by Len Lear
“There are starving artists all over the world, but my hero is Ai Weiwei, a prisoner in his own country of China. (Weiwei is a famous artist and political activist who has been highly and openly critical of the Chinese government‘s repression of democracy and human rights.) But he is not starving as far as his creativity is concerned. I believe you cannot starve creativity out of someone.”
This passionate comment was made last week by Noel Miles, 78, during an interview with the Local. A native of North Central Philadelphia, Miles moved to Mt. Airy 52 years ago after graduating with a fine arts degree from the Philadelphia Museum School of Art (later called the Philadelphia College of Art and now known as the University of the Arts).
A gentle, sensitive soul, Miles would be too modest to say so himself, but he might just be the most accomplished watercolorist in the Delaware Valley if not the east coast. His delicious paintings of Philadelphia landmarks ripple and surge with both delicacy and strength, turning stone and iron structures into living, breathing characters with dignity, character and profound feelings.
These paintings by Miles are currently on display in an exhibit titled “Philadelphia Artistry: The Forgotten, The Remembered and The Beloved” through Nov. 14 at the Bazemore Art Gallery, 4339 Main St. in Manayunk. Miles’ watercolors depict the evolution of Philadelphia from its industrial roots in what he calls the “Athens of America.”
Miles grew up near the Stetson Hat factory in North Philly and down the street from the once huge Phillies Cigar factory. It was an area with many Victorian brownstone houses when Miles was young. “Our house was three stories with coal fuel heating,” he recalled. “After a four-year stint in the U.S. Marine Corps, through the GI Bill I was able to attend art school.
“My great-aunt Ida was born in 1892; I always attribute to her my love of the aesthetic. I knew I would be an artist from early childhood. My junior high school had an art club, which I joined and where several teachers encouraged me to continue my desire to be an artist. I was lucky to have the best art teachers, Mrs. Perkins and Mrs. Hibbert, who gave me my first art history book, ‘Art Through the Ages,’ by Helen Gardner. At Dobbins School I also had outstanding art instructors such as Mr. Sam Brown, a former WPA artist and my mentor.”
In art school Miles studied with W. Emerton Heitland, one of the country’s foremost watercolorists, who supported Noel’s nomination to the American Watercolor Society in 1964, which allowed him to use the letters AWS after his name. (The society was founded by Samuel Morse, himself a painter and the inventor of the Morse Code.) Miles generally works in “pleine-air.” “I consider natural light and shadow a big factor in my compositions,” he said.
All of Miles’ working life has been spent in design and commercial art. For 13 years he was the art director for Channel 6. He also worked as art director for Channel 3, designing sets and logos. There was an occasional portrait commission done in oils, but the large majority of his work was done in watercolors. The presentation of one of his paintings to the Prince of Wales was a painting of the Academy of Fine Arts building. A painter himself, the British royal remarked to Miles that he was “not in your league.”
Miles has taught art courses at Drexel University, Temple University, the Art Institute of Philadelphia and Cabrini College. In celebration of the 100th birthday of Philadelphia’s City Hall in 2001, Miles collaborated with the city to create “The Splendors of Philadelphia’s City Hall: An Artist’s View,” a complete history of City Hall, which was the world’s tallest habitable building when it was completed. The volume is filled with more than 50 interior and exterior full-color images of City Hall, all created by Miles.
The current exhibit of his work was proposed as a joint venture after his friend, George Beach, a businessman and the first African American to own a public relations firm in Philadelphia, introduced him to gallery owner, Lenny Bazemore, who wanted to stage an event featuring local writer Thom Nickels’ recently published book, “Legendary Locals of Center City Philadelphia” (Arcadia Publishing).
A photo of Miles appears on the cover along with photos of opera singer Mario Lanza, author Pearl Buck and several other legendary Philadelphians. What does the future hold for Miles? “Beyond continuing to paint, I look forward to frequently visiting my Memphis-based grandson, who is 5 years old.”