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Local painter uses fly cast technique to paint endangered rivers for art expo in Chicago

By Tucker Harris EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – Snow and ice begin to melt along the Gallatin River on a warm but overcast March day and the sound of a fly fishing line snaps in a steady rhythm. Rather than hitting the water, though, the fly brush at the end of the line flicks acrylic paint onto a canvas for upward of 3,000 strokes. 

By the end of the day, Bozeman-based fly cast artist Ben Miller has completed a 48-by-96-inch painting of the Gallatin River. The final product will be part of his Endangered Rivers Series, an installment at EXPO CHICAGO on April 7-10. Miller is one of 16 international artists selected to participate.

Miller creates his homemade fly brushes by replicating the look of traditional flies with fabric and cord that work well for transferring paint from the rod without ruining the canvas. (He has tried using real fishing flies, and it went poorly, he admitted). He then attaches the brush to the end of a fly line and mimics casting into a river, but instead lands the fly brush on a canvas.

“One of my favorite things about fly fishing of course is just the casting part: that rhythm and that control,” Miller told EBS as he made the drive from Bozeman to Chicago. “And that perfect trip: that feeling of watching that fly be just bogged down the current and then having a fish come out from nowhere to grab it and suck it down… And thinking about how to see that trout too with a fly that you tie,” he continued.

The Endangered Rivers Series includes Miller’s fly casting works from his time spent alongside river banks stretching across the West, including the Gallatin, Yellowstone and Jefferson rivers in Montana. With this series, Miller hopes to tell the rivers’ stories and raise awareness for them.

“I think one of the reasons that [art] should be created is for a bigger purpose,” he said.

Priced at $22,500, half of the proceeds from the sale of the Gallatin River 3/25/22 piece will benefit the Gallatin River Task Force, a local river conservation nonprofit.

Ben Miller casts at the canvas along the banks of the Gallatin River. PHOTO COURTESY OF GARY SNYDER.

In 1986, Miller received his first fly rod from his grandfather at 8 years old. With feathers from his family’s chickens, thread from his mother’s sewing kit and some yarn, Miller began teaching himself how to tie his own makeshift flies with his fingers where he grew up in western Washington.

From then on, he was hooked.

Miller would grow up to study art at Washing State University and spent 12 years teaching art before moving to Bozeman in 2016. He was fascinated with figuring out how to capture a trout suspended in the river through oil painting.

In 2016, he decided to combine his two passions: fly fishing and painting rivers.

He tied a sock to the end of a fly line, dipped it in paint, set up an easel with a canvas and tried to cast the sock at it.

“I’m pretty sure I missed the first few times, but then all of a sudden, there was a connection and bam, paint went flying all over the place,” he said. “And then I knew I was onto something.”

Fly casting, for Miller, is very much in line with the fly fishing experience that gets anglers hooked spending long days on the river, he said. “It’s just now the experience that I am having, I get to share with other people as well.”

Fast-forward seven years of trial and error with techniques, canvases and homemade fly brushes (“more errors than trial,” he joked) and Miller found himself studying the water from an ice flow on the Gallatin River on March 25 behind the Riverhouse BBQ & Events, creating his final Montana river piece for EXPO CHICAGO. 

When he got to work at 10 a.m., he was able to walk out on the ice, set up his easel and study the details of his subject: the light refractions on the river’s surface, the rocks, the movement, the earthy tones. As the temperature rose, the ice began to melt. By adding more earthy tones as more sediment appeared in the river, Miller was able to capture the changing river conditions throughout the day.

Where Miller chooses to set up for a day of painting is important to him. He doesn’t want to only paint where a lot of action is, he said.

“I would like to speak to different parts of the river, rather than just one very select part in most circumstances,” Miller said.

“Gallatin River 3/25/22,” acrylic on polycarbonate, 48 x 96 inches. Half of the proceeds from the sale at EXPO CHICAGO will benefit the Gallatin River Task Force. PHOTO COURTESY OF BEN MILLER.

Atop the ice that day on the Gallatin, Miller’s intimate study of the river went far beyond what the casual passerby would observe. “I saw an undertone with more of a greenish gray top to it,” he said. “… I couldn’t see the stones all the way to the other side, so you’re going to see at the top of [the painting] more current … and you’re dealing more with a kind of muted palette.”

Miller used three separate rods with varying lengths and weights and many different fly brushes to replicate the section of the Gallatin River. The heavier Winston Spey 8-weight rod splashes more paint on the canvas but has limitations in accuracy, whereas the smaller Winston Pure 4-weight rod creates smaller splashes with more finesse.  

He paints on the back of the transparent polycarbonate plexiglass, but the final painting is actually on the other side of the canvas. His very first marks get covered up as he continues to add layers of paint, yet they’re what viewers see first when he turns the painting around for the reveal.

“When I first saw Ben, I thought this was like Jackson Pollock and abstract art. And as I got to know Ben, I realized he was painting the river; he was a realist… These paintings are very representational.”

– Gary Snyder, art collector

Gary Snyder, an art collector and gallerist from New York, introduced Miller and the piece to the spectators on March 25 before the canvas was flipped around.

“When I first saw Ben, I thought this was like Jackson Pollock and abstract art,” Snyder said before the reveal on March 25. “And as I got to know Ben, I realized he was painting the river; he was a realist… These paintings are very representational.”

Miller hopes to raise awareness for the rivers he has painted throughout the West at the exhibition in Chicago.

“All these rivers have their own story,” he said, “You tell the story of what’s happening, or what has happened to make this place the way it is, I think there’s a lot to be said in the power of not only storytelling, but making the awareness of different places more available,” Miller said.

Miller’s Endangered Rivers Series will be on display April 7-10 at the ninth edition of EXPO CHICAGO, The International Exposition of Contemporary & Modern Art, at Navy Pier’s Festival Hall. On Sunday, April 3, Miller will be live fly cast painting the Chicago River as his final piece for the exposition.

Visit to see all of his works for the upcoming exhibition.

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