This is the story of one man’s journey through a compulsive, passionately destructive, and complex relationship with art. There once was a little boy named Chris Miller who lived in a tiny cheese factory-turned apartment building in rural Wisconsin. He enjoyed playing outside with his sisters. He didn’t have neighborhood friends, because he lived miles away from the nearest community. At three years old, Chris’ mom took him to the doctor. Something was wrong. Chris couldn’t run and play with ease like other toddlers his age. He appeared to be in constant pain. Chris was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA), which is an autoimmune disorder. JIA causes inflammation of the joints, leading to pain and reduced mobility. When you ask someone to tell you their life story, and you know that person has experienced chronic pain since his earliest memories, it’s remarkable to hear detailed accounts of revelation, excitement, humor, and positivity. And if you are that person’s friend, as I am, you are blown away by his strength, perseverance, and the strategies he relies on to get through each day. Experiments in Friendships and Health Chris’ family moved a lot when he was little, so he was the “new kid” every year until fourth grade. “I had to come up with new friends every year. I had to find my space. Even when you’re young, you need to know people,” says Chris. I met Chris when we were in high school. As he re-shares his story with me, I see him in a different light. Thinking back, I remember clicking with Chris instantly. I was a confused teenager, unsure of who I was and who I wanted to be. Honestly, I was not convinced I had any value. But when I hung out with Chris, which often meant spending late nights at George Webb’s diner, I felt confident and content. It was so easy to be Chris’ friend. Thirty years later, it feels the exact same way. In high school, most kids knew about Chris’ rheumatoid arthritis (RA), another name for JIA. But when he was little, Chris was intensely secretive about his disease. He wanted to hide. He couldn’t run fast. His knees were the size of grapefruits. Chris preferred to internalize pain rather than deal with the humiliation caused by classmates knowing about his arthritis. He was also in a constant state of experimentation with medication, which yielded consequences. With each new prescription drug, he experienced new side effects. Chris had no stamina; he couldn’t chase his friends on the playground. But he could draw, which he felt was his most effective medicine. Chris cycled through every prescription on the market for his condition. It was tough on his bones, his gut, and digestive system. By the age of 16, Chris had developed bleeding ulcers. Later in high school, his urine was so corrosive it damaged his urethra. Shortly after graduation, Chris required surgery. Out of Trauma and Pain Comes Love One surgery wasn’t enough to fully repair the damage caused by the toxic medications. After the second surgery, his body rejected a catheter, which was required to alleviate the problem. Every 30-to-60 seconds, the muscles throughout Chris’ entire body would convulse in an attempt expel the catheter, like a womb contracting to evict a baby. It was agonizing. “If there’s one traumatic event that changed me forever, it was that period of three weeks. It was the longest nightmare of my life. The doctors gave me as many painkillers as they could, but they did nothing. My body was rejecting this horrid thing that was forced inside me. Just when I didn’t think I could handle it anymore, the doctors replaced the catheter with a larger one. It was traumatizing.” After enduring the ordeal, Chris was embattled. “I had problems with depression before that. But after my surgery, I slipped into a really bad state. That’s when my first problems with anxiety cropped up. I was so terrified. I couldn’t shake it even after I was healed,” Chris shares. Chris leaned on the support of his family, friends and his girlfriend, Katie. Chris and Katie started dating when they were only 15. “I was super in love and super horny. It was intense,” Chris recalls. Katie got pregnant. I remember when Chris and Katie first got together. It was heavy and unconventional just like a lot of things in Chris’ life. Our group of friends wasn’t surprised when Katie got pregnant but we were all kids—we were confused. It was easier to set the situation aside than to confront it head-on. We didn’t talk about it much with Chris, although I often privately wondered about his daughter. Chris admits now that he struggled to accept fatherhood initially. He didn’t know his daughter until she was two years old. But he fell in love the moment they met and he has been a devoted dad ever since. Taking Control and Risks We were all so excited when Chris was accepted to the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD) in 1995. “I knew I wanted to do something with art. I really wanted to be the kind of artist who cannot support himself,” Chris says in jest. “I just wanted the freedom to paint. I figured food, rent, and bills would magically be paid for.” He wanted to be the quintessential starving artist. But art school was not what he expected it to be. He only lasted a few months. Chris struggled to manage his illness, mental health, fatherhood, and finances. “The last week that I was officially enrolled at MIAD, I skipped all my classes. I drove all around with my sketchbook. I drew. I liked what I drew better than what I was doing in art school,” admits Chris. He would teach himself how to paint. After moving into a room he rented from a co-worker for $100 per month, Chris set up a small painting studio. Self-education meant daily trial and