Generational gifts: Mills talk love of art, continuing tradition

By Lynette George
For the Herald Democrat
Chuck Mills’ mother, able to use only her left hand, carved this urn  in her own likeness by looking in a mirror.

COLLINSVILLE - Family traditions are the golden threads that bind a family together for generations no matter how far apart they may be literally and figuratively. Family genes do much the same thing, not only factoring into bodily features, strengths and weaknesses, but also mental abilities and areas of interests. For the Mills family of Collinsville, both play a big role, especially when it comes to their shared love of art.

Chuck Mills grins from ear-to-ear as he and his adult daughters, Christy Mills and Carrie Mills, talk about their own and their family’s artistic interests and talents which span at least three generations. At times, the lively threesome get so excited and enthusiastic, they all speak at once, creating a whimsical bedlam that is as diverse and colorful as their artistic leanings. Making their individual and joint artistic endeavors even more special is that they’ve all done it for the purest of reasons - the simple joy of creating something of beauty.   

Chuck Mills works on a carving project in his well-equipped shop.
One of Chuck Mills’ projects in progress - carving a hilt for a knife.

Chuck Mills’ father, Charles Mills Sr., was a sculptor. His mother, Patricia Ann Ailey, was a writer and a sculptor.

“My grandpa Mills had a big, old ‘huddle club’ in Fayetteville, Arkansas that was a real popular razorback football hangout,” said Chuck Mills. “My dad made a big miniature golf course right there by the huddle club then built a mobile home park up the mountain and that’s what he got by on. He did his artwork (sculpting) while he watched the ticket booth. He sculpted wood and made furniture, chairs and even thrones out of one whole piece of a tree. He had a big, hollowed out one that he put a lambskin seat in so you could sit there and hold your beer. He also made some Bowie knives using antlers and wood that would blow your mind.”

Besides sculpting, Charles Mills Sr. had other creative talents, but his good-natured sharing of his ideas resulted in others making a fortune which should rightfully have gone to him, said Chuck Mills.

“My dad actually invented the first iron-on transfers and pull-out awnings for campers, but he didn’t patent them,” said Mills. “He showed his ideas to other people - even drew out the plans - and those people went on to patent  those plans and produce them and made millions!

Chuck Mills’ mother began her artistic works at a young age.

Part of a large, Native American carving by Chuck Mills.
This unique piece of art was made by Chuck Mills’ father out of a downed tree.

“She (Patricia Ann Ailey) wrote a play when she was like 12 years old and she was recognized for is in the newspaper in New York City. She also wrote little mini-stories and stuff,” explained Christy Mills.

Later in life, Ailey had a stroke which paralyzed her right side. She taught her self to paint and sculpt using her left hand.

“She even sculpted her own likeness for an urn for her ashes,” said Chuck Mills. “She did it by looking in a mirror.”

Christy Mills added, “She was always so mad because, since she had to look in the mirror to sculpt herself, everything was reversed, she got the mole on her face on the wrong side of her face (in the sculpture)."

This Native American carving is one of the many artistic projects being completed by Chuck Mills.

That sculpture now sits in a place of honor in Chuck Mills’ home as do numerous other sculpted pieces and paintings created by his parents, as well as his own sculpting artwork in wood and clay.

Chuck Mills, a retired oil field worker just like his grandpa Ailey, was born in Chickasha, Oklahoma but moved to Gainesville with his mother when he as about 4 years old after his parents divorced.They later moved to Whitesboro where he and his brother attended school. There, the Mills brothers began showing their own artistic leanings. For Chuck Mills, it was sometimes in a mischievous way.

“My brother was a good cartoonist,” said Chuck Mills. “But I drew military-like cartoon pictures of the school principal and would put them up on the school walls. They knew I did it but couldn’t prove it. The principal was trying to get me to quit school, but I was the head honcho of the Whitesboro High School Rebels. He tried to bust me all the time (for the cartoon drawings), saying he knew it was me, but I’d say. ‘I wouldn’t do anything that militant.’ Then, as soon as he’d go back into his office, I’d have another poster drawn and go throw it up on the wall. The principal had a big file of my cartoons and I sure wish I had them now."

Chuck Mills said he’s also been “piddling” with carving and sculpting wood, antlers and clay for decades. He made his first knife hilt at about age 15 and he’s been carving and sculpting every since.

Making jewelry pieces from metals, natural stones and gemstones, often gleaned from old, unwanted jewelry, is a favorite artistic endeavor by Christy Mills.

“I started with a knife and then got a small palm carving set,” said Chuck Mills. “Then, I had a friend who had a Henry Taylor wood carving set that she only used two tools out of. I bugged her for 20 years to sell me that set and she finally did for $50. After I got it, I thought, ‘Ooooh. This is fun!’ I also start sculpting out of clay when I was young. We’d be at a party and I’d make something (out of clay). Everybody would be going ‘Oh! That’s so cool!’ Then I’d just crush it in front of them. I denied the fact I was any good."

