East Village Years

       1984-1990

“Priscilla of Wichita”/ Acrylic on canvas/ 35” x 28”

    Collection of James Derham, Collingswood, NJ   

  “The Young and Eager Alchemist” (for John Leslie)/ acrylic on canvas/ 24” x 24”/ 1986

     “Parlor Amusements”/Journal Drawing

“Priscilla of Wichita”/ Acrylic on canvas/ 35.5” x 28”/ 1987

Collection of James Derham, Collingswood, NJ

Firemen’s Memorial Garden on 8th Street, between Avenue’s C & D (1987)



A journal drawing from this period, exploring concepts for a poster and flyer seeking volunteers to assist in laying brick paths in the garden. Brick pathways seemed like one of the most logical and practical ways to utilize the mountains of bricks that were scattered throughout the lot (two large buildings that had once occupied this site had long since been demolished).

Left: ”Darlene”/ acrylic on canvas/ 42” x 26”/ 1988 

Right: ”Padre de Pampaneira”/ acrylic on masonite/ 12” x 12”/ 1989

    “...and I’ve tried so hard to please you!”/ acrylic on canvas/ 27” x 33”/ 1988

   “Aunt Ruth” /acrylic on canvas/ 30” x 20”/ 1987

     The Purple Shoe/ Acrylic on canvas/ 44” x 59”  Collection of Mr. Gene S. Jones, Katonah, NY

     The Bird Lady of North Conduit Avenue / acrylic on canvas / 20” x 26.5”/ 1989

     “Zeubrothka” / acrylic on canvas / 60” x 48”/ 1986

     “Yakamelama”/ Acrylic on canvas/ 37.5” x 39.5”/1989     

Detail: “The Purple Shoe”/ Acrylic on canvas/  44” x 59”

    Detail: “...and I’ve tried so hard to please you!”/ acrylic on canvas/ 27” x 33”/ 1988

Detail: “The Young and Eager Alchemist”/ acrylic on canvas/ 24” x 24”/ 1986

Detail, “Zeubrothka” / acrylic on canvas / 60” x 48”/ 1986

   Details: “Aunt Ruth” /acrylic on canvas/ 30” x 20”/ 1987

Journal Pages/ 1984- 1988

     Journal drawing for “The Bird Lady of North Conduit Avenue” /1987

Detail from “Yakamelama”/ Acrylic on canvas/ 37.5” x 39.5”/1989

Little Darlin’ LaPorte

The inimitable “Alphabet City”/ Lower East Side of Manhattan/ photo circa 1986.

Will with “Zeubrothka” / acrylic on canvas / 60” x 48”/ 1986

“Jewelry Orbit”/watercolor and ink on paper

approximately 9.5” x 6.5”/1980

 

William Arthur Mills

The Storefronts



At the Spring of 1984 my drawing and painting took an unpredictable 180 degree twist. I had recently returned to New York City after a four year adventure of living upstate, eventually settling into a part of town known as “Alphabet City” on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The nearby East Village in the early 80’s was the epicenter of a fresh and lively period in art history- and the energy was contagious.


My long time partner, Damaru (aka Scott Alan Molampy), and I nestled into two connected storefronts in a tenement on East 8th Street between Avenues C and D. Maybe I’ll blame it on MTV (why not?), but something radically shifted within me during those years. It felt as if I wanted to break away from past traditions and previously established ways of doing things. It was an interesting time. The colorful neighborhood was perfect for us- and we thrived in it.


In 1984, 8th Street between Avenue's C and D was a very different world compared to today. It was authentically raw and edgey. During those years much of “Alphabet City” stood in charred ruins, with high levels of illegal drug activity and related crime. An exotically musty, charred tenement ‘aroma’ permeated the air down there. In particular, 8th Street (east of Tompkins Square Park) was a surreal urban blight-scape, where not even seasoned New Yorkers ventured.


It’s difficult to imagine now, but in those years the streets of “Alphabet City” had watering places with themes of devastated Beirut, Lebanon and Dresden, Germany after World War 2. Popular themes because in every direction were burned out, vacant, rat infested, and deteriorating buildings- and artists from all over the world flocked to the neighborhood for cheap rent. Taking root all around us was the legendary East Village art movement; much more than just an interesting art scene, it (practically overnight) became a world class epicenter of it's own unique brand of art and culture.

The growing  AIDS epidemic hit the Lower East Side particularly hard. Because there was such tremendous pain and suffering on our block, planting trees, flowers, and vegetables in the once ‘vacant’ lot next door, reclaimed as the Fireman’s Memorial Community Garden (an Operation Green Thumb project), evolved into a very passionate and committed endeavor for many of us. Suddenly we had a huge thriving garden amidst all these empty, drug-dealer-ridden, burned out shells of buildings.


Each morning as I arose from bed, I couldn’t wait to get out the door and into the garden to continue on one project or another. Every day held a new garden adventure- and gardening was something that I had never particularly been interested in before. Every day began with opening the door with broom in hand... usually to sweep away the colorful array of empty crack vials that accumulated outside our door each night.  


