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Montana native Patti Miller, who uses the name Patris professionally, paints Oak Park United Methodist Church on Broadway.

Sacramento Bee/Owen Brewer

Anita Creamer: Picturing Oak Park

Artist and activist Patti Miller finds urban beauty in her neighborhood -- and captures it for all to see

By Anita Creamer -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 a.m. PDT Monday, June 9, 2003

On a hot Sacramento afternoon, Patti Miller -- or Patris, the name she uses as an artist -- has set up her easel and her oil paints across 33rd Street from the old Oak Park library building, a cream-colored, elegant-looking structure overlooking McClatchy Park.

On another afternoon, perhaps, you'll see her on Broadway, painting the Oak Park United Methodist Church or, a few blocks away, the "Welcome to Oak Park" sign. Or she'll set up on Stockton Boulevard, capturing the old Coca-Cola building on canvas. Or even in midtown, to paint an ancient warehouse.

The scope of her urban landscapes has enlarged over time beyond the boundaries of Oak Park, but Oak Park remains her main inspiration.

And so, in her pink-flowered shorts and her T-shirt, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, Patti Miller takes to the streets of Oak Park to put her mission into practice. Lovingly, with pride, she paints the sites of Oak Park, her adopted home, reminding us of its bright past as well as its potential.

She's living her dream.

"In art class at Sacramento City College, I decided I was going to help the community," says Miller, 40. "I realized I could use art to highlight the beautiful things in this commu- nity instead of the ugly things.

"I began painting Oak Park, and I began trying to develop a body of work to show the beauty here."

Her "Oak Park Treasures" series is an open-ended project, as is her commitment to Oak Park.

Miller moved here in 1986, a Montana girl undaunted by other people's fears and prejudices regarding poverty, class and race. She was a teacher who worked for the Rio Linda School District, specializing in teaching the children of immigrants.

Then as now, Oak Park spoke to her soul.

"My heart's always been in the city," she says. "Not just the city -- the inner city. Some people say, 'Do you like living there?' "

She does.

In the mid-1990s, she and her husband bought an old Victorian in Oak Park, a condemned crack house, and restored it. She also devoted herself to efforts to revitalize Oak Park: She became a crusader for change in this troubled neighborhood that most of Sacramento chooses to overlook.

"It was bad here," she concedes. "But it was a great time to get involved. I had new experiences and met new people and learned more about life here."

She joined the neighborhood advisory group that worked to bring a supermarket -- Food Source, on Stockton Boulevard -- to Oak Park. She organized Oak Park's first multicultural festival. She joined the the Oak Park Business Association and the McClatchy Park Drug-Free Zone.

"I was this girl from Montana, and here we were marching on Broadway, protesting the drug dealers and prostitutes," she says. "And I was at the head of the line with a bullhorn. It was fun."

Says Trish Davey, Oak Park Business Association coordinator, "Patti is the most positive, energetic person. She's such a wonderful spirit and a tireless worker.

"Her paintings show what Oak Park is. She can see the beauty that all of us are discovering, the gem that Oak Park really is."

On 33rd Street, as the afternoon lengthens, Miller is dabbing dark green onto the canvas, adding detail to the trees towering beyond the old library. An old man wheels slowly by on his bicycle.

"Can you put me in the picture?" he shouts.

Miller smiles. She's used to attracting attention, painting on location on these streets.

"I've never felt afraid," she says. "I don't know if that's because of faith or stupidity. I've found that even the drug dealers will come up and look and say, 'OK. All right,' " and give their little accolade.

"I don't mind chatting with people. Maybe I'm an oddity, and people don't know how to deal with it."

Miller grew up drawing. She was creative. But it wasn't until her mother died of breast cancer at age 64 in 1997 that she began thinking of art as a career -- a calling.

"I was questioning my purpose in life," she says. "I was wondering what my contribution or mission could be. I thought maybe I could become an artist."

In 1998, she began taking art classes at Sacramento City College. She wanted to devote more time to art as well as her community work, so she cut back her work hours. Now, she works part time as a consultant for the state Department of Education. And she paints.

A half-dozen of her urban landscapes were included in the Sutter Cancer Center's Canvas for Cancer fund-raising art auction in mid-May.

"Patti reflected on her life really deeply and then changed her whole life completely," says Sutter Health spokeswoman Robin Montgomery. "I think that's amazing.

"A lot of people talk about doing that but never take the steps to making it happen. But Patti's following her dream."

The dream, just this moment, happens to involve two women who are walking to their car. They take a quick peek at Miller's painting.

"Very nice," one of them says.

Miller smiles and thanks her.

"I guess I'm known as Oak Park's painter," she says. "I hope so. I'd be proud to be known as that."

About the Writer

The Bee's Anita Creamer can be reached at (916) 321-1136 or

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