By Frances Figart
An astrologer once told Scott Mills that his chart said he was a helper of small animals. It’s true.
“My wife and I rescue dogs and cats and have a full house as far as pets are concerned,” he says. “They constantly influence my work with their quirky personalities.”
Fictional animals play a huge role in Mills’ work, which he mostly creates in a small home studio in Bent Creek. The NC Arboretum is located behind the home he shares with his wife, Becca, a Waldorf preschool teacher, and two children, Ruby, 11, and Banyan, seven.
Both a performing musician and an artist, Mills travels a lot. I caught up with him recently at Woolworth Walk in downtown Asheville, where he has a cozy exhibit booth in the swanky basement section.
Frances: How did you first become interested in nature and animals?
Scott: As long as I can remember I have had a love of animals and discovering the natural world. I spent most of my time outdoors as a child and my family did a lot of camping.
One of my earliest memories is of a tree my family had behind our house in Michigan. I used to play under it and over the years watched it through the changes of the seasons. Now I can see that I had a relationship of a sort with that tree. My memories of it in full bloom in spring have stuck with me all these years.
Frances: What were your early influences and forms of creative expression?
Scott: My dad played drums and accordion and my Mom studied art in college. I became interested in art at a very young age, but was more focused on playing music. I started piano at seven years old and then tenor saxophone when I was ten. (I’ve also been playing the guitar for over 20 years now.)
I did not discover my interest in visual arts until high school. I had several teachers of music and visual arts that helped give me confidence to keep exploring and finding myself in the arts.
Frances: What was the sequence of events through which you became a professional artist?
Scott: When I was at Clemson, I started taking long walks through the woods and parks. I gradually started to sense that there was so much more to the world than what I knew and thought about it—an intelligence in nature that was beyond what I could understand. I would look at the color of a leaf and realize that my mind was constantly labeling objects in the world, “this is a leaf, it is green,” but saw that our experience in the moment is actually a wordless experience.
Seeing deeper into nature reorganized my worldview and showed me that we are surrounded by mystery. This compelled me to start to find ways to express what I was experiencing through art.
After college I hiked the Appalachian Trail, which further opened my mind to the wonders of nature. It was a life changing experience for me. I started practicing yoga and met my wife in a yoga class that I was teaching. I supplemented my income with social work as well as music. One day in my mid-20s I built a few art panels and decided to try painting with acrylic paint. I had only used watercolors up to that point, but I was hooked.
It took many years of exploring and figuring out what I was passionate about until I started to feel like I had something special to offer the world. Something that felt like me, but spoke of something that was beyond myself as well. It was really a gradual process of realizing that art was going to be an immense part of my life.
Frances: There is a lot going on in each of your works. Can you talk a bit about how that depth develops for you?
Scott: I am interested in the concept of symbiosis where different organisms work together to benefit each other. My characters are often in the midst of some kind of process like this where they are half plant, half animal.
Transformation also plays a big part in my work. In “After a Very Very Long Nap” the bear is gigantic with a forest on his head. On one level it could be seen as a cute story. On another level I am portraying how the forces of nature can change things in an instant.
Frances: Your work reminds me of kids’ films that also have a lot to offer adults. Do you have an audience or age group in mind while you are creating?
Scott: I definitely draw from a childlike state of mind when I work, but I never think about who might like it in the end. I am mostly interested in an authentic expression when I paint, and I think that children as well as adults can relate to that unedited expression in the work.
I am very much a fan of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, which seem to engage any age group, yet his work comes from a very innocent, childlike, open-minded place. In the end I think that the state of mind we call “childlike” is actually our natural state when we are in tune with the world.
My children homeschool so they are often present while I am painting. They will see something that I completely overlooked and offer helpful ideas. I take them seriously because I want them to have confidence in their own ideas and creativity, and also because their ideas often fit right in with the feeling of a piece.
Frances: What is the process? How do you actually create?
Scott: I often start a piece without an idea in mind. I throw and move paint around on the surface and create a backdrop or environment. I will use rags to smear and lift paint off. I will then look for patterns and shapes in the marks I make to generate the painting. The characters and animals literally grow out of the background. I think this is why the characters in my paintings often seem like they could walk right out of the canvas.
Frances: How does it feel to talk to folks who enjoy your paintings?
Scott: I love to connect with people who are interested in my work. It makes it so much more meaningful when I know that my work is providing a service in the world. I try to live by the Frederick Buechner quote: “To find your calling is to find the intersection between your own deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger.”
One lady told me that her safe place in her imagination when she was young was in a forest on top of a bear’s head. She found my art online and said she almost fell over when she saw the bear in my piece “After a Very Very Long Nap.”
Frances: What hopes and dreams do you have for your art going forward?
Scott: I hope that my work helps to bring awareness to the dire situation that many animals find themselves in throughout the world. I hope it promotes kindness and responsible treatment of the earth we live on.
Scott Mills currently shows his work locally at Woolworth Walk and ZaPow Gallery. He will be one of several artists in an August show in Los Angeles at La Luz de Jesus Gallery. Find his work online at scottmillsart.com and on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @scottmillsart.