Saturday, December 1, 2012

Reindeer Man bringing new brood to his 20th year as a Hollyday Fair vendor

David J. Miller and some of his reindeer 

story and photos

 by janet i. martineau

For 19 years now, herds of leftover reindeer have literally flown out the door during the annual Hollyday Fair at the Andersen Enrichment Center.

Most likely the critters will do so again at the 20th event, running 10am to 4pm Wednesday, Dec. 5, at 120 Ezra Rust in Saginaw. They tend to attract buyers who purchase them in groups of three to five in varying sizes.

“I estimate I have created almost 10,000 reindeer since I started making them in 1984, at first just for family and neighbors,” says artist/woodworker David J. Miller of Thomas Township. 

He  calls them “leftover” reindeer because Andersen’s Hollyday Fair is  the last stop of what was once a large circuit he and wife Linda made to Yuletide bazaars around the state.

His reindeer stand from 5 inches tall to 5 feet, and just about every height in between; are as light as a feather to a beefy 75 pounds; cost from $3 to $75 (and discounted at  Andersen).

Their bodies come from cottonwood and ash trees Miller harvests with a chain saw during September, in a woodsy/swampy 60-acre track whose owner grants him permission to “hunt”  there. 

And in his work shop he spends October and into November cutting the collected wood to size and shape with band and table saws as well as other tools like a drill press or a drill for structure support and holes for the antler pieces.

“I am to the point I can almost make them in my sleep. Frankly it takes longer to collect the wood than to make them. I can make 10 of the 12-inch  ones or one of the big ones in 90 minutes. 

“Another stickler is the antlers. It can take me two to three days to get the antlers together on each reindeer; finding two pieces that are similar looking for the two sides of the head.”

Adds wife Linda, “He talks to them when he is working on them.”

Miller, a retired art teacher in the Swan Valley school system, says he used to  make 500 to 600 reindeer during the high point of their bazaar travels -- 10-12 of them in Fenton, Detroit, Mount Peasant, Saline, Chesaning, Bay City. Last year he produced just 200 -- sold just in Fenton and at Andersen. 

Why the decrease in productivity? The 63-year-old cites customer saturation, the arrival of grandchildren competing for his time and, frankly, a concern that the  wooded lot where he gets his material is running out of fodder. “Two shows are enough after all these years.”

Two of the critters in his front yard
Miller began his reindeer career when wife Linda saw some at a bazaar and asked him create a version for their house. And from that it just grew and grew.

Why, he is asked, are they so popular. “I think because they are very rustic, organic, made entirely of wood. That all ages seem to like them. And the fact you can put them inside or outside. 

"We put a Christmas bow on them, but people could change the bows to fit the season so they become deer rather than reindeer.”

Wife Linda has another theory. She thinks it is the way he crafts their heads and tails and other features, noting that since 1984 they have seen few attempted copycats. 

“His features on them are unique,” she says. “And not as easy to do as people might think.”

Over the years customers have sent pictures of his reindeer in their new homes. “We have pictures of kids on them; cats sleeping on them,” he says.
Close-up of the tail detail

Miller also has made furniture, a fireplace and a wine cabinet for their home; a manger scene for someone else. 

This time of year, a couple of his reindeer are climbing up a ladder to the roof of their home while another two are in a clump of ornamental grasses on the front lawn. 

“The neighbors sometimes pick on them,” says Linda with a roll of her eyes.

Hollyday Fair features an art fair of vendors selling sculpted snow people, recycled and upgraded plates and dishes, fiber art, socks and mittens, knitted sweaters and scarves, handmade soaps, purses, paintings and decorative pillows as well as  a baked goods sale, fresh holly, a silent auction and a luncheon served from 11am to 1:30pm. 

Admission is free. The cost of the lunch (soup, sandwich, cookie) is $6.

 Proceeds support the activities of the Saginaw Arts and Enrichment Commission -- student art exhibitions, youth theatre workshops, Art @ the Andersen exhibitions, All Area Arts Awards, ARTifacts newsletter and artist residences.

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