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Davidson grad paints the college’s past

A four-year degree from Davidson College helped set Ambrice Miller on a career with Bank of America.

It also set Miller on a path that is giving her an even bigger impact – as an internationally exhibited artist.

Her talents and connection to the college brought Miller back to Davidson in early July, to design and paint a mural in the new offices of the college’s Multicultural Center.

The 2009 Davidson graduate spent more than two weeks working on the 27-foot-by-8-foot mural, which depicts the college’s history and highlights its diversification efforts over the years.

“I wanted to do a visual timeline, from the slaves that built some of the academic halls and the president’s house on campus, all the way to where we are now,” Miller said.

“Davidson is now considered one of the most diverse liberal arts colleges in the country ... and all those things are symbolic to Davidson’s progression. My grandma always said, ‘You need to know where you came from to understand where you’re going,’ and I really took that to heart when I was planning this mural.”

Born in Birmingham, Ala., Miller began drawing at age 4. “My oldest brother Neal loved art and was always drawing, and I wanted to be like him,” she said.

By age 11, her skills had progressed to the point where she was accepted to the nationally-recognized Alabama School of Fine Arts, where she graduated in 2005.

“They look for raw talent. They look for kids who are intellectually hungry, but also show promise in the arts,” Miller said. “From there, I just flourished.”

Miller’s abilities as an artist and her grades led her to apply to Davidson College, earning admission and winning the college’s Romare Bearden Memorial scholarship for fine arts.

“I visited Davidson ... and fell in love with the place immediately,” Miller said.

Even before she graduated in 2009 with a degree in art, Miller had a job offer from Charlotte-based Bank of America. Her first job assignment was as a project manager on the bank’s Latin America trading desk in London.

That’s when Miller’s art career really took off. Her works are on display at the Kamba Gallery in London’s high-end Mayfair district, and in just the past 18 months have been exhibited at galleries in China, Estonia, Spain and Turkey, she said.

“It is THE art hub of Europe. I’d argue that it’s the art hub of the world,” Miller said of London, where she still lives. “You can go to an exhibition every day and not see them all. It’s just an amazing city for just the various cultures and nationalities.”

It was her growing reputation in the art world, in addition to being a Davidson graduate, that led Tae-Sun Kim, the college’s director of multicultural affairs, to approach Miller about commissioning the mural last April. After several phone conversations and rough sketches, Miller took time off from her job in London and flew to Charlotte at the end of June.

“One other (artist’s name) was brought up, but Ambrice was definitely the choice,” Kim said. “She’s a graduate, she’s from Alabama – there’s nobody that could better tell the story of race at Davidson than (Miller).”

Kim had just one ground rule. “One of the things I told her was that I do not want a formulaic diversity mural that does nothing to stimulate conversation and thought,” Kim said. And gave Miller a surprising amount of leeway.

“She gave me complete artistic license,” Miller said. “But in working on it, I knew that, one, it’s for Davidson, and, two, it’s in the student union, so no one can miss it. I wanted to make sure that it was the best piece I could possibly produce.”

In that regard, Miller believes she had accomplished Kim’s goal. The mural features portraits of prominent figures such as former president Sam Spencer, who spearheaded the college’s diversification efforts in the 1960s and 1970s; Mike Maloy, Davidson’s first African-American All-American basketball player; and Marianna “Missy” Boaz Woodward, the college’s first woman graduate in 1973.

“A lot of research went into this,” Miller said. “I wanted to make sure things were factually correct and were incorporating the right people.”

The project has drawn a steady stream of visitors to the Multicultural Center’s new offices to see the mural’s progress and to meet Miller, including Davidson president Carol Quillen and other college officials, some of her former professors such as abstract artist Herb Jackson and residents.

“We’ve had a number of townspeople to come in,” Miller said. “They’ve somehow found out about my blog and wanted to chat. They wanted to see it in person and learn a little bit more.”

And that, Kim said, was the ultimate goal of commissioning the mural.

“Everyone who would see the Multicultural Center at the (student union) would have to face the issue of diversity and race, whether they’d like to or not,” Kim said.

“She had to capture both the pain of racism and discrimination and exclusion, yet also project it in a way that encourages people to come back and take a second look.”

Kiser: 704-895-3662
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