He was 7 or 8 years old when they came the first time. The clowns emerged from the bushes while he was outside playing ball. Except, they weren’t really clowns — not exactly. He wasn’t sure what to call them.
They led him into a building, shaped like a large saucer, where they told him of their way of life. He asked them their names, and they said they were nameless, but they would like to call him “Abtuss.”
They reassured him they would be back again in a number of years. He asked them when, but their time is different, so they couldn’t really say.
Twenty years passed before Charles Miller saw the aliens again.
Miller, a La Grande resident, has been creating masterful works of art through several mediums since he was a small boy molding sculptures out of the abundant red clay at his childhood home in Tennessee.
He has amassed a large and diverse portfolio over his lifetime. The artist said he gets most of his inspiration from his dreams, which sometimes feature his long-ago visitors.
At 6:30 p.m. May 24, Miller’s work, some inspired by his extraterrestrial encounters, will be displayed during an opening reception at hq, an arts and music venue located at 112 Depot St. in La Grande. The exhibit, named “Resurrection,” will feature Miller’s paintings, sculptures, mannequins and fashion line, with some pieces available for purchase.
Miller said it was a dream that led him to draw and name the creatures he’d seen as a young child — a dream he had after he watched the first “Star Wars” film.
“I loved the gold robot,” Miller said, referring to C-3PO, one of Luke Skywalker’s companions in the original trilogy. “I thought it was a real robot. I said, ‘I need a friend like that.’”
So, he went home from the theater, excited to draw his own C-3PO friend. It took him days, but still, he couldn’t get the design right. Then, he had a dream.
“It was like a snapshot,” he said. “I got up that night to start drawing, and tried to come up with a name.
“I called it TeTe.”
Throughout the late 1970s, Miller drew and painted comic panels featuring vast celestial landscapes and emotionally intimate interspecies relationships based on what he had heard from the aliens in his past, and what he saw in the “Star Wars” movies.
This comic series was dubbed Abtuss and follows Miller on a heroic journey as he explores TeTe’s home — a purple planet called Spinder — and learns of the aliens’ customs and struggles, some that are very similar to the problems faced by humankind.
Chris Jennings, co-owner of hq, has helped Miller compile his Abtuss comics into a special edition graphic novel, “The Knowledge of Spinder,” which will be on sale at the gallery opening May 24.
Jennings said his mission of bringing art in its various forms to downtown La Grande is furthered by this gallery installation, which was completed in part due to a $500 grant the venue received from the Union County Arts and Cultural Coalition.
“In terms of the retail downtown, small niche gallery stuff, there have been pop-ups and different business have tried little walls to try and keep that flowing through, but there’s not a lot of opportunity to show art,” he said. “The mission behind hq holding a space is to create a gateway for student artists, regional artists and traveling artists to have one more place to show and engage with an audience.”
Once Miller’s exhibit retires in July, Jennings plans to feature work from a new artist. He wrote in a press release that the rotating exhibits will create “an additional avenue for community engagement” and “give people one more reason to attend an event” at the venue, which regularly features live music and film screenings.
“We’re going to do a big opening reception,” Jennings said of the Abtuss exhibit. “Charles will be here to sign books, and there will be beer and wine. We’ll have time as a community to look at art and talk about art and have conversations and really make it fun,” he said. “Hq is a great platform for opportunity.”
At the gallery’s first exhibit, Miller’s science-fiction-inspired pieces will be accompanied by works of art based on experiences he’s had with “people who have been dead for years.”
One of these spectral visitors is Joe Son, a Quaker who lived in the South during Civil War times. Although he was not a soldier, Miller said, the young man told him he bought a rebel uniform to go undercover and speak with Confederate soldiers for a book he was writing.
Before Joe could publish his manuscript, however, his sister threw it away. Miller said Joe told him she threw it out because it was “too messy looking.”
So, Joe appeared, with his little dog Lit, to Miller, hoping the artist could tell his tale.
“Joe wanted everyone to know what his story was,” said Miller, who painted a black and white photo-realistic portrait of the young man and his furry companion.
Because Miller lives with a disability impairing his ability to read and write, he couldn’t tell Joe’s story through the written word — but he was able to capture the young man’s spirit through a visual medium.
“I want people to know the wonderful art I can do,” he said. “People say, ‘You can’t read and write, how can you do all this art?’ and it makes me feel bad. I want to show people I’m intelligent and I can do this work.”
Whether aliens, ghosts or dreams are the inspiration, art has always been Miller’s refuge, a way he can truly express himself and his encounters. The hq gallery is just one way for him to share his mind with the world.