Interview with Payton Miller, Tennessee’s Rock Painter

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    Payton Miller

    You’ve probably seen her work, but do you know much about the person behind the paintings?

    Payton Miller is the artist who’s painted many memorable images on the Rock on the University of Tennessee’s campus over the last two years. From Lil John to Pat Summitt, Payton has covered The Rock with her fair share of iconic imagery.

    I sat down with her and discussed her decision to first paint the Rock, her background, and her future plans.

    For Miller, art has always been a part of her life. But her passion took a step forward in high school.

    “I’ve been drawing things since I was a little kid,” Miller said. “I picked up painting while I was in high school and took a painting class while at Dobyns-Bennett and kept painting. I did some big projects in high school and painted a lot of people for football games.”

    Then came her first Rock painting, and everything has changed since.

    A painting of Lil John and “Third Down For What” was Miller’s first painting back in the fall of 2014. But her first painting wasn’t exactly planned.

    “I never thought about painting the rock before that day,” Miller said of her first Rock painting. “It was 10 o’clock that night and a very spur of the moment decision. I just ordered a pizza and went out there and painted it.”

    Since then, she’s done 14 more paintings and has appeared on local news stations and even the SEC Network. UT’s own president, Joe DiPietro, has even reached out multiple times on Twitter to praise her work. Miller’s artwork has gained her quite a bit of fame in a relatively short time.

    But Miller is more than just a painter. She rode horses in high school and is a biochem major and math minor at UT currently. She had to give up the horse riding because “there just wasn’t enough time to do it once I got to college,” but she wants to eventually get back to that.

    Her paintings, however, are what have gained her tons of notoriety. Miller stated her favorite ones are “probably the Smokey with the checkerboard background and the Stormetrooper one I did earlier this year” out of the fifteen ones she’s done.

    But possibly her most famous one is one of her most recent paintings, a painting that stayed on the rock for longer than any other painting has in recent memory.

    After the passing of Tennessee legend Pat Summitt, Miller went out and painted a tribute to Summitt that stayed on the rock for over a month. But her most famous painting thus far didn’t garner as much attention as some of her previous ones. Why is that? Miller herself has a theory.

    “Pat was definitely the longest one of mine that stayed up there. But people probably reached out to me less on that one to be honest. I think it just goes to show that one was more about Pat than it was me.”

    And as for her future plans for this season? Well, it just depends on what the Vols themselves do.

    Right now, Miller is “putting out some feelers” up in Bristol to try and find a canvas for her to paint on for The Battle at Bristol. “It’s just a stone’s throw away from my house,” said Miller, “so I’m hoping somebody can pull through.” She also noted that she’ll have to “use some innovation” to figure something out if the Vols make it to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.

    Recently, Miller worked with RTI’s own Stephen Kasper at the Hope Gala to honor veterans and help homeless veterans find shelter and care. She did a live painting at the event, and it sold right there at the event.

    Miller also does smaller projects for those who want more personalized items, and she accepts commissions. But she has her limits, saying she won’t paint opposing teams on a mini Rock or anything like that. “I won’t paint the Florida Gators,” Miller protested. “I will do a house divided thing, but that’s as far as I’ll go.”

    When Miller started painting the Rock, she never envisioned the type of reaction her art would get.

    “It just started out as something fun for me,” Miller said, “but it’s been neat that people get excited about it, and that’s what keeps me doing it now.”

    You can expect a few more paintings from Payton Miller this fall, especially if the Vols have the kind of success they’re expected to have. And who knows? Maybe Payton has a few surprises up her sleeves this season herself. Keep an eye out and find out this year.

    Nathanael Rutherford is the managing editor and social media manager for Rocky Top Insider. Nathanael graduated from the University of Tennessee and cultivated a passion for the Vols while growing up in Knoxville a mere 10 minutes from Neyland Stadium. He's been a part of the RTI team since November of 2015 and has been the editor of RTI since June of 2017. If he's not talking or writing about Tennessee athletics, he's probably talking about Star Wars.