In anticipation of the Nov. 2 Soles for Catholic Education walk to celebrate Catholic education, your Catholic Herald is running a series of articles on Catholic education in the Milwaukee Archdiocese.
There they were. Eighteen identical paper penguins lined up in front of the first grade classroom at St. Mary Visitation School, Elm Grove. But, it was the 19th penguin on which Russell Miller had his eyes some 20 years ago.
That little penguin, with its three-dimensional beak and “ruffled” feathers made out of ripped paper, stood out from the others, Russell remembered proudly.
It didn’t look like the other recycled paper penguins, but in Russell’s eyes it was beautiful because he threw his heart and soul into the project.
“I took the assignment a little further,” said Russell recalling the art project he and his classmates did for then-first grade teacher, Mrs. Judy Magnus.
Much to his surprise, however, Mrs. Magnus took his creation, folded it, placed it in a manila envelope and sent it home to his parents with a note that read, “Does not follow directions.”
Admittedly, Russell’s artistic career at St. Mary got off to a rocky start with the penguin project, but the 25-year-old looks upon his Catholic education, at St. Mary and Pius XI High School, Milwaukee, as providing the building blocks for his career and life.
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“Looking back through my entire time in Catholic school, it made me appreciate, especially in the early years, if you surround yourself with people who truly want to help you follow your dreams, anything is possible,” said Russell, a computer graphic artist working in New York.
As junior technical director for Framestore, a British Oscar-winning visual effects company, he has worked on commercials for Geico, Orkin, Coca-Cola, Nestle, Teddy Grahams, Heineken and GE.
Mom, Lynne Miller, proudly noted that although she’s not a sports fan, she enjoys sitting through football games, including the Super Bowl, watching for her eldest son’s creative work during the commercials.
Looking back on her son’s formative years, Lynne said, “He’s been very blessed to have had so many people who nurtured his love for art, whether teachers, youth minister, pastor who provided opportunities for him with the stained glass project or the Gladiator (a school mural he painted in eighth grade). He’s been really blessed.”
Although St. Mary School didn’t have a formal art program until Russell reached seventh grade, he found other ways to express his creativity throughout elementary school. For example, he turned a third grade bridge-building project into an elaborate model of the Golden Gate Bridge made of wood and modeling clay, and in sixth grade, recreated with colored pencils Pablo Picasso’s most famous work, Guernica, for a report on the artist. The illustration, for which he won an award from the Wisconsin State Fair, still hangs in his basement.
Recognizing his artistic abilities, Russell’s eighth-grade class turned to him to design their graduation gift to the school – a mural of the school’s Gladiator mascot that graces the hallway near the school’s entrance.
And four years later, while a senior at Pius, Russell was asked by then-St. Mary youth director, Marc Mescher, and now-deceased St. Mary pastor, Fr. Daniel Pakenham, to lead a stained glass window project where four windows were designed and installed into a chapel in the parish youth center.
“It was important to Fr. Dan that youth from St. Mary’s Visitation Parish would have a hand in the design if possible,” said Mescher, now assistant professor of religious and theological studies at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., in an email to your Catholic Herald. “Russell was the first person I thought of, since he had been one of the most active members of our youth ministry program as a retreat leader and member of our youth leadership board and was a tremendously talented artist.”
He said that with the help of a book, Russell designing four stained glass panels that depicted some basic stained glass designs.
“Russell created images that were at once stunning and simple. I never doubted he would create ideal images for us, but looking back on this now, I see even more clearly how special it was to have a high school student possess these native desires and abilities to contribute to the church in this uniquely valuable way,” Mescher added.
“He had a love for art and could copy anything exactly,” recalled Kris Dries, Russell’s art teacher at St. Mary, currently the school’s administrative assistant. “We knew he had real talent,” she said of the young man she recalled as quiet, studious, and a pleasure to have in art class.
After graduating from St. Mary, Russell said it was expected he’d follow in the footsteps of his father, Philip, an attorney, his uncles, grandfather – all the males in his family who graduated from Marquette University High School.
But Russell said he had his heart set on Pius because of its strong art reputation.
