How a Single Visit to University Settlement Inspired an Artist’s Life

Sep 22, 2016 |

Lilli Miller - Blog - Bigger

Lilli Miller's life changed when she visited University Settlement for the first time. It was 1928, and she was 6 years old.

Lilli lived a few blocks away on the Lower East Side where her neighborhood, crammed with tenements and crime, had few playgrounds. She struggled to receive attention in a home so overcrowded that five children slept in one bed; she had no toys. She discovered at University Settlement an oasis of artistic activities and a community that she could fully take part in. It exhilarated her.

"I'd come home from school, put my books down, and run to University Settlement," remembers Lilli. "I was totally happy there."

She participated as fully as she could in every activity as often as possible. She learned to dance and hand-craft pottery. She studied cello with the director's wife and acted in Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet productions with other children. "I was just so happy to find these ways of doing and being," says Lilli. 

She recalls a fleeting instant at a dance performance that nurtured her self-esteem and fostered a larger understanding of life's potential. "I had a little moment of just leaping across the gym and I heard a gasp – and I never forgot that. What it meant to me was that they had noticed me. It was thrilling," says Lilli.

But the responsibilities of adulthood beckoned as she turned 15. She took a job on an assembly line to help her family pay rent, but thought, "This can't be the rest of my life."

Lilli quit – she'd learned at University Settlement that life offered so much more.

Instead, she earned a dance scholarship where she impressed a well-known choreographer and danced professionally for 13 years. Later, Lilli took up hand-crafting pottery and avidly honed a technique she learned with US. She began to study cello again at 60, having left it behind so many years earlier.

"All the things that I became involved with in my later life – the roots were started at University Settlement," says Lilli.

The 95-year old artist has never stopped engaging with the activities she learned with us. She premiered an exhibit of pottery at Greenwich House's Jane Hartsook Gallery this month where a packed house of admirers filed in to congratulate her for her gorgeous work.

"There is really nothing more affirming than Lilli's story – affirming of the human spirit, the power of art and human connection, and the continuing mission of University Settlement," says US Executive Director Melissa Aase.

Lilli continues to cherish her time with US. She can still sing our summer camp song and name her teachers, including the white-haired pottery teacher Ms. Miller and the wonderful dancer Ms. Blecker, who inspired her life's work. "I grew up, but I never forgot the settlement house."


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