error. “I tried to stretch my own canvas but I didn’t know what I was doing,” he explains. “With the first one, I used a fishing line and a needle and stretched a piece of canvas over an old picture frame. I didn’t learn how to do something until I did it wrong, first.” Working with oil paints was Chris’ next autodidactic exploit. The library now served as his educational institution. “Milwaukee Central Library was the sh*t. It is a beautiful building. It felt classy but it was still freaky. It had the right vibe for me,” remembers Chris. The pressures of school were off, but his RA, depression, and anxiety were taking a toll. Chris moved into an apartment with a friend who had his own share of problems. It was a calamitous living situation that made matters worse. Chris contemplated suicide and admitted himself into a behavioral health program. I lived on the East Coast at this time. Family friends had kept me up-to-date with fabulous stories of Chris taking on the art scene in Milwaukee. I had heard that he was hanging out with known local artists like Eric Von Munz, Stanley Ryan Jones, and Kevin Sparrow. It was exciting to hear second-hand about his gallery showings, parties, and interested collectors. I was proud to be his friend. I had just bought my first home and called him asking if I could buy a painting to hang in my new rowhouse. Even with a friend-of-Chris discount, his work was too expensive for my budget. I was disappointed but excited by his success. I set a goal to someday own my own Chris Miller painting. A Dangerous Veneer Unfortunately, the updates I’d hear from my Milwaukee friends were vastly different than the story he’s telling me right now as we chat over poutine at The Vanguard. What I thought I knew about my friend back then was not the whole story. He was a rising artist, but at the same time, he had been suffering terribly, both mentally and physically. Chris’ painting obsession and declining health forced him to quit his job. “I went through a couple more surgeries, including a wrist fusion procedure where a metal plate was inserted into my arm.” He adds, “Every day, I’d return home from work in severe pain. It was really hard on my body. It was a menial job pouring coffee and mopping but it was not good for me. I was getting nervous; I thought if I kept up at that pace, I wouldn’t be able to paint anymore.” By this time, Chris and Katie were back together romantically after an extended breakup. They discussed his decision and the consequences of him quitting his job. Katie supported their entire family financially. Chris had always accepted the fact that he would be broke but to this day, he holds guilt about the toll that decision took on their family. “I felt so confident that it was going to work out,” Chris confesses. “I was certain I was going to paint and make money doing it. So I stopped working.” Most days, Chris would spend up to 11 hours painting in his studio. It was all-consuming. The couple moved to Shorewood where they found a bigger apartment that provided additional space for Chris’ studio. He now had the freedom to paint all the time, and he did. In the Grip of Art and Anxiety On the surface, Chris’ situation seemed to be improving. But his mental health continued to decline. “I would get physically ill at shows. Panic attacks overwhelmed me,” he shares. Chris couldn’t handle the public appearances that were required of him as an artist. While he continued to see his therapist, he admits it felt like his sessions were too little, too late. “I sabotaged my art career by not taking care of obvious problems immediately,” he admits. Chris dreaded art shows. He would even bail on his own shows occasionally. “I’d just disappear. I hated that side of being an artist. I loved studio time and hated anything face-to-face where I had to represent my art to the public,” explains Chris. He resented the industry side of art. “I didn’t go to art school and people judged me as a result. A critic once wrote a review about one of my shows and described my work as ‘accidental,’ claiming I didn’t know what I was doing.” After speaking with Chris, the critic retracted his commentary and wrote a favorable review but the initial reaction stuck with Chris. Chris was uncomfortable describing his process and the intention or meaning of his works. “I don’t like to tell others what my art means. It’s phony as hell. After it leaves my studio, it’s out of my hands. I don’t control it anymore. The critics misunderstood my attitude as me having a lack of intention. It was bullshit.” Each year, Chris achieved more acquisitions but he still wasn’t making enough money to be classified as living above the poverty line. And then the economy crashed in 2009. “It resulted in a precipitous drop in sales,” says Chris. He persevered for two more years, spending all of his waking hours painting in the studio. It was a full-time work schedule, but he wasn’t getting paid. In his best year, he earned $11,000. Now his income was zero, and his marriage was falling apart. Chris’ work was all-consuming. It was compulsive, obsessive, and unhealthy. “Painting ruined my life,” Chris confesses. Chris stopped. He quit painting cold turkey. His paintings were moved to storage. I was confused about his decision at the time. How could someone with so much talent and drive just give it up? I selfishly didn’t want him to stop creating art. I could not mentally separate art from the identity of the friend I loved and thought I understood. As someone who spent her life lamenting her wholesale lack of talent, I admit I was irritated that he walked away from something so extraordinary. Artistic Exploration By His Design As it turns out, Chris didn’t walk away. He