicago's Logan Square. Shellabarger is a barista nearby at New Wave Coffee.
At home, they agree not to disagree, rarely arguing.
"We don't say no to each other," Shellabarger says. They don't actually finish each other's sentences but they know each other so well that missteps are rare in life, in art and in collecting.
A couple of Christmases ago each secretly bought the other an Indonesian shadow puppet as a surprise gift. The two puppets are different but match because the same artist made them. They are proudly displayed atop a bookcase in the living room. The puppets are fitting metaphors for Miller and Shellabarger, who strive to stay true to their vision. It's a message they deliver to others.
"What we tell art students is that they have to love their work and keep making it," Miller said. "It's the same thing in bringing stuff into your home. You have to live with it. You have to love it and not care what other people think of it."