George “Sky” Miles’s living room is cluttered with art. Canvases lean against every wall. Large framed prints from his Backyard Mississippiseries rest on a sofa. Near the other sofa, there’s a bongo drum. The room is dim and smells like incense, the sun blocked by curtains because George sometimes projects movies. In the center, there’s a folding table with a laptop. This is where he works.
A graduate of the photography and graphic design programs at two historically black schools – Hinds Community College Utica and Jackson State University – now George spends his days teaching art to kids at a juvenile correctional facility. When he’s not on the clock, he creates surreal photo collages of forgotten bits of Mississippi – testaments to his romanticism, optimism and respect for home and family.
George’s work could be mistaken for mixed media, since the photos are so manipulated, the finished pieces so complex (one piece may have up to forty-five Photoshop layers!) that something like a swirling sky may take on the transparent and hazy qualities of watercolor.
George may combine a field from Raymond with deserted houses from Maven – his mother’s hometown and a prominent feature of his work – with the keyboard from a piano abandoned behind a guitar shop in Fondren. He adds puddles to dry fields and ripples to puddles, swathing skies in burnt orange or gleaming teal.
The dozen pieces in Backyard Mississippiplace piano keys beneath old houses. “Blues are the foundation of Mississippi, and the keys are the foundation of the houses,” George says. “Some of these houses don’t exist anymore, so these pieces are like a time capsule.”
He often travels the state with his father, who has dementia and no longer drives. When they see an empty house, George photographs it. “Everything came full circle. I used to ride with him. Now he’s riding with me. It’s like if you see something that speaks out to you, you just got to go and get it,” George says. His father is a pianist, so in a sense, there it is – an entire Backyard Mississippipiece, represented in a weekend ride.
George grew up in Starkville, in a family that celebrates creativity. His sisters were involved in theater and band, and as a kid, George made collages from magazines. He’d feature the favorite actors and athletes of his loved ones and pass them out as gifts.
His mother, Helen Miles, showed his collages to anyone who came to their house, and when friends needed a drawing for school projects, they asked George. “Whatever you feed your spirit with, that’s the energy you’re going to share with the world,” George says.
Helen died in 1998, and George credits his faith in God and his ability to express himself through art with getting him through the toughest time of his life. “I changed my artistic name to Sky Miles, because I wanted to give my talent back to God. I feel like my gifts come from the heavens,” he says.
The collage that started his Backyard Mississippiseries is called “Fifth Season.” All four seasons are represented – a decrepit, winter-white house, dry grass for summer, bright green for spring and yellow trees for fall.
“All that’s left is the fifth season,” George says. “That’s your due season, whatever you’re passionate about. Backyard Mississippiis my due season...like when you’ve been patiently waiting and all of the sudden, you get that blessing.”
George first heard the phrase from the pulpit. It references Galatians 6:9: And let us not be weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap.
In 2018, George started a new series called Muddy Waters. Instead of empty homes with keyboards for foundations, it features automobiles rusting away in puddles. Every piece is named after a neighborhood in Starkville. George thinks of his work as an extended tribute – to the blues, to gospel, to the nuances of people and places that formed him.
“Every morning, I wake up and feel thankful being alive. Man, you’ve got your health. You’ve got your strength – go out there and live your life,” he says.