A serendipitous visit to a stained-glass studio in Paris derailed a former New Bethlehem resident’s wanderings across Europe and set him on a career path that he never anticipated.
Jeffrey Miller was teaching history in Rabat, Morocco, when he stumbled across a family of Czech stained-glass artists living in Paris, altering the course of his life dramatically.
His father, the late Dr. David Miller, a local physician associated with Brookville Hospital for several years, sent his two sons, Jeff and Jim, to a private boys’ academy in Connecticut after they completed junior high school at Redbank Valley in the late 1960s. Jeff, the younger son, attended Princeton University before embarking on his big adventure.
Miller’s English still retains much of its Western Pennsylvania inflection, but it bears a lilt and a broadening of the vowels specific to French.
“I was teaching in Morocco and crisscrossing Europe while on vacation,” he said. “My travels kept bringing me back to Paris, and one day I visited a glass studio that a friend had recommended.
“Once I walked inside, I knew that I had to learn all about the craft. I had had a strong desire to work with my hands and stained glass was the perfect path.”
Training at the studio was provided free of charge to anyone who wandered in, but Miller needed to find a way to bank a generous sum of money to support himself for a couple of years in the City of Light.
“So I came back to the States and worked on oil rigs for a couple of years,” Miller said. “That provided my ‘bank’ while I studied. I basically lived with the family during that time.”
The senior member of the family was a master of his craft, casting thick slabs of glass rather than cutting and fitting shards together.
“He taught me the technique of essentially carving glass, chipping away small pieces to produce a sculpted effect,” he said.
Miller credits a fellow Princeton University student with opening crucial doors which led to his best-known work in America.
“I had to take medieval European history, and there was this guy in my class who was really into it,” he said. “He ended up as a professor of medieval studies at Harvard. I ran into him years later and he told me the story of the Juggler of Paris.”
Miller’s recreation of the 12th-century morality story was featured prominently at the Dumbarton Oaks Museum outside Washington, D.C., in late 2019. His is the latest in a centuries-long retelling of a poor juggler’s tale.
“A poor street juggler wanted to become a monk, and so he entered the nearest monastery. Unfortunately, he was illiterate and did not know Latin, making him really unsuitable for life as a scribe or choir member,” Miller said.
“He was ridiculed and reviled by the other monks, eventually escaping to a basement chapel with a statue of the Madonna. He began juggling in front of the statue but was discovered by his fellow monks. They started shouting and reviling him until something happened.
“The Madonna came to life and stepped down from her pedestal, smiling lovingly at the poor juggler who had nothing else to offer her but his skill from the street.
“You could say that it is the perfect metaphor for valuing even the humblest virtues in the people around us,” he said.
The tale of the poor juggler was popular for several centuries before nearly fading away, receiving its resurrection in the 19th century. It has been retold in various plays, musicals and even a film or two.
Miller was joined in his magnum opus by his daughter, Sarah Navasse.
“My daughter is simply a fantastic artist and draws much better than I do,” he said. “I understand glass, but my work is much better when she sketches it out for me.”
He says that not all his work is so original. A good portion of it consists of restoring older stained-glass windows or creating complementary pieces for existing work.
Miller makes occasional visits back to the New Bethlehem area, the place he called home before attending the boys’ academy and prior to his parents’, David’s and Jane’s, relocation to Chautauqua, N.Y. His elder brother, Jim, is the principle in a successful Ithaca, N.Y., law firm, while their sister passed away a few years ago.