Painting With Toy Cars: The Art of Derek Miller

At first glance, Derek Miller’s art appears fun and unique (it’s made with things like toy cars, after all). But take a closer look and you’ll see all the painstaking time and detail that goes into each piece. We wanted to know more about this unusual art, and the man behind it.

From gigs as an apprentice meat-cutter and military man, to a truck driver and gardener, Derek Miller is always an artist whose creations are as deep in thought as they are in design. We tracked down the elusive Kansas-based vanguard to ask him a few questions about his art.


Toy Cars
“Hector in Drag” (“The Tamer of Horsepower”) by Derek Miller (2009)

Where did you find your inspiration for the toy car series?
My toy car series is more about simplifying what I am trying to say using the vehicle as a vehicle to dialog with a virtual image. The toy cars are pre-made/ready-made paint chips on wheels. Each die-cast car is a miniature identity of being cool, or being a chick, or being successful… These are the things that people in my culture identify though their cars. For example, I cannot drive a new Volkswagen Beetle in a leather jacket and successfully pull off the personification of cool. The new VW bug is known amongst those who subjectively define levels of cool in my culture as a “chick’s car.” Each shape of my paint chip on wheels and the angle of which it is adhered to the canvas creates subtle suggestions of travel and movement. A lot of times when I am creating my parkings (paintings) I think of times when I lived in Southern California and spent time on the 91 Freeway (parking lot) traveling back and forth to Anaheim from Riverside. A trip that would take 45 minutes to get to work, but three to four hours to get home. Each car has a logo made with a color that does not match the body paint. Orange and blue on olive green, or pink and black on metallic flake gold. Each vehicle creates a different optical effect at different distances, and at angles the colors begin to float and shift and appear to move. Most virtual images that are created are appropriated imagery that instantly become my own, once I start attempting to define the skeuomorphed image with the base materials.


Toy Cars
“Red Mercury” by Derek Miller (2009)

Where do you source your images?
I find my images online, and I find my images from packages or advertisements. Red Mercury was a penny I oxidized, buffed, and then put though my scanner to blow it up in scale to edit it in the computer, and then print it out to project it with an opaque projector. Red Mercury is by far the longest parking that I have assembled because of difficulties pulling off a convincing copper color using a lot of leftover orange and green-colored cars. The things you simplify are sometimes way more complex in execution and interpretation than what the viewer sees. Some things are tongue-in-cheek humor, but the subject matter is more serious. I think that people who are separated by ideologies and cultural barriers connect though art. However, I think the way I use base materials to voice my opinion is more of a non-threatening way to openly discuss political things that keep people at each other’s throats. Hector in Drag”(Tamer of Horsepower) is a parking that is an image of the Jack of Diamonds playing card (Hector) who was dragged around the back of a chariot by Achilles in Homer’s Illad; the political opposing religious/political ideologies of those Trojans, versus the religious/political ideals of Greeks. The twist on the playing-card image and the race cars lends itself nicely to today’s American socio-political atmosphere of people not being able to get past these ideologies to do what is right or what is best for the greater good of all Americans (Achaeans). Hectorcurrently resides in West Palm Beach, Florida in between a Warhol and Frans Kline overlooking a beach-front golf course in an executive retreat. I dragged him down there on the back of a semi tractor trailer from Wichita.


Toy Cars
“El Diablo” by Derek Miller (2009)

Where did you grow up, go to school?
Grew up in Wichita, Kansas, I graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute. I am a former Cavalry Scout of 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry, 1st Regiment of Dragoons of the 1st Armored Division.


Toy Cars
“Suburban Lady” by Derek Miller (2008)


Toy Cars
“Captain A.” by Derek Miller (2008)

Are you still working on the same kind of picture?
Yes and no. I actually want to go larger in scale, but I am slowed down by overhead costs of the toy cars. Most of my parkings have anywhere from 2000 to 2500 toy cars attached to create a virtual image. The scale I want to go requires me to have at least 65,000-plus toy cars. Most of the toy cars have to be shipped from overseas (including Hot Wheels). I recently acquired a lot of baseball cards, so I may come up with a large painting or two made from these. The toy-car series isn’t finished, it just stalled out and is currently waiting for more parts that have to be shipped in from China. The other thing that is slowing me down is an artists’ COOP that I am trying to put together to buffer some of the damage caused by culture warrior, “Governor Sam Brownback.” His line-item veto gutting the arts funding from federal and state contributions cost the state of Kansas a few million dollars in funding. For some reason, the governor wanted to punish small communities and children by denying them access to the the ballet, symphony, art museums… It does not really effect me personally as an artist, but an uncultured future in a global culture puts Kansans at real a disadvantage. I’ve actually identified a real need in Kansas and America that could potentially create lots of employment, but I am not willing to share information publicly yet.


