This year, the town of Boone, NC, will begin recognizing Sept. 9 as “Joe Miller Day.” Around Boone, Joe Miller is famed for his sense of humor, warmth and brushstroke.
Miller was born in the back seat of his family’s car outside of the Boone Drug store, where he would eventually find himself working within the pharmaceutical field. “I spent my first week of life upstairs over the Boone Drug,” Miller said. “And then, went to pharmacy school and came back and eventually owned the Boone Drug company. So that’s kind of a unique story, I think. People ask what sign I was born under, and I say, ‘The Boone Drug’ sign!”
He initially attended college in Iowa in order to study taxidermy, until some old bosses of his, Wayne and Odell Kelly Richardson, suggested joining them at Boone Drug. He received his credentials at UNC Chapel Hill’s pharmacy school, worked, then bought a third of the drug store.
Miller’s career required periodical attendance to different pharmaceutical conventions where he would find himself admiring art in the hotels. The interest inspired him to purchase his own painting supplies and initiate a path of artistry. After a few attempts, he found painting to be more difficult than he thought it would be; however, this didn’t deter him from pursuing the art form. A friend of his, Roger Whitener, gave him the contact information for Noyes Capehart Long, a local artist who had taught the subject at Appalachian State University.
Miller met Capehart in 1982. “We’ve known each other for thirty-some years and have been friends for longer than that,” Miller said. “We’ve been friends since the day we met, certainly. He is really a great writer. I think of him as the most creative person I’ve ever known.”
After their first lesson, Capehart noticed Miller’s tools weren’t sufficient enough for the tasks at hand and provided him with a list of basic supplies to strengthen his skills. The closest art store Miller could find was in Winston-Salem, and it had cost him $600. While he considered it an expensive endeavor, he found the supplies drastically helped him improve his skills, yet still sought a more economical solution. This is what jumpstarted “Cheap Joe’s Art Stuff.”
Miller found art suppliers that would allow him to sell equipment at Boone Drug, which thus allowed him to purchase the supplies wholesale. He then joined the Watercolor Society of North Carolina, reached out to fellow members, and began receiving orders. What began as small catalogs of supplies is now an established warehouse with corporate offices, located at Industrial Drive in Boone.
The expansion of his business has not impacted Miller’s humility or care for his customers. From small acts such as handwritten “Thank-you”s on loyal customers’ invoices to covering insurance for art material during instances of disaster, Miller maintains the big heart that he is famous for.
Miller encompasses the importance of celebrating small-town roots while maintaining success. Capehart has collaborated with Miller in publishing a biography that tells the story of his path to artistry and entrepreneurship, Cheap Joe. “The main focus is art, but it focuses an awfully lot on the rest of my life. It has stories in there, and a little of everything else. There are stories in there about my youth and taxidermy and school–just a little bit of everything,” Miller said. “[Capehart]’s been working on it for probably a little over 2 years. Noyes and I met just about every week, sometimes twice a week. I would tell him stories or he would ask me questions and he would go home and write that part of it and come back and he would give it to me, and I’d read it to be sure it was accurate, even though it may sound like something we made up, but it is factual.”
In regard to having aspects of his life published, Miller can’t believe it. “I don’t even know the word I could use to explain it, because it’s really kind of emotional,” Miller said. “But I’m extremely honored and pleased that Noyes did that. I read it and wondered a lot of times who they’re talking about, you know? It couldn’t have been me! It’s wonderful to have that for my children and grandchildren.”
By reading Cheap Joe, Miller hopes to inspire readers. “I would like people to know, number one, that anybody who wants to, can do art,” Miller said. “I hear every day, ‘I can’t draw a straight line,’ ‘I’m colorblind,’ all those things, but hundreds of people have disabilities, even, and become very fine artists. I hope it’s an encouragement to people.”
Those interested in learning more about the life of Joe Miller can purchase Cheap Joe through his website: https://www.cheapjoes.com/cheap-joe-a-biography-of-joe-miller-by-noyes-capehart.html