Augusta Artist Cheryl Miller with some of the 2-by-2 inch paintings of turkeys she's collected.
Until 1998, artist Cheryl Miller of Augusta, Maine had never painted a turkey - never even seen a live one close up. That all changed when she started working at the Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, New York.
Farm Sanctuary is the nation's largest farm animal rescue organization that also works to raise awareness about the effects of factory farming, and to promote compassion for animals. While most people gravitated to the cows, pigs and sheep, Miller fell in love with the turkeys.
"I never realized that, just like my cat, they like to be petted," she says. "They like to sit in your lap. They close their eyes when you rub their heads just like your cat does, and they love to be rubbed under their wings. And I couldn't believe how wonderful they were. I was so charmed with them."
That year was also the first time Miller observed the Farm Sancturary's version of Thanksgiving, an occasion in which a long table just a few inches off the ground is laid out with squash pies, cranberries and greens, and the farm's turkeys are the special guests.
"And the birds come over and make that noise, they do that gobble, gobble," she says, imitating a turkey. "And they come over and they start pecking at everything. And some of them jump up on the table and walk through the pies, so you have turkey footprints in the pies. And they get it all over their beaks."
Susan Sharon: "So that was kind of a life-changing experience for you, both as a person and an artist?"
Cheryl Miller: "Yes. And that year I decided that I had to find an alternative tradition to celebrate the holiday, and I did my first portrait in 1998."
Her first turkey portrait. She's painted one every year since on Thanksgiving day. In her new version of the holiday, she's also been known to celebrate by consuming a Tofurky sandwich, a blend of tofu and wheat topped off with vegan mayonnaise.
But in Miller's mind, the single portraits and the turkey replacement sandwich were just not cutting the mustard. "For years, I've been trying to figure out how to represent 46 million birds individually, which is the number that is estimated to be raised, killed and eaten on Thanksgiving."
Miller started with a hand-held punch, mass-producing cookie-cutter style turkey cutouts from reycled paper at the rate of about 2,000 birds an hour. But she wore out the punches, so she moved to stamping and was able to more than double her rate to 5,000 an hour, listening to one of her favorite NPR radio programs.
"For instance, I'll go, 'Oh I can do 5,000 while I'm listening to Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me,'" she says. "And that's how I've always gauged it."
But Miller, who started in earnest with her 46 million turkey project in February, soon realized that the numbers were not working in her favor. She'd never be able to reach her goal in her lifetime. Not without some help.
So she created a Web site, reached out to animal advocacy groups and established some ground rules: "You can't represent a dead turkey. So your turkey has to be living, represent them with dignity and no animal products. No feathers. No wool."
Another important rule: The turkey portraits, no matter what the medium, cannot be larger than 2-by-2 inches - very small because Miller wants to limit the number of boxes to store the artwork. Since February, she's received tens of thousands of submissions from as far away as England, Ireland and Germany, and in a variety of forms, including turkey portraits made with crochet or cross stitch, painted on small canvasses, even fashioned into jewelry.
And often, included with the art work is a letter.
"I get letters from vegans who say how hard this time is for them, and it's so great to have something fun to participate in," she says. "This is from Chelsea from California and it says, 'Thank you for your dedication and compassion towards the most misunderstood animals on the planet.'"
Susan Sharon: "Do you think that the turkey is the most misunderstood animal on the planet?"
Cheryl Miller: "I think rats are the most misunderstood animals on the planet - and they are another passion of mine."
Susan Sharon: "When you get this one done would you maybe undertake one for the rat?"
Cheryl Miller: "Totally."
Cheryl Miller is not planning to make any money from the effort, which she estimates will take five years to complete. This week some of the work is on display at the Harlow Gallery in Hallowell. Miller has planned a special Saturday reception featuring Tofurky sandwiches and other vegan fare.
And on Thanksgiving day, for the 16th year in a row, she'll be painting her annual turkey portrait. This year's inspiration is a turkey named Fiona who lives on a farm sanctuary in Penobscot, Maine.
Learn more about the 46 million turkey project.
Photos: Susan Sharon