Watercolor: SPONSORED CONTENT: The Artist Behind the Brand: Joe Miller

16 Nov 2006

by M. Stephen Doherty

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Winter Ain't Far Away
watercolor, 15 x 15.

Can a pharmacist who describes himself as cheap actually convince artists to trust his advice about buying art supplies? He can if he is passionate about art, respectful of painters, cheerfully disposed, and committed to serving the needs of creative people. Joe Miller has proven that point by building one of the biggest art-supply businesses that sell through retail, direct mail, and on-line channels. Not only has he established his company, Cheap Joe’s, as the favorite source for drawing and painting supplies for tens of thousands of artists, he has developed one of the most popular workshop destinations in the mountains of northwest North Carolina, and he has been recognized by the American Watercolor Society, which gave him the Dolphin Award, its highest honor. The award has been given to only 11 other people, including Andrew Wyeth.

The two keys to Miller’s success are that he is an artist who understands and identifies with his customers, and that he personalizes a business that has become increasingly impersonal. He became seriously interested in watercolor painting in the early 1980s when he was a full-time pharmacist in Boone, North Carolina, and by 1985 he was selling a limited supply of paints, brushes, paper, and equipment in a corner of his pharmacy. “When I first became a pharmacist, men would only buy their aftershave lotion from a trusted, licensed pharmacist,” Miller says with a chuckle. “But within a few years they could buy that lotion in a grocery store, discount center, gas station, or newsstand, along with aspirin, heating pads, and vitamins. The traditional pharmacy had to change in response to the dramatic shifts taking place in retailing, so I decided to start selling the art supplies I was using for my own watercolor painting.”

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My Growing Up
watercolor, 15 x 20.

By 1990 the sales of his art supplies had increased to the point that Miller needed to move that part of his business out of the pharmacy and into a separate building where he could expand the direct-mail operation. “Carolyn Fogle and two other people were operating the art-supply sales while I continued to work with my partners in the pharmacy,” Miller remembers. “We were using a photocopier to print the direct-mail catalogs and operating the warehouse while we took orders over the phone. It was a bit crazy, but I just loved working with artists and selling them the supplies I found beneficial in my own painting.” Fogle continues to be a valued employee, as are Miller’s son and his granddaughter.

Miller has touched so many people with his enthusiasm for journaling and for sketching with watercolor that he was encouraged to publish a book, Joe’s Journals, and to produce five videos and DVDs on basic watercolor techniques (all available through Cheap Joe's).

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Grandfather and Foscoe
watercolor, 15 x 20.

When he was first mastering the skills of watercolor, Miller attended workshops held by artists he admired. He subsequently developed close friendships with those artists and asked them to advise him on which products he should sell through his company. He reciprocated by promoting the books, videos, and workshops those artists were selling; eventually he established signature lines of supplies endorsed by the artists he knew and respected. A typical Cheap Joe’s catalog from the 1990s carried many pages of free listings of workshops being conducted by Miller’s artist-friends.

As he expanded his study of art and increased the range of watercolor, oil, acrylic, printmaking, and drawing supplies in his catalog, Miller became fascinated by Vincent van Gogh and developed a popular stage show called With a Warm Handshake. The title of the show was taken from the phrase Van Gogh used to close most of the 675 letters he wrote to his brother. As Miller explained in a 1993 article in American Artist, in the show Miller assumed the persona of the artist’s brother, Theo, and described Van Gogh’s bouts with depression, his tumultuous love affairs, and his struggles as a genius in a world that often didn’t seem to understand his artistic vision.

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Three Top Mountain
watercolor, 11 x 15.

“When I am invited to speak at art clubs and art societies around the country, I have a couple of messages that I always tell them,” Miller explains on his company’s website. “Art is healing in many ways, both physically and mentally, and, perhaps most important, Art grounds us in the present moment. Far too much of our time is spent worrying about the past or fretting about the future. When I am in my Art space with brush in hand, I am living, not in the past or future, but now – right in that particular moment! I know myself better because of Art, I am thankful I found Art – or maybe, that Art found me!”

For more information, visit Cheap Joe’s or call (800) 227-2788.


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