Interiors Artist Talk

April, 2019

Installation shot of Interiors. Latela Curatorial, Washington DC. April 2019. Photo by Peter Gonzalez.

Ornamentation and Patterns

I think that the best entryway into my work is my aesthetic interest in ornamentation and pattern. This was really my entryway into making art. My earliest works show a very compartmentalized, stained-glass-esque style of painting and drawing. My dad is an architect, and I grew up accompanying him to sites and admiring blueprints. Geometric and architectural motifs have been finding their way into my work for a while now. My greatest resource to nurture this early love of ornamentation was the book 1,100 Designs and Motifs from Historic Sources. I pored over its pages, admiring patterns from Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Renaissance, Rococo, Persian, Tibetan, and Art Deco periods.

Mills Brown, Garden. 2012. Acrylic on canvas. 36x36 inches.

Since then, I’ve become increasingly more intentional and specific with the patterns I’m sourcing. From 2015-17 I attended American University to earn an MFA in Studio Art. Perhaps my most significant discovery in grad school was using collage as a solution to the problem of specificity. I shifted my practice from flipping through art history books and transferring decorative images by hand into painting — to flipping through magazines and ripping pages right out to be used directly in the work. I found the immediacy of collage to be wonderfully freeing and refreshing. Even as I’ve returned to painting and drawing, I began to think of collage as my foundational medium.

Home and Nostalgia

After the ornamental patterns that first connect these works visually, there is a reverence for domestic space that finds a way into each piece. I am looking at a few artists who also show an interest in capturing the warmth of intimate spaces. Lately I particularly love contemporary artists Becky Suss, Ann Toebbe, and Jonas Wood - and of course Matisse’s studio paintings.

Henri Mattise, The Pink Studio, 1911.

The idea of home has been an area of interest for a while, but lately it’s transformed into an investigation of nostalgia. This is a concept that I feel a lot of conflict around, so I want to explore my experience of its dual nature. On one hand, I find beauty in the details of these lived-in spaces and mystery in the memory of them. In 526 Edisto Drive, a past home is lovingly embellished, given a pretty glow. This piece began with photos of my childhood home which I then manipulated digitally, enlarging spaces through mirroring, distorting perspectives, and enhancing colors to a neon glow. The semi-symmetrical pyramid becomes something much more like a memorial than a true representation of home. This act of memorializing the past assumes a longing for it, bringing a wistfulness and melancholy to the work.

Mills Brown, 526 Edisto Drive. 2015. Collage on canvas. 36x48 inches.

At the same time, there is so much joy for me in remembering the freedom of childhood. I’m particularly enamored by the child’s ability to live with one foot in reality and one in total imagination. If this experience is a little hazy in my own memory, I get to see it daily as a teacher of 3-5 year-olds. I think often about the difficulty of these children’s realities; they are being asked to perform at their highest abilities all day, and they are constantly failing and being reminded again. Things like walking safely, keeping the bathroom clean, staying still while chewing— even just closing their eyes to nap — can be an emotional and dramatic ordeal. I think that too often, we adults consider ourselves to have the difficult realities, while children are lucky to have a more simple existence. What they do have that we’ve lost, though, is this world of pretend just on the edge of their vision. In works like Outpost and Fort in the Woods, I want to recapture this act of effortlessly slipping into the imaginary. 526 Edisto Drive similarly hosts light and airy spaces, empty rooms that ask to be explored.

Mills Brown, Outpost. 2019. Acrylic and collage on canvas. 24x24 inches

Another Side of Nostalgia

While I embrace this specific use of nostalgia in these works, and recognize it as an emotion within me, I am also quite wary of it. I grew up in South Carolina, and after living in a few other places, I’ve become very interested in turning back to investigate this place that raised me. One observation I’ve landed on is that in the South we like to romanticize things. And this is the polite way to put it. Because, of course, we are also very polite. This politeness asks us to avoid confrontation; to not make our listener uncomfortable with any painful truths. It allows for a dangerous kind of glossing over to occur.

I see many people from home expressing their longing for the ‘tradition’ and ‘simpler times’ of the ‘Old South.’ They ignore the blatant injustices this scene evokes. Or worse, they accept it. We love our landscape and take pride in it, and yet we don’t talk about the traumatic history of slavery that haunts it, or the structural racism that still pervades. Women are routinely taught to stay silent, in subtle and glaring ways. While the Me Too Movement powerfully unleashed many women’s stories, it also shined a light on the decades of repression and glossing over that got us to this point. Of course these aren’t only southern problems. We’ve all seen nostalgia on a national level being used in the insidious MAGA campaign. Truths of the violent past are veiled. To me this is the epitome of nostalgia’s current danger.

My work does not consider these issues in an obvious way (though I am constantly drawing these connections). The pieces are still about personal histories and intimate spaces. They maintain this politeness and prettiness that I’m investigating. But within this domestic sphere, they are also about revealing injustice, and traumatic histories that have been uncovered within my own family. In unearthing these stories, I’ve had to face the idea that my personal narrative might not be trustworthy. Over and over again I’ve wanted to start the process from scratch, examine each photo and memory with a different scrutiny.

Mills Brown, Sandpiper. 2019. Digital collage print on canvas. 12x12 inches.

I confront the ideas of veiling the past through camouflaged figures who disappear into their wallpapered environments. Any sense of intimacy that is conjured by the nostalgic patterns is threatened by vines, flowers, shapes and lines that overtake the frame. The digital collage Sandpiper is derived from a photo of my young sister collecting shells on the beach, but with the delicate floral overlay, she becomes an unsettling ghostly figure on the verge of disappearing. Dress Up is also based photo of my brother and me at ages 4 and 6, dressed up in funny face disguises. We are consumed by the floral wallpaper from our childhood kitchen. I was interested to hear the feedback that many viewers read these figures as two elderly people. With the loss of the photo’s original context, our identities are lost.

Mills Brown, Dress Up. 2019. Acrylic and ink on canvas. 24x30 inches.

The ornamentation that in other works has been used to decorate now becomes something more ominous. In my artist statement I wrote about the figures: “it is unclear whether they wish to emerge or recede. This ambiguity is meant to reflect my hesitation around nostalgia, which often shows an incomplete picture of the past.” So far, this is the most concise way I can describe the tension I am after in these works. I really like imagining these figures as having some agency in their veiled position. I want to leave the choice to them: come forward or stay hidden.

Mills Brown, Green Wallpaper. 2019. Acrylic and ink on wood panel. 24x24 inches.


A final important theme addressed here, which I’ve touched on throughout the talk, is the act of collecting. This is the first step in my process, whether I’m making an actual assemblage, or mining through photos to create a composition for a painting. Collections is a mixed media installation of just that: boxes and jars of trinkets that I’ve found and kept with me. In my studio I collect and compartmentalize materials in much the same way. I continue to explore the dual nature of nostalgia within this installation. In many of these boxes I’ve taken remnants of once-living things and presented them as I like, consequently being untruthful to their existences. I want to recognize the danger of this removal of context, while still following the impulse to build a pretty and safe space.

Mills with Collections installation. Latela Curatorial, Washington DC. Image by Peter Gonzalez. April 2019.