Artist and educator creates ‘second life’ online


Niela Miller and her avatar “Marly Milena”

Photo/Valerie Franchi

By Valerie Franchi, Contributing Writer

Acton resident Niela Miller, 81, is a multi-talented artist, musician, author, life coach and therapist. As if that wasn’t enough for one life, Miller has embarked upon a new adventure, taking her myriad skills online.

In “Second Life,” a virtual 3D program on the Internet, Miller has created a whole new world with her alter-ego or “avatar,” Marly Milena. She uses all aspects of her creativity – photographs, paintings, music, theater improv and movement – as tools for awareness, problem-solving, community building, spiritual development and building cultural bridges.

But when she first heard of “Second Life” in 2007, Miller, like many seniors, was reluctant to approach the new technology.

“I was a serious technophobe,” she explained in a 2010 article in Online Therapy Institute’s TILT Magazine, “afraid of things going wrong on my computer, trouble with remembering how to use electronic devices like recorders, and, in general, intimidated by anything structural or mechanical with moving parts.”

Fortunately, creative curiosity overtook her fear.

“As soon as I heard about Second Life, I got excited and curious since I saw its potential for creative projects of all kinds, for doing teaching and therapy in new ways, for meeting people from all over the world, for finding just about any interest group I could think of, and for having a lot of fun,” Miller noted.

Miller began her creative endeavors as a child when her parents enrolled her in the neighborhood music school in New York City. She attended an arts-focused high school and studied voice, guitar and piano.

She became interested in social work in high school while teaching music at the Lighthouse for the Blind. At Antioch College, she majored in creative arts and theater. She joined the Association for Humanistic Psychology at the end of the 1960s.

“I was hooked by different forms of working with people,” she said, adding that her focus was humanistic psychology rather than psychoanalysis.

“We viewed people as not broken and in need of fixing, but looked at their strengths and how to help them develop their potential,” she explained.

Miller and her then-husband moved to Lexington in 1969 and joined the Associates for Human Resources. She developed awareness workshops and graduate-level courses which she facilitated for years, as well as training to corporations, nonprofits and individuals. There and elsewhere, Miller studied with top therapists, including Fritz Perls, founder of Gestalt therapy and other pioneers of the human potential movement.

She designed and implemented over a thousand workshops in areas of personal and professional development and presented them in learning centers, at conferences, in hospitals and mental health centers.

Among her many accomplishments is her 1995 book, “Counseling in Genderland,” in which she attempts to help counselors who work with the transgender community, two manuals, a self-published book of short stories and poems, and CDs of piano music, choral music and original songs.

She has lived in Acton since 1984 in a house that is equal parts home, art gallery and music studio.

Now, she has combined her artistic and coaching skills into one all-encompassing medium.

“I always wanted to combine arts processes with therapy and coaching,” she said, “and I have developed some original ways of using arts processes for organizational and personal growth.”

In her virtual location, Inspiration Island, Miller has created various spaces for different creative outlets, including the Octagon Studio where visitors can create and hang their digital work.

During her therapeutic sessions, she gathers a group of five to 20 visitors and leads them in a discussion via voice and chat bar. She also hosts classes such as sculpting and storytelling.

“I always wanted to create my own arts process institute,” she said, “and Second Life has allowed me to do it.”

Miller sees great potential in this type of self-exploration.

“I foresee a great use of virtual worlds, particularly Second Life, the most developed of these worlds so far, for healing, therapy, teaching, etc.,” she said. “I am collaborating on programs for whole brain health and for lifelong learning and we are actively recruiting elders for lifelong learning opportunities.”

For seniors, she explained, Second Life allows them to “live fully without any limitations. They can fly, swim underwater, dance – the options are unlimited.”

This applies particularly to those who are disabled, have phobias, can’t afford to travel, can’t drive, or are otherwise limited in their daily activities.

For healthy elders like herself, they can find amazing opportunities for teaching, learning, performing, exhibiting, attending performances, and being in touch with people from many cultures.

In addition to simply providing a new pastime, Second Life can stimulate the imagination, help memory and keep the mind sharp.

“It’s a fun way to keep the brain healthy,” Miller said.

First, however, seniors need to overcome their fear of technology, just as Miller did.

“Second Life can be a bridge to technology,” she said. “They just have to get over their technophobia. Once they do, they will be hooked.”

Joining Second Life is free, as are most groups within it, and Miller said it is easy to create an avatar and start exploring. She is offering to find volunteer mentors to help elders with an orientation for anyone who decides to join Second Life. For more information, visit To learn more about Niela Miller, visit or email