But “good” he is. Chuck Mills’ workshop is filled to the brim with tools for carving and sculpting, some of which were his father’s, along with his many projects ranging from stunning knife and sword hilts, a large, eye-catching sea serpent or dragon, whichever suits one’s fancy, and even an painstakingly carved Native-American piece. In addition to the tools and equipment he regularly uses, the resourceful man has also accumulated the things he needs to create other art forms he’s interested in. Wanting to learn to make knife and sword blades at some point, along with other metal art, Mills has all the grinding and polishing equipment needed, along with an actual forge, plus there’s a ceramic turntable and a kiln waiting to be used.

“I’m still expanding my artistic endeavors and I guess I will until I die,” said Chuck Mills.

“I love carving and sculpting. I even thought about making a living with it, but I’m such a fiddler. My problem is finishing stuff,” said added Mills who followed that statement with a big laugh. That laugh was shared by his daughters who well know about their father’s propensity for not always completing his artwork.

Christy Mills lightheartedly lamented about her father’s tendency to jump from one art piece to another, not finishing many.

“I tried to get him to go in with me and set up a booth to maybe sell our artwork,” said Christy Mills. "The problem is he just couldn’t stay with it. He’d go on a lunch break and be gone two hours!”

Quilling artwork by Carrie Mills of Collinsville.

For Carrie and Christy Mills, it wasn’t just their father and his family who led to their love of art. Their mother, Bertha Louise (Roberts) Mills, was always drawing pictures and “doodling” when the girls were growing up and their grandmother, Bertie (Cox) Roberts, crocheted, quilted and made clothing.

“When we were little, we’d see all this amazing stuff that our grandparents and our dad were making and we got it into our head that we couldn’t do it (artwork) that good, so what was the point. It was kind of like watching Bob Ross. He was amazing,..It was awesome to see what our parents and grandparents could do, but we didn’t think we could ever do that.”

Carrie Mills said she sewed and quilted with her grandmother when she was younger. Both sisters started working with clay when they were young and both have written poems, but didn’t find their true artistic niches until they were well into adulthood.

“I like quilting and really enjoyed sewing. Those were things I could do with Nannie,” said Carrie Mills, “But I didn’t find my true passion until like two years ago and that’s quilling. It’s literally folding and wrapping tiny, little strips of paper and molding, pinching and folding them into designs. You put tiny little dots of glue on it and can glue individual pieces together or onto whatever platform you may be using. You can even make little objects with quilting. I love tedious stuff!”

Carrie Mills is especially fond of this piece of art she created from quilling.

Chuck Mills adds with more than a hint of pride, “She’s really good at quilting. I have a quilt from her!”

Christy Mills laughed at her early attempts at sculpting. “I made this mermaid. She was sitting on a rock and had long hair. Grandma was like, ‘Why did you put seashells on her breasts? Mermaids do not have seashells on their breasts!’ I wasn’t going to make a booby mermaid!"

She discovered her true artistic interested at a local festival.

“I took Christy to a lavender fest in Woodbine a few years ago,” recalled Chuck Mills. “We met a guy that was wire-wrapping jewelry with silver. We just sat there and talked to him. Christy picked it up that same day and has been at it every since. She’s dang good and getting better at it. She made me a tree for my birthday!”

Christy Mills added, “It’s something I knew I wanted to do!”

For her jewelry and other artwork, Christy Mills uses copper, silver, beads - recycled whenever possible - natural stones and other items.

Both sisters said they’re still honing skills in their chosen fields of art, now realizing that they can and will continue their family’s legacy of unique artwork. They also continue the legacy of not making a living with it, but, instead, sharing it with family, friends and anyone who happens to see it.

One of Carrie Mills’ quilling pieces. Quilling is the art of folding and shaping tiny pieces of paper.

"It must run in the family. Like grandpa, he made some money off of it, but it wasn’t a consistent thing. We make everything for friends and family,” said Christy Mills.

Like all fathers should be, Chuck Mills can’t contain his love for and pride in his two daughters artwork.

"I love it, man! It makes me swell (with pride) watching them do artwork. It’s a family  tradition. And they’re better than I am about getting things done,” said Chuck Mills.

The three of them recently joined forces to create a memorial urn where the ashes of a much-loved aunt will rest. The piece, made out of one of Chuck Mills favorite woods - manzanita root, featured a lily, the aunt’s favorite flower, made out of manzanita and copper. It was a project all three say they treasure.

“It was real important. We had to have a special place for her ashes,” explained Chuck Mills.

So, do genetics and tradition really play significant roles in families? Indeed they do. The Mills family is living proof.

This lively pumpkin is quilling design created by Carrie Mills of Collinsville.