Q+Art: Artist Mills Brown Unravels Memory and Mythology in the American South
Painter Mills Brown grew up in the Deep South. Born and raised in South Carolina, the artist uses her geographical background to expose the dark underbelly of memory, tradition, and the idyllic. Influenced by Southern Gothic fiction, her mixed-media works unravel the mythical narratives of the region by holding their fragments up to the light.
With a background in English and art history, Brown expertly translates Southern Gothic literary themes into visual poetry. She uses vinyl paint, translucent acrylic washes, and collaged family photographs to chronicle the slow decay of both personal memory and cultural foundations in the American South. “Among themes of family estrangement, the supernatural, decay, and racial injustice, the Southern Gothic genre illuminates the pressures of the past upon the present,” Brown writes in her artist statement. Like Brown, prominent writers in the genre—Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor—lay bare societal problems by delving into the dark romance of personal misfortune and memory.
Brown reconstructs her own memories by referencing family photographs, piecing together bright rooms with decorative textiles, vintage furniture, and ghostly figures from her past. “While I seek to capture a certain warmth and intimacy in these spaces, I also bring a critical eye to the myths of my childhood,” Brown writes. “As I create order in each composition, I consider how I might re-order the personal histories within.” Her use of decorative pattern captures a honeyed nostalgia for domestic refuge, family legacy, and cultural tradition. At the same time, Brown is eager to point out cracks in the foundation of our most comforting memories and customs.
Brown’s work, in keeping with the Southern Gothic genre, is characterized by contrast. Seething intentions behind pleasantries, unsavory thoughts sketched in flowery prose, the gradual decay of our brightest memories and most revered mythologies. In creating two conflicting narratives, Brown asks an important question: How well do we really know the past—and whose version do we believe most?
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Mills Brown discusses finding her own visual language, welcoming the creative muse in anxious times, and staking her claim in the “world of art.”
Which books, fiction or nonfiction, belong on every artist’s shelf?
Mills Brown: As an artist, I really benefited from reading The Ways of Seeing by John Berger and Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. But generally, since I read it last year, the first book I recommend to everyone is If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin. This novel absolutely broke my heart open then put it back together again. Let’s make Baldwin required reading in every American high school!
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
MB: I would love to eat dinner with the infamously reclusive Sally Mann. Another book I loved recently was her memoir, Hold Still. In my dinner fantasy, she invites me over to her farm in Lexington, Virginia, and I pick her brain for hours about process, family, the Southern landscape, the controversy around her work, and the art world.
What are you trying to express with your art?
MB: I want to express my experience of life in a full and particular way, with the hopes that it might make another feel seen, or be unexpectedly relatable to someone with an entirely different experience.
Do you prefer New York- or Chicago-style pizza?
MB: I’m from South Carolina and we don’t really pick sides in this debate. I eat it all!
What person has most influenced your work?
MB: It feels impossible for me to name just one person. My work is heavily influenced by my family—I work with a desire to unearth history about my ancestors and to recreate memories and stories from a collective family consciousness, in hopes of capturing something about the American South. I have also gone through periods of being heavily influenced by other artists or authors, including Henri Matisse and Jacob Lawrence for their painting, and Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami, James Baldwin, William Faulkner for their writing. In all of these influences, I’m enamored by the artist’s ability to build a world that is fully original yet surprisingly familiar.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
MB: There’s the “art world” and then there’s the “world of art.” Stake your claim in the world of art. That world is for the soul—or something like that. It was the refrain of one of my favorite professors.
Is a formal arts education worth the money?
MB: Can I get back to you once I finish paying off my student loans? Ha, I’m kidding—kind of. Graduate school was really transformational for me; I got my MFA right out of college, after getting a BA from a liberal arts school, which I loved, but which did not offer a formal artist education. I was 22 years old and 100 percent sure of my decision to continue on with a formal degree in art.
My work changed drastically, I learned so much about creating a life as a professional artist, and I met a wonderful art community. But, looking back, I was so young, and I do wonder what my career would have been if I had waited on the MFA. I see so many artists absolutely killing it without the formal education and the so-often accompanying weight of debt. Obviously, an MFA is often outrageously overpriced. For me, I can see how it’s benefitted my life, but I do still wonder if it’s necessary. Maybe mine is one of those “grass is always greener” answers. I am still torn on this one.
What is one thing you would like to change about the art world?
MB: I wish the art world was less New-York centric, less white, and less male (or just more everywhere/everyone else).
Would you rather be a historically significant or commercially successful artist?
MB: Wow, hitting with the hard questions! I think I have to choose historically significant. To me, that would mean that my work has shone a light on something true about our society or my current subject, the American South. Finding the visual language to look into the culture and expose something true about it is an ambitious goal for any artist. But it also feels closer to the driving force that will keep me curious and invested in painting throughout a lifetime. I don’t believe that a drive for commercial success/money could keep me in the studio for decades.
What are you listening to in the studio right now?
MB: I listen to a lot of podcasts and audiobooks in the studio. I just finished The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett and really enjoyed that one. Favorite podcasts are The Daily, You’re Wrong About, The New Yorker: Writer’s Voice, Stuff You Should Know, Dark Net Diaries, The Drop Out, Nice White Parents, Reply All, anything with Esther Perel.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your practice?
MB: When lockdown began last year, I struggled with a difficult creative block for the first few months. I just could. Not. Paint. Like many, I was constantly worried about the pandemic and feeling stuck and sad at home. Finally, after four-five months, some muse came back to me and I have been regularly painting again since.
Many of the things I did during the pandemic to fill my time while I avoided the studio (reading fiction, doing research into my ancestry online, emailing with distant relatives to ask for their photos) have been driving my new work. Some of my other pandemic hobbies (playing Sims for hours and getting on TikTok) have not been so fruitful. Still, the whole year has been a good lesson for me. I’ve learned that a long period of rest can be an integral part of the creative process. And also, I've learned not to pressure myself to be productive when the whole world is anxious, isolated, and grieving.
How do you think the coronavirus pandemic will impact the art world in the long term?
MB: I hope we will have new studio spaces and gallery spaces to inhabit, once many companies decide that they can keep their employees working from home! I also think that virtual art exhibitions might continue to be a new normal. I hope we will continue some Zoom artist talks; I enjoy watching them from the couch after a long week. And I’m curiously watching to see what’s happening with digital art and NFTs.
This article has been edited for content and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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