It was actually quite surreal for visitors to unexpectedly come upon this thriving oasis of greenery surrounded by several blocks of urban blight. In Mid-Summer, with much thanks to Ansley Carnahan, when the garden was in full bloom one could smell the intoxicating fragrances of a vast array of flowers before even turning down our block.


One summer we threw a dedication-  and BIG party-  for the all the firemen who came into harm’s way, including a memorial service for those who had lost their lives battling rampant fires in scores of empty tenements during those years. Over four hundred firemen from all over NYC, as well as the Commissioner of Parks and Recreation, Henry Stern, showed up for the event! It was a profoundly memorable experience. We also learned a lot about how much good a well organized and like-minded community could accomplish.


The ongoing tragic footnote during this time, however, were all the sudden AIDS deaths of friends, neighbors, and coworkers. By the close of the decade we lost so many of these extraordinary souls. Normand, Reinaldo, Andreas, and far too many others, were tragically taken in an enormous wave of AIDS related deaths. Our once large and thriving community quite suddenly began to diminish. At one point it seemed as though every week saw a memorial service for a friend, a neighbor, an acquaintance... our community was hit very hard. And so it came to pass that the garden became sacred ground, where the ashes of fallen friends were buried or scattered. Blessings to all these dear ones- who still live on in my heart.

It was truly a vibrant and fascinating time, and the air was filled with a distinctly contagious creative energy. Perhaps it was my age and naivete, but it seemed much easier then to avoid the temptation of taking things too seriously (especially with Ronald Reagan in the White House). The atmosphere in the storefronts was highly charged with the musings of many amazing souls, who often dropped by our storefronts at all hours of the day and night.


At this time, Damaru and I also planted the seeds for our newly developing company, Geppetto Studios www.geppettostudios.com, which is still very much alive more than 25 years later. Aside from freelance display, we also began to get more and more commissions for masks, puppets, and costumes. Today, it’s quite gladdening to see how these developments stirred our lives in a completely different direction.


I had been drawing cartoon faces for almost as long as I can remember, and a couple of years earlier had even taught a class in cartooning at Mohawk Valley Community College in Rome, NY. I was very attracted to the new mediums that costume, installation, and puppet making were introducing us to. Everything came together in one studio then, so it is quite obvious how Geppetto influenced my painting at this time- and, in turn, how my painting influenced Geppetto, as well.


Also at this time we became increasingly attracted to the creative expression of theater. Soon we began merging with projects of other Lower East Side artists and visionaries, like home-spun children’s theater programs right there on our own block. Collaborating with Normand Valee and Reinaldo Arana of the Green Oasis Art and Theater Project played a pivotal role at this time. Damaru and I crafted many puppets and costumes for Reinaldo’s “The Enchanted Garden”, a successful stage production which spanned several years. Many other interesting projects soon followed, including characters that we fabricated for the Earth’s Birthday Project, which were presented on stage on Earth Day in Central Park.

This East Village period was also very much about humor, which, most fortunately, prevailed throughout many of these images-  some rather subtle; others not so subtle. Perhaps it was my way of dealing with the tragic loss and heavy shadows that AIDS suddenly cast across our community and the world. Like many people at that time, I also had plenty of my own deeply rooted internalized fears.


Also, as I interpret some of these pieces now, I think I just wanted to amuse and outrage in the true spirit of Dada. Though I had no idea at the time, I was obviously destined to go much further into costume and puppet design and fabrication with our newfound company, Geppetto Studios. Perhaps that is where the whimsically bizarre humor which still prevails throughout much of my art- including my abstract work- comes from.

“In the art of William Mills, one sees precision and detail that comes right out of traditions like Flemish painting. His bizarre portraits perfectly combine that delicate northern touch with the warped plastic world in which we live today.”                     

                                                                          -Tom Damski (Village Voice)

Details: “The Purple Shoe”/ Acrylic on canvas/  44” x 59”

After a decade and a half of thinking of myself as being firmly and passionately established in abstract expressionism, I quite suddenly shifted gears into what felt like a marvelous discovery at the time: I found myself rediscovering some of the old masters- in particular, Albrecht Durer, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and Hieronymus Bosch. Quite intrigued with a delightful little camel occupying the cluttered landscape (in the right-central area of the middle panel) of Bosch’s “Triptych of the Garden of Delights”, I immediately set myself to the task of making several drawings of this strangely fascinating animal.


As these drawings developed, I decided to transpose this strange and wonderful camel to a canvas. What followed was the fanciful “Yakamelama”- which features physical attributes borrowed from the yak, the camel, and the lama. Then curls upon curls, falling in waves and ringlets down his ‘ultra-coiffed’ humps, just sort of “found their way” there.


After that, one by one, an entire series of folk art-’ish’ style portraits emerged- all of them had this same exaggerated hair theme going on. I made an entire series of these bizarre, ultra-coiffed character portraits with cascading locks of waves and ringlets, etc. It was an all together very different way of going about a painting, which was quite amusing to me at the time. While ‘working’ on them I was usually so entertained that, on occasion, I would actually observe myself laughing out loud.

Detail: “The Young and Eager Alchemist”/ acrylic on canvas/ 24” x 24”/ 1986

NOD IF YOU’RE MOD!