Ben Miller: Fly fishing as an art form

By Sarah Gianelli
EBS Senior Editor

BIG SKY – On a warm August afternoon, artist Ben Miller prepared himself for a painting—and casting—session on the banks of the Gallatin River near Big Sky.

I was skeptical. Painting with a fly rod? Seemed kind of gimmicky. But in no time, Miller had me convinced of the parallels between fly fishing and painting, and that his work comes from a place of authenticity and integrity.

He recalls one skeptic asking, “Why paint with a fly rod?”

Miller had a quick response: “Why fish with one? There are so many more efficient ways to catch a fish.”

An aluminum easel was set up in the shallow water, a paint-splattered A-frame fitted into a base that allowed the river to flow through it.

He strapped a rinse bucket to his upper thigh, and a fly box palette to his wrist. A creel basket at his hip held his paints and the materials to make the flies that would act as his brushes.

“To me fly fishing and painting are essentially the same,” said Miller, rummaging in his creel for a fluffy piece of yarn he ties just as he would if he were going fishing, something he’s done ever since his grandpa gave him his first fly rod when he was 8 years old.

“For centuries people have been using fur and feathers to emulate a bug,” he said. “Painters, they’ve been doing the same thing—they’ve just been putting the fur or feathers at the end of a stick.”

After dipping the fly in silvery-white paint, he draws back his Winston fly rod and casts, slapping his canvas and creating a mark meant to simulate the flash of a fish.

Because the painting will eventually be flipped over and viewed through the glossy side of the transparent “canvas,” Miller starts with the surface layers, working backward into the river’s depths.

“See that guy out there?” he says, pointing to a man fly-fishing a few hundred feet downstream. “He has to make a decision when he opens up that fly box—what size of fly and what color. To a certain degree I’m doing the same thing.”

Even when painting, Miller says he assesses the river from the perspective of a fisherman.

“A fisherman studies exactly what the water is doing. You see if the river is high or low, or a little bit muddy, which determines the actions you’re going to take. It’s just like painting—this water is going to determine the actions I’m going to take [to capture it].”

Miller stops every so often to change his fly—to achieve a different kind of mark—and the paint color, progressing from the silver-blue of the riffles, to deeper shades of cobalt, into the refracting greens, yellows, and earth tones of the river bottom.

Miller has been fishing with a fly rod a lot longer than he’s been painting with one, an idea he came up with only two years ago when he moved to Bozeman from Darrington, Washington, a small town northeast of Seattle, where he was a high school art teacher.

“I pretty much knew what would be on my headstone,” he said, explaining why he left his hometown. “I’d be the art teacher that grew up and died in Darrington and I wanted something different … I knew there was more to life than that.”

That’s when Miller got the idea to paint rivers with a fly rod, something he never heard of another artist doing. He’s been giving it his all ever since, creating paintings during fundraising events and donating proceeds to charities such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of Gallatin County and Gallatin River Task Force.

Miller has surprised people who see him on the river numerous times—evoking delight as well as occasional disdain.

“One guy walked away saying ‘that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen,’” but Miller just laughed.

“I love that—even if he didn’t agree with it, he had come to terms with it. For better or worse I had changed the way he thought about things … that’s one of the purest things.”

As if right on cue, a family of Asian tourists carefully made their way down to the river’s edge and watched in awe as Miller put the final touches on his painting—slashes of shimmery gold that would just fleck through to the surface of the other side.

Later, long after I had left Miller on the river banks fielding questions from the foreigners, he sent me a photo of one of the boys holding up a fish on a line with a big smile on his face, and a note that read: “You know that family that was there at the end? I got to introduce them to fly fishing.”

To see more of Ben Miller’s artwork, both his impressionistic fly-fishing pieces and more representational resin paintings, visit dutchroguecove.com.