In final months, artist knows what matters

To hear him describe his life, you’d almost think Mike Miller was the lucky one.

He’s quick to tell you he has a great wife and wonderful grown kids. If asked, he’ll explain that he developed a passion for art at an early age and has enjoyed a long and successful commercial career that actually began with a stint at Disney Studios. At 74, Miller still has more work than he can handle.

But eventually he gets around to that other thing. The colon cancer he thought he’d beaten five years ago has returned. Doctors have found tumors on his liver and lungs. He has been given a few months to live.

With the prospect of success through chemotherapy beyond a long shot, he recently decided to decline treatment. Instead, Miller has opted to remain as comfortable as possible and surround himself with family, friends and favored creative assignments.

Yes, the artist is still at work.

“I’m more interested right now in my quality of life,” says Miller, who was affiliated with the Review-Journal for more than two decades. “I want to keep my senses about me and not have a lot of pain. … You can be a victim and feel sorry for yourself and wring your hands, and it won’t do you any good at all.”

Instead of wringing his hands, Miller is letting them do their thing. When his energy and his pain will allow, he takes to his drawing board and produces illustrations for clients and editorial cartoons for gaming publications and trade magazines. He also paints.

He served a valuable apprenticeship with Disney, working as a young artist on “Sleeping Beauty” and “101 Dalmatians.”

“I felt like a rock star,” he says, laughing at the memory. “I went to work for $62.50 a week.”

After a stint as a set design artist at MGM Studios, where he sometimes worked on canvases 300 feet long, Miller accepted a position at NBC Studios. From there, as a member of the Scenic Artist Union, he moved to booming Las Vegas. He found as much work as he could handle, wrote and drew thousands of advertisements and illustrations, produced television and radio commercials, ran his own agency, and contributed a mountain of material to the Review-Journal.

Miller also created Hey Reb!, the UNLV mustachioed mascot character whose likeness has generated millions for the university. Miller charged UNLV $1.

His eclectic avalanche of credits include his popular “Tomas the Tortoise” children’s book series, which is set in and around the Las Vegas Valley. Although these days he lives in Murrieta, Calif., Las Vegas is rarely far from his thoughts.

“When I came to Las Vegas, the town was growing like mad,” he says. “The town was great. The opportunities were everywhere. The town taught me an awful lot. I worked with some great people. I wasn’t great at anything, but I always made a living doing everything.”

How many artists can say Elvis Presley, Louis Prima and Wayne Newton have commissioned their work? Miller can.

These days, you’ll find samples of Miller’s work online and at the Collective Souls Fine Art gallery at the Market LV in Tivoli Village.

He knows that one day he will put down his pen and brush for the last time, but he’s an artist who never lost sight of the important parts of his life.

“I have a great family,” he says. “We’re Christians. We always have been Christians. We have a belief in God. I’m OK with this. I accept that this is God’s will, anyway. When he wants me, he will take me. In the meantime, I was to feel as good as I can and be happy and enjoy as much of life as I can.”

Cancer can end Mike Miller’s life, but it can’t mar the remarkable life he’s lived.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.