was walking toward art down a different path, he just didn’t know it at the time. In 2011 Chris enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) with the goal of becoming a teacher. Chris always loved kids. And he loves being a dad. Teaching made sense. However, he rejected the idea of art education at first. Chris was still bitter and angry at art so he pursued a degree to teach reading and science instead. He did well at UWM but often deflected questions from friends and family about why he wasn’t pursuing an art education degree. Beyond the lingering bad taste in his mouth, the job market for art teachers at the time was bleak. Reading and science felt like safe bets. Just as he was wrapping up his degree, Chris was working as a substitute teacher for a school where the art teacher quit. The school administrators were aware of Chris’ background. He had also wowed students and faculty alike by drawing all over his whiteboards with remarkable illustrations and entertaining characters, regardless of the classes he was teaching. His principal presented Chris with an opportunity and a plan. That year Chris graduated with his first teaching degree. He celebrated his fortieth birthday and became a grandpa. He also experienced a change of heart and decided to go back to school, again. He was going to be an art teacher after all. Reinventing the Artist People often ask Chris what’s next. They want to know if he plans to paint again. Chris vehemently says he cannot paint as a hobby. Chris can only paint 11 hours a day, or he can’t paint at all. He’s keenly aware of how painting consumes him and how dangerous it can be at the expense of his relationships, mental health, and ability to provide for his family. “I look at my best work where I was doing weird sh*t. Like, when I found myself sitting in front of a bonobo cage every day, all day, for more than three weeks. That’s when art is interesting to me. Anything less than that, and it doesn’t matter.” At times, Chris used art to face his anxiety. “Art was my exposure therapy. Once I sat in front of a movie theater screen, facing the audience, with everyone staring at me. I drew the people as they were experiencing the movie. It was torture for me,” he shares. The painting that resulted from his exposure therapy, is one of his most well-regarded artworks. He has turned down several offers to sell it. “A musician can’t just make music two months a year. You can’t turn art on and off when you have free time,” explains Chris. “I can make pretty portraits and paintings for the sake of it. But I don’t care about that type of work. Why do it if I don’t care about it? Why do it just because people think I should? They don’t know why I created art when I was a little kid. And they don’t understand why I quit as an adult.” Chris is an artist now just as he always has been. He’s just doing it differently. An Unconventional Gallery There is a meticulously clean attic in Bayview owned by his good friend. It is where Chris’ art collection now lives. His friend has generously guarded the collection since Chris stopped painting. Looking around, it’s clear the attic owner is aware of how special the space and its contents are. Entering the attic is like having the keys to a museum after hours. It is bursting with dozens of paintings and even sketches dating back to Chris’ months at MIAD. If a friend inquires, Chris is open to selling some of his work. The attic is a magical wellspring of something I can’t quite pinpoint. I love my friend Chris and the work he brought into the world. But after our conversation that resulted in this story, I’m conflicted as I think back about what the attic represents. His drive to create, to run from his physical and mental pain, morphed into a hurtful vice. I once took my family to the attic for a visit. My kids’ eyes widened as they climbed the twisty stairs to discover a hidden treasure trove. My son said the attic reminded him of the movie Forrest Gump. He said the attic tells the story of Chris but each artwork has is its own tale and they are all linked. A wise analogy from a nine-year-old; art allowed Chris to metaphorically run. The attic is a time capsule that reveals the life of a person who makes a daily, conscious decision to ignore pain. A person whose talent presents a constant tug of war between elixir and demise. When we were young, we rooted for Chris to be a famous artist. Now I wonder if the attic represents a type of success that is more important than fame and fortune. Chris never wanted to be rich anyway. A New Medium He doesn’t need art the way he once did. Painting harmed his marriage, complicated parenting, and heightened his anxiety. It led him on a meandering journey of passion, loss, and pain. But art also pulled and pushed Chis to teach. He won’t say if he’ll ever paint again. He admits he misses how he felt when he was in the studio back when he needed to paint as a matter of survival. But he doesn’t wish he was painting right now instead of teaching. Teaching is fulfilling in the way that a studio binge used to be. Chris lights up when he’s with children. “Little kids are all artists. They are not afraid to take chances. They are proud like I was. As an elementary teacher, you get to spend seven years with them. You see them grow from little tots to the cusp of adulthood.” Little kid energy in the context of art is Chris’ ‘what’s next.’ I have spent a lot of time worrying about Chris’ health and his future, which I’m sure he’ll hate to see when he reads this. Ironically now his art is hiding but Chris personally seems more balanced and whole than I’ve ever known him to be. I don’t worry as much anymore. And I did finally buy my Chris Miller painting.