Toy Cars
“Tri-Lad” by Derek Miller (2006)

Have you had any galleries or shows? Do you have any coming up?
My last toy-car art show was in Kansas City at the Kansas City Artists’ Coalition, about a year ago. I have shown other at art shows that I get in to, but they are not solo exhibitions. My artwork is just starting to be seen. Wichita, Kansas is not exactly the cultural mecca of the United States, and the support of the arts is spread “conservatively.” I think what I want to do is get back into my studio and start producing again. My studio is in a town called Potwin, Kansas. This is a place where Vickers fuel pipeline used to be located in Kansas. I had to get a studio space out there because Wichita commercial real estate is competitive with downtown Miami, Florida. For some reason, lease rates range between $2000and $6000 per month for postage-stamp-sized buildings. I think that the city or state awards tax kickbacks for vacant commercial buildings to the people who own them, so buildings and homes stay vacant for years. Small businesses are usually stymied.


Toy Cars
“Engine” by Derek Miller (2009)

Describe your work history.
When you have a small city that is governed by certain manufacturers of a certain product, the jobs relate to that industry. I’m just not into airplanes, oil, and pizza. I moved to California and worked for Disneyland for a while, then Ralph’s grocery as a meat-cutter’s apprentice. I worked while attending classes at Riverside Community College. I ended up with a poor GPA because of distractions like snow-skiing at Big Bear and Mountain High, or the beaches at Dana Point and Newport Beach. Palm Springs and Las Vegas were all short driving distances from Riverside. At some point, I decided to go back to art school. Pasadena School of Fine Arts laughed at my GPA and told me to keep my day job. After being rejected, I decided that I needed a change in my life, and I needed a change of scenery. I joined the U.S. Army for an Armored Reconnaissance job. The recruiter asked me if I wanted to be a cook, part of the military police, or serve as some sort of fire support, mortician, or an Apache helicopter mechanic. None of these jobs appealed to me.


Toy Cars
“Scarab” by Derek Miller (2006)

My ideas of the army were all movie-motivated. Usually, recruiters lie to get you to take a job that they need filled. The recruiter sold me on being a scout by telling me that I get to ride all of the army’s toys, and shoot all the guns, and blow stuff up. I signed up for three years as a 19 Delta Cavalry Scout. I was stationed in Buedingen, Germany with the 1st squadron, 1st Cavalry, 1st Regiment of Dragoons of the 1st Armored Division. IF the 1st A.D. decided that they needed to go someplace, it was our job to conduct route reconnaissance into the that particular place. I ended up being deployed to Bosnia for Operation Joint Endeavor. A few years later, I came back to California and worked at a few different places, but I ended up driving a semi tractor-trailer before I decided to go back to school. I currently work on-and-off as a truck-driver, and recently, as a personal gardener. I really can’t stand driving much anymore, and the gardening seems more rewarding and gives me more time at home.


Toy Cars
“Extra Virgin Hot Wheels” by Derek Miller (2008)

Will there be any updates to your blog anytime soon, with regards to new art?
I do this on a whim. My blog is like my business card. I have started other blogs with other themes, including one with a toy-soldier installation called Drop Zones, but I have forgotten where they are on the Internet. I update my blogs after I have produced and then photographed my artwork, and then am ready to spend a few hours on the computer. The computer beats having to produce slides, but it is still a full-time job promoting yourself. Currently, I am working on something that started out as a doodle in high school in my Spanish class. It is a psychedelic monochromatic illustrative-like image that relates to memory and perception of my travels from the window of an airplane. I will probably update Etsy and Bonanza more than my blog with these drawings. The illustrative doodles are more about investigating images than about creating a body of work.


Toy Cars
“Star Spangled Banter” by Derek Miller (2008)

How did the Shepherd Fairey thing go down? Why did they think your painting was “racy”?
Actually, Star Spangled Banterwas rejected because it exceeded the maximum scale of 60″ x 60″. (They didn’t tell me this, but I was left to guess that this was the reason.) The scale of my art work is 72″x 54,” and I figured that it was close enough. Shepard Fairey was not on the juried panel and the pieces of art that they selected for the DNC show were light and transportable. (And illustrative… Like graphic-design stuff.) My thoughts were, “How could they not select artwork with tiny race-cars?” The selection results ended up looking more political than the selected artwork. My artwork is way more intense in person than it is in its compressed form that is seen online. A six-foot-tall painting compressed into a few inches is like standing 50 to 100 feet away from the image. From about six to ten feet away from standing directly in front of the painting, you start to lose the secondary image. (I spend a lot of time climbing up and down a ladder to get my desired result.)


Toy Cars
“Poison” by Derek Miller (2006)

Where would you like to go with your art?
My artwork is where it needs to be right now. I constantly push against my own rules that I make up for myself. I don’t really need a direction or voice, because I feel I have already established this. My struggle is still in the middle of the creation, and getting to the point to where I am in a state of being as an art creator. It’s like shooting a basketball into a basketball hoop from at least half-court and knowing that you are making the the shot, just before the ball has left your hands. I’m not calling it confidence, but it is something related to that feeling. If I could get a hold of a few million toy cars, I would be creating parkings at least 10 to 12 feet tall, and at least 60 feet wide. For some reason, I feel driven to do this.

Toy Cars
“Auto Domingo” by Derek Miller (2007)
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