Putting It Together

'Intersections' of puzzles and art at Sonoma Valley Museum of Art


Twist And Push: George Miller’s Sonoma home is filled with beautiful, complicated creations.

Can the mathematical nature of a puzzle ever articulate an artistic expression? Can an emotion or intellectual thought ever manifest itself in a puzzle?

The answers may never come in black and white, but the colors and complexities give much to discuss in the exhibition “Intersections: Puzzles as Art,” currently at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art through Aug. 16. Co-curated with Nancy Mintz, the show is presented by self-described “puzzle prototyper” George Miller, puzzle collector since childhood, published puzzle designer and member of the International Puzzle Party. With a lifetime of puzzle exploration and dedication under his belt, who better to organize the current exhibition?

Miller’s love of puzzles becomes evident at the entrance to his Sonoma home. Through the doors of his remarkable hilltop abode and through an entryway jungle of safari-inspired art pieces, puzzles line this house overlooking the gorgeous valley. Miller’s personal collection of pieces from all over the world made of metal, wood, plastic, paper and foam adorn all rooms of the house. From the approximately 40-foot-long encased shelving along his hallway–looking as though it should sit in a science lab–to his building-block coffee table, to the many workstations that bring his puzzles to life, his environment is surely a puzzle lover’s paradise.

And yet a great deal of Miller’s work takes place behind the house, in what he calls his “Puzzle Palace.” Here, Miller does woodwork, maps out his puzzles, and paints and pieces them together. Miller displays a map of a mazelike interactive floor piece featured in the exhibition. The piece lies on the ground while exhibit attendees must maneuver through and figure out how to successfully exit the maze with the correct number of steps. It’s difficult to navigate, and certainly puzzling, but visitors are not to worry. Miller is quick to hand over a business-card-sized code providing the solution.

Though eye candy and curiosity constantly bombard anyone who takes a tour through Miller’s home, the most fascinating room is his 3D printing room. Located in a narrow black space adjacent to his bedroom, the 3D printer looks like a futuristic clothing dryer from a science fiction film. Hooked up to a computer that displays an image of the piece being printed, the device builds the pieces based on the information plugged in by Miller. When it’s ready, he opens the printer and pulls out a plate. On the plate is the finished product obscured by supports that Miller hammers off to reveal the item as shown on the computer screen, like magic.

Unlike many art shows, “this exhibit is going to be interactive,” Miller explains. “Puzzles beg to be played with.” Miller, whose love of puzzles grew out of childhood, also encourages kids to come and experience the hands-on atmosphere.

Even more distant from the archaic granddaddy of the puzzles, the jigsaw, is a piece that appears to be a photograph. Standing up close, the image looks like Albert Einstein, while far away, it takes on the likeness of Marilyn Monroe. Standing in between, the piece portrays varying degrees of Monroe crossed with Einstein. For the exhibition, Miller has placed two copies of the piece on opposite ends of the room to play tricks on visitors’ eyes. Puzzle? Art? Either way, it’s definitely captivating.

Miller is also an active member of the International Puzzle Party. The exclusive group of 300 members meet every year at a secret location, and while he wouldn’t give specifics around the location of this year’s meeting, Miller says this year’s IPP meeting will take place in Northern California. Miller also confirms that the members of the IPP plan to attend “Intersections” sometime in early August; beyond that, he is suitably tight-lipped.

The IPP meets in Asia, Europe and North America annually. Entrance to the exclusive group is subject to discussion and extensive evaluation. Of the 300 members in attendance, about a hundred take part in the puzzle exchange. These members create an entirely unique puzzle, duplicate it a hundred times, and bring their offering to the other members. Each member leaves with a hundred completely unique pieces.

Before departing from the Puzzle Palace atop the Sonoma hills, Miller hands over an example of one of his original pieces that he made for the puzzle exchange, entitled “Free Willy.” Created with his 3D printer, the puzzle’s objective is to maneuver trapped blue plastic in the shape of a killer whale out of its surrounding cage.

Although “Intersections” is held at an art museum, Miller does not make any claim that the pieces on display are, in fact, art. More importantly, he wants to provoke thought in the observer. When previewing a spherical piece made up of numerous triangles from the upcoming exhibition by featured artist George Hart, Miller makes an interesting point.

“It strikes a harmonious chord, but I don’t know if it’s art,” he muses. “That’s what this exhibit is supposed to produce. What is art? What is a puzzle? And is there an overlap?”

‘Intersections’ runs through Aug. 16 at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art. 551 Broadway, Sonoma. Wednesday-Sunday, 11am-5pm. $5; Sundays free. 707.939.7862.

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