PEORIA — Sculptor Marlene Miller’s newest work was born during the silence of the shutdown.


"I think I wanted to do some more simple forms, and the heads for me are more introspective," said Miller. "Many of them have eyes closed so there is sort of a dreamy quality to them. I thought they would be really appropriate at this time to explore all these complex emotions everybody is struggling with."


During the COVID-19 shutdown Miller continued to work at her studio in downtown Washington, but life slowed down greatly. Since the gym was closed, Miller started going for late night walks around Washington.


"I had to get some exercise, but the walking was also good for my mental health," said Miller. "I found those walks to be really peaceful and beautiful, and sort of eerie some nights, but they were very grounding for me. I think those walks in the evening sort of fed what I was doing in the studio during the day."


Miller talked about her newest work during a phone interview Wednesday afternoon after installing the series of nine giant pottery heads and a few wall pieces at Exhibit A Gallery in Peoria Heights. The show will run through Sept. 30, and the opening reception will be held from 5-7 p.m. Sept. 11. Social distancing will be enforced and visitors must wear masks.


It’s not the first time Miller has made giant pottery heads — it’s one of the themes she is known for. Miller makes characters, from sweet little girls to creepy old men.


"I know some of my other work is more — how shall I say — challenging for many people. I don’t make any bones about it. The last series I did was based on medieval warriors — they were confrontational," said Miller. "The big heads, many of them have their eyes closed. We can approach them with maybe a little less trepidation. So I don’t like getting pigeon holed, but during this very difficult period I thought it would be very nice to go back to the heads that are quieter and subtle and peaceful."


Miller was an art instructor at Illinois Central College from 1978 to 2000. She’s been creating art full-time since leaving that position. Her studio, which is located in a 150-year-old building just off the square in Washington, is equipped with an extra large gas-fired kiln to handle her biggest pieces.


Miller enjoys the technical challenge of working big. It’s not unusual for her to begin a piece with 600 pounds of clay. She creates the exterior of the form then hollows it out, a job that is often very physically demanding.


It’s been about 10 years since Miller has made a big head, and the work continues to evolve.


"In a few of the heads I carved a landscape, which is very different for me," said Miller. "You know the shutdown has allowed us all to kind of back away and look at our lives and think about things we haven’t thought about for a while. I used to go out to Eureka lake to go hiking, so I did two heads with a make-believe landscape, inspired by my walks in the park."


The landscapes are rendered in shallow bas-relief carving. While Miller has done bas-relief carving before — most notably for a 24 foot by 9 1/2-foot mural that hangs in the main courtyard at Illinois Central College — doing it on a three-dimensional form is new.


Miller also experimented with some new techniques while glazing the pieces.


"I did multiple firings on quite a few of these. I added layer upon layer of finish. A lot of them I used linseed oil and oil paint to get the subtle colorations I wanted," said Miller. "One of the heads was so big and heavy I knew I couldn’t keep moving it in and out of the kiln, so I would let the kiln cool down then climb in and apply more stain and glaze."


Miller’s work has long occupied a space in Exhibit A Gallery, and her fans will enjoy this new show which provides a twist on a few old themes re-imagined.


"What I’ve been finding over the years, and I think it’s true of all artists, is that you kind of circle around," said Miller. "You are never quite done with an image."


Leslie Renken can be reached at 270-8503 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.