Stormie Mills in an interview for the Urban Forms Foundation

Urban Forms Foundation: I would like to start with your artistic life story. What would you consider as main steps that had led you to Stormie Mills of today.

Stormie Mills: As a child I had two brothers – one older one younger. My older brother was very sporty, my younger brother not so much. But for me it was always… I was very much interested in drawing and painting things. My reading and writing skills were never very good and I think that pushed me even more to the drawing. I remember as a child, the one thing that made me interested in reading was Roald Dahl, and that was because Quentin Blake was the illustrator of his books. I really thought the pictures brought the story to life. So as a young kid I would draw those sorts of things. I was very much into drawing those figures and monsters, and things from my imagination.Then around 1980 to 82, when the New York hip-hop scene arrived, I was really drawn to the graffiti of the characters that I saw on the walls in music video clips. So then I started doing those drawings, and that led me to going out and getting a hold of my own spray-paint to start painting walls around 1982, 83, 84.

Urban Forms Foundation: Was it already in Australia? Because we have found the information that you were born in Wales.

Stormie Mills: Yes, I was born in Wales in 1969 and my parents emigrated to Australia when I was three. I grew up in Australia for the most part. In the early eighties I started to go out and paint walls and then… I don’t know – maybe six to eight months later I actually met other kids that were interested in doing the same sort of thing. But you know Perth was a very small city back then, it’s more like a big town. There weren’t a lot of people doing this sort of thing.

And so I started off on my own and I think I went through that cycle of learning things, and then I learnt how to paint the way I understood New York graffiti to be. But it was a bit like “lost in translation” –  I took what I really liked from what I understood of it and then I created my own thing. In 1986 I left Perth. I went to live in London. I went to live in Wales with my grandmother. I went to New York, then I went back to Europe again and all during that time I was painting and learning. Afterwards I went and stayed in Wales for a really long time, but I kept painting and travelling to different places too. There was a lot of graffiti jam and that sort of stuff. And then in my early twenties (so 1990’s) I went back to Perth. Once I was in Wales I met a bunch of people and we had a group that was sort of based around meeting up in Birmingham in a place called Selly Oak and painting the walls there. That group became known as the Ikonoklast. That was because we were all different in our approach to the way we used spray-paints. We had learnt how New York had sort of evolved, but we didn’t necessarily want to be like the people in New York. It’s a bit like playing the drums: you can learn the tune, but then you’ve got to learn to make your own music. One thing I think that really helped was in 1986, when I went to New York, I went to look at graffiti on trains. I was also exposed to a lot of other stuff that other street artists in New York were doing that I’d never seen before. People like John Fekner, Jenny Holzer, Dan Witts, