Giving Limits the Brush-Off with Dawn Miller

Artist and teacher Dawn Miller opens her heart and home for the Village Arts VB initiative

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Miller enjoys the front porch of her Art Village home with furry friend Ellie. Photo by Steven Martine
Miller enjoys the front porch of her Art Village home with furry friend Ellie. Photo by Steven Martine

Dawn Miller loves Wednesdays and Thursdays. Actually, she loves every day of the week, but these two are the best, as that’s when adults with special needs excitedly open the door to her yellow wood-frame house in Vero’s Art Village in the historical Edgewood neighborhood. Here, they will create works of art, prepare a nutritious meal, and engage in tasks that foster self-sufficiency, social skills, and community engagement.

Their nonstop smiles say it all, with Miller’s the brightest of the bunch.

“The Village Arts VB program started incubating three years ago when my friend Sue DePalma, a mom of a special needs daughter, told me about a program for special needs adults where they use farming and community engagement to promote similar goals. 

Dawn Miller leads the group in preparing for the day’s gathering. Photo by Steven Martine
Dawn Miller leads the group in preparing for the day’s gathering. Photo by Steven Martine

“I thought, ‘Why can’t we do something like that here—something that’s more art based?’ Then I wondered where we would do it and I thought, ‘Why not my house?’ I was already teaching art classes here, so it wasn’t a giant step. So we started a nonprofit, formed a board of directors, went through all the hoops, and here we are.” 

Dawn Miller's Art Village home. Photo by Steven Martine
Dawn Miller’s Art Village home. Photo by Steven Martine

Miller leads the way into what was once the living room and is now an open studio where tables, easels, and art supplies await enthusiastic students whose painting prowess can be seen lining walls, windowsills, and shelves, and even hanging from the ceiling. Bursts of color on canvas bags, silk scarves, and fence posts are just the tip of their creative iceberg.

“Wednesdays and Thursdays are full days, as up to seven students are here for three to six hours. They come in, sign up, and declare what their personal goal is for the day. Then it’s nonstop. I have two wonderful volunteers for each three-hour class, and I couldn’t do without them. 

“Everything we do is aimed at increasing their independence and social skills. The art making is the vehicle we use to improve these goals. We do a lot of painting; we also work with clay, beads, fabric, even coconuts.” Miller looks upward, indicating a colorful school of coconut “fish” swimming overhead. 

Miller works with her students 1. Photo by Steven Martine
Miller works with her students. Photo by Steven Martine

“Then we have lunch prep, which is a lot of fun,” she continues. “The students set the table, we go over table manners, and they help with the cooking, learning safe and sanitary cooking skills. We started with things like English muffin pizzas and grilled cheese sandwiches. Now, we’re getting fancy with chicken quesadillas and spaghetti and meatballs with garden salad! We give them options and let them choose, which is important, as so many things in their lives are out of their personal control.” 

“This program has helped me communicate much more explicitly,” says Miller, smiling as she recalls a particular instance. “I had asked one of the students to pass me a cookie, and she did: she threw it at me. So I learned to say, ‘Pick up a cookie and hand it to me, please.’”

Caregiver Kayla Woodworth assists Elizabeth with sketching. Photo by Steven Martine
Caregiver Kayla Woodworth assists Elizabeth with sketching. Photo by Steven Martine

After the dishes are washed, the floor swept, and trash taken out, it’s time for music and a choreographed dance routine in the backyard that has everyone swaying and moving to the beat. The energy level soars.

Next comes what Miller refers to as service jobs, a way for Village Arts participants to think of the needs of others. One student gives Miller’s rescue pup, Ellie, treats; another gives the laid-back pooch a bath; one waters garden plants; another fills the birdbath. At the end of their time together, there’s a sense of accomplishment and sheer joy. 

The joy level was off the charts this past October when their artistic creations were showcased in Art at the Emerson’s “Celebrating Special Needs Village Artists” exhibition and reception. It was standing-room only. 

If you had told Miller that one day she would own a house where others would come to nurture their inner artists, she would have called you crazy. While art was an important part of her life when growing up on Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, she graduated with a psychology degree, went on to earn a master’s in biology, and became a trained facilitator and mediator dealing with crisis management and child custody cases—a far cry from her artistic roots.

After sketching on canvas, art student Peter plans his latest creation. Photo by Steven Martine
After sketching on canvas, art student Peter plans his latest creation. Photo by Steven Martine

That all changed when Miller moved to Vero Beach and began teaching classes at the Vero Beach Museum of Art 15 years ago. Since then she has taught students of all ages and skill levels at a number of other locations, including the Alzheimer and Parkinson Association of Indian River County, Senior Resource Association, Indian River Estates, and in her home.

“I didn’t plan any of it; opportunities just showed up and I said yes,” Miller smiles as she reflects on the past and the path that brought her to where she finds herself today, living and teaching in a storybook cottage with a yellow mailbox and a blue-and-orange Village Arts VB sign out front. 

Caregivers and volunteers pitch in to help students. Photo by Steven Martine
Caregivers and volunteers pitch in to help students. Photo by Steven Martine

“I had been living down the street and keeping my eye on this cute little house,” she explains. “The minute it went up for sale I knew it had to be mine. The first thing I did after I bought it was paint the dark chocolate brown walls a cheerful yellow. It opened everything up. I also added front and back porches to create more outdoor living space.

“Another thing—I love to garden, and there was a big backyard, but it was nasty,” she says, wrinkling her nose. “Let’s just say it needed a lot of work.”

Miller’s garden is filled with colorful flower and vegetable beds, bright murals, and places to sit and reflect. Photo by Steven Martine
Miller’s garden is filled with colorful flower and vegetable beds, bright murals, and places to sit and reflect. Photo by Steven Martine

Once the yard was cleared, Miller added flower and vegetable beds, fruit trees, and sitting spots. Later, once the Art Village neighborhood was rezoned, she built a small house that is rented as an artist’s studio and gallery or a living space. As Miller points out, “Its use is always evolving.”

Over the years, Miller, whose preferred medium is soft pastels, has won numerous awards, most recently first place in the “varied techniques” category at the A.E. Backus Museum’s “Best of the Best 2023” annual juried art show. Her portrait of an elderly woman appearing lost and confused, titled Where Am I? Are You There? is a poignant reminder of the effects aging can have, and a reflection of Miller’s experiences working with individuals who are memory challenged.  

Miller's garden. Photo by Steven Martine
Miller’s garden. Photo by Steven Martine

“I used to travel all up and down the East Coast and teach art classes, but it wasn’t as fulfilling as some of the other things I was doing or wanted to do,” Miller admits. “Then I went to a women’s conference where we were given play money and we got to bid on what we value the most. While most of the younger women bid on something materialistic, I realized that as I age, what I value, what makes me truly happy, is service to other people, and that’s what I want to be doing. There’s a deep contentment and gratitude in coming to this place in my life.” 

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