Rick Mills Essay

Rick Mills Essay

Rick Mills
Spring 2004 Fellow

“Glass has that transcendent property that goes from immaterial to material; from spiritual to physical. Deep in our paleolithic or neolithic mind is the quest for making something intangible or spiritual visible. Glass helps the viewer engage in a similar poetic inquiry.” These are the thoughts of Rick Mills, a second-time Resident Fellow at the Creative Glass Center of America in Spring, 2004. Perhaps it was an intuitive groping for these truths that first attracted Mills to glass. Perhaps it was a predisposition inherited from a great great uncle who was a glass-maker around 1680. Historically, the decisive even occurred when a graduate student at Ohio State University invited the undergraduate Mills to assist him in the hot shop. There was no salary; just the opportunity to learn and the gift of a collaborative piece at the end of the semester. However, the experience led Mills to change his focus from welded steel and cast bronze to sculpture which may incorporate a variety of materials but virtually always includes glass.

Now an internationally recognized sculptor and Professor of Art at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Mills was a Resident Fellow at the CGCA in 1986 “fresh out of grad school” (MFA, University of Hawaii). Glass challenges an artist to invest it with something beyond its innate beauty he says. In the studio, Mills particularly values “the sense of cooperation and camaraderie” that comes from working with others, the “alchemical magic of fire” which he relates to the volcanic activity familiar to Hawaiians, and the serendipity of dealing with a material while it is in flux.

Mills is a thinker, a ruminator, who analyzes and develops ideas over time, looking at them from different perspectives. Similarly, he tends to visually “think” in groups of work which are interconnected formally and conceptually. Although the thematic material in his work is consistent, it does not yield a simple sign system of the A=b order. Mills’ description of his “Vestige” series as “ancient archaeological ambers” works metaphorically but it’s evidentially contradictory. The fossilized resin amber preserves prehistoric insects and plants life in its translucent depths. Within Mills’ “Vestiges,” traces of human life are embedded: tantalizingly visible; yet obscured. The simple, sometimes fractured, tooth-shaped exteriors might almost have occurred naturally, like stalagmites. “They take on a gestalt, more than one identity. It’s the idea of mystery, inquiry.”

Floating or resting near the base of each “Vestige” a human head or skull is accompanied by artifacts, like the fragmentary remains of a burial. These records of human culture, perhaps not coincidentally also represent an encyclopedia of glass-manipulating techniques: a suggestion perhaps that glass technology itself is emblematic of civilization. Some elements were worked on a blow pipe; others, cast. Multi-colored, patterned areas were assembled from sliced cane. The unpredictable reflectivity of layered glass and various inclusions in the vitreous mass distorts what may be seen. The whole is a metaphor for the richness of cultural—of human possibility, suspended in time and fossilized, long extinct.

The largest work in this series is 54” high. Casting such large and complex objects is a challenge. Mills estimates the failure rate at 50%. He mounts each monolith on a metal base, almost like an enormous jewel in a bezel. However, each base contains a tiny drawer, a place where something “contemporary” might be stored. Could it also be an ironic reminder that glass is often the material of vessels?

The more recent “Midden Series” makes similar archaeological references. Originally a midden was a dung heap. Today, it might be any container of waste. Archaeologists delight in finding the layered refuse of kitchens and latrines, including broken glass and pottery vessels, and other detritus of human life. Consigned to a midden, literal garbage over the centuries is transformed into a magical journal of human daily life. Mills depicts middens as collection buckets: tall, narrow, and composed of stacked cylinders suggesting the drums of columns, as well as layers of excavation. The seven foot tall translucent, slightly irregular tubes are stacked, mold-blown sections. Mills sandblasts the surfaces and patinas them with graphite, allowing him to have direct rather painterly contact with the work. Each has a fragile handle of glass. It looks like a bucket, yet the height and leaning gesture of each column suggests the vertical human figure. The clustering of middens on a rectangular base might remind us of Rodin’sBurghers of Calais or of a grove of tree trunks. Mills’ title Midden Maiden reminds us that Greek columns were proportioned like the human figure. Folds in a woman’s chiton are represented in the flutes of an Ionic column.

“Seed Forms” connect in a different way to the “Vestiges.” These simple shapes contain multicolored inclusions, more abstract and veil-like than those in the “Vestiges” and more varied in profile. Each “Seed Form” is distinguished by a curling sprout-like extension, an elaborately patterned spiral reminiscent of a fiddlehead fern (which in turn resembles the head of a violin another emblem of human culture). The intricate patterning, compressed at the base and expanding toward the coiled tip succinctly suggests life’s magical potential for unfurling an infinitude of detail. Plants are obvious referents, but a kind of consciousness, a sentience, can be inferred. The bronze bases resemble those of the “Vestiges.” Each tiny drawer contains a fingerprint: its intricate and unique whorls and arches linked to those in the biomorphic “Seed Form” itself.

Mills has also made many long-legged metal and glass works. The asymmetrical taller-than-a-person “Walking Sticks” resemble bent, emaciated metal figures with contrastingly globular glass heads. They may not be human but they seem weighted down by consciousness, by thought, or by memory. As in the “Seed Forms” the line between human and plant blurs.

In the“Vanitas” series, large brilliantly-colored droplet-shaped (perhaps sperm-like) blown glass lidded jars are mounted in tall stands with thin prong-shaped legs. The design of container and support is clearly linked to ancient Greek olive oil storage vessels—yet another archaeological reference. Attenuated arching, whip-like necks, handles on the lids of the vessels, resemble sprouted plants (more mature than the “Seed Forms”). Mills arranges them in conversational groups, once more hinting at sentience.

At CGCA, Mills planned to continue his “Midden” series by moving from the gray graphite-coated surface to more intense color as well as more complex bales (handles). He also planned to sand cast three crates, using real shipping crates he found behind the glass house at Wheaton. This exploration of form might make its way into an installation. Mills has a Buddhist slant “an on-going discussion about transportation and transmutation; emptiness and fullness. I’m not sure where this is going,” he commented, adding “They’re friendly crates—people size.” It was not clear whether he might intend a cryptic reference to the so-called “Greater” and “Lesser” vehicles of Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhism. Mayahana, sometimes called the “Great raft,” emphasizes the role of compassion in human relationships.

Mills feels its important to challenge himself with new concepts, moving beyond successful series of the past. “They got too acquirable. I feel a responsibility for being on the cutting edge. When things sell too quickly I feel a little guilty.” In exploring new avenues, he is “fortunate to come [to Wheaton]. The price of experimentation is invaluable.”