When the sculptor Bernie Miller was a boy, he and his two brothers pestered their father to take them to a drive-in movie theatre, which they had heard about but never seen. Their dad stopped the car in front of a billboard, and for a little while the boys watched, waiting for the picture to change.
Several aspects of that practical joke resonated throughout Mr. Miller's career. He was always interested in large-scale visual effects, and in situations where some mechanical process fails to occur as expected. Mr. Miller, who died in hospital in Winnipeg on Oct. 22 at the age of 69, knew how to embed a sense of paradox and fun in his work.
A deeply serious artist, he was driven by a strong feeling for community and social justice. He often worked in open-air situations, sometimes in view of billboards. His legacy includes important public art pieces in Toronto, Vancouver and other cities, as well as works in private and public collections, including the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon. At his death, he had completed the conceptual work and drawings for one of the grandest pieces of his career: a public art commemoration of the Winnipeg General Strike, due to be unveiled in downtown Winnipeg on the event's 100th anniversary, in 2019.
Mr. Miller was born in Toronto on June 30, 1948, and studied at the Ontario College of Art. He was much impressed with the work of the American artist Frank Stella and the modernist ideal of constructivism, with its emphasis on direct functional display and social engagement. He was active in the city both as an artist and animator of art spaces, serving on the board of the artist-run centre YYZ for 17 years.
Throughout his career he strove to make works that expressed themselves directly, "where there's no black box, where everything is visible and readable," said Jeanne Randolph, a cultural critic and psychiatrist who was Mr. Miller's partner for more than four decades. He did not go in for hidden meanings, she said, and was completely uninterested in making autobiographical art. He avoided being photographed with his work, she said, discouraged any discussion of his sculptures in terms of his life and personality, and would not have wanted an image of himself published with his obituary.
"He loved fairground architecture and Ferris wheels," Ms. Randolph said, "because of the motion, and the idea of a utilitarian structure built for pure delight. In his early work, the machinery had a sense of the Rube Goldberg machine, or of Pee-wee Herman's kitchen. Things are operating playfully, though they're supposedly functional."
Even his pieces that have no moving parts typically refer to machine-age structures. Learn To Throw Your Voice!, a work installed in 1986 at Toronto's Harbourfront, features a slanting steel tower topped with a slender horn, a concrete wall reminiscent of a grain silo, and a gigantic megaphone. The sculpture expresses a feeling of transmission and industry, though nothing actually happens unless the spectator steps up and speaks into the megaphone.
Mr. Miller's Street Light, a large-scale 1997 piece created with Alan Tregebov at Concord Pacific Place in Vancouver, includes heavy steel scaffolding, replicas of a railway cart and camera boom, and metal panels perforated to evoke photos of the railway workers who toiled near the site before it was redeveloped as a major housing project. He was always attentive to the history of the sites where he worked, including their social and labour history, said Ms. Randolph, who described him as "very socialist."
Like architects and other site-specific artists, Mr. Miller often spent months preparing models and proposals for competitive projects, which he did not always get the chance to build. That never bothered him, Ms. Randolph said, because the stages leading up to the completion of the model were, for him, the fun part.
"He did all that as meticulously and magnificently as he could," she recalled. "He would sometimes say, 'Oh damn, I won this competition. Now I'll have a summer job.'" Once the on-site work began, however, he was extremely attentive to technical detail, she said.
For a 2004 show at the Canadian Cultural Centre in Paris, he playfully blurred the line between model and finished work, filling the exhibition space with refrigerator-sized models that seemed too massive to need further realization.
In 2003, he moved to Winnipeg, in part because Ms. Randolph could no longer cope with air-pollution levels in Toronto. "For the first few years, he called it a witness-protection program," she said. But in time, he came to love "the quirky art scene here, and the seriousness of the artists," she said. He served on the board of what is now the Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art for nine years, and played a crucial role in developing the Institute's current space adjacent to the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
Mr. Miller loved cars, followed NASCAR and Formula 1 racing, and regarded the customized cars he sometimes saw on the streets of Winnipeg as folk sculpture, said Ms. Randolph. Bloody Saturday, his last major project, will be a full-scale representation, in bronze, of a much larger vehicle: a streetcar, tipping over. The piece refers to a famous photograph from the Winnipeg General Strike, of a crowd attempting to overturn a streetcar near City Hall.
In Mr. Miller's version, created with Winnipeg artist and filmmaker Noam Gonick, the streetcar will be partly sunk into the ground, virtually on the spot where the event took place. "We're not putting it in the middle of the street, though Bernie would have preferred that," Mr. Gonick said.
Besides Ms. Randolph, Mr. Miller leaves his son, Jones Randolph Miller; aunt, Hughette; partial siblings, Les, Cathy, Cheryl, Tina and Wally; their 10 children; and his sisters-in-law, Diane and Diana.