“I really wanted to follow with art and going that route, I was leaning toward Pius,” he said, explaining that his selection as a fine arts scholarship recipient to Pius sealed the deal for him.
Pius opened his eyes to a whole new artistic world, he said.
“Pius was a big shock when I first got there, going from a school where I loved doing art, but never had direction until seventh and eighth grade, to a school known for its art department,” he said, adding it was exciting to be surrounded by classmates who, like him, had a love for art. “It was neat, but a shock at first, to know there are more people out there than me who love to do this.”
Under the guidance of Pat Frederick, head of the art department, and art teacher Catherine Burnett, Russell’s passion for art grew. While at Pius, he learned of Ringling College of Art and Design, a prestigious art institution in Sarasota, Fla., with one of the top ranked computer animation programs in the world.
Only 96 students are accepted annually into the computer animation program at the internationally renowned school, according to Lynne, and Russell monitored the mail diligently for weeks until his acceptance letter arrived.
Russell graduated from Ringling College of Art and Design with a bachelor of fine arts in computer animation in 2011 and since July of that year, has been animating commercials for Framestore.
“One of the things I’ve taken from my Catholic school education is the fact my gifts and talents can be used to give back to the community and others. That’s the way I can share my gifts and faith with others,” he said.
Seeing the fruits of his labor in a television commercial or on top of a New York City cab is thrilling, Russell admitted, describing a long Labor Day weekend he recently worked completing a commercial — “Back to the Future” — for GE.
That Thursday, Russell said his younger brother, Sam, an engineer for Rexnord, was in a bar with his coworkers when the commercial came on TV.
After his friends commented on the commercial, Sam said he proudly tipped his glass and told them, “My brother did that.”
“That was a cool moment and made everything else worth it,” admitted Russell, noting that when he returns to work next week after a brief vacation in Wisconsin, he will spend the next 11 weeks with Captain Morgan, working on a 1.26 minute spot.
While his Catholic education has factored into his success as an artist, Russell also noted that it’s helped shape him as a person.
Being in New York City, he encounters much diversity. In late August, he got up for work three hours early, intending to get into the office early to work on the “Back to the Future” project. But when he arrived, he realized he didn’t have his key card to enter the building.
A coworker, who had used it the day earlier, had forgotten to return it to him.
“I couldn’t get into the office for another two hours, so I had two hours to wait,” described Russell. Intending to go to Starbucks, he encountered a homeless couple on the corner who were about his age.
“It looked like a situation where they were traveling or might have been out of money but they looked down on their luck and were probably outside for a while,” he said of the man with long, scraggly facial hair. Neither of them looked as if they had showered or changed clothes in weeks, maybe months, said Russell.
As he passed them, he invited them to join him for breakfast. While they were initially hesitant, not knowing if his invitation was sincere, the three went to IHOP and sat in nearby booths.
Russell said he let the waiter know that he would cover the bill for his food as well as for the couple’s breakfast.
“It was not quite how I planned to spend my morning,” he admitted, “but knowing how I made their day, it made anything I had that day that normally would have flustered me, or added stress to my day, it made my day better because I knew I could make their day better.”
Several weeks later, Russell said he and a coworker were walking down the street when the couple stopped and thanked him.
Friends sometimes tease him when he reaches out to the needy in similar ways, admitted Russell, but “I tell them, that’s what I always learned growing up, whether it was family, Catholic education or whatever, it taught me that if someday that was me, I would hope there would be somebody out there to help me like that.”
Wiping tears from her eyes as her son recounted this story, Lynne noted children learn from the examples around them.
“I think that’s the important lesson. Kids see what you are doing and when you make a meal for St. Ben’s or when you donate to a program, kids are always watching and absorbing, learning and waiting to put that into practice,” she said.
Russell understood he had a gift and it was his duty to share that gift, according to Mescher, speaking to his involvement in the St. Mary youth program.
“And by investing himself so deeply in his parish community, he not only shared that gift generously and with great effect, but it became a model for his peers to follow,” he said.
Describing the Miller family as “like family to us – his wife Anne and sons, Noah and Ben – Mescher said, “Russell is more than impressively talented and accomplished; he’s generous, kind, and joyful. Knowing his family as I do, I’d say that’s part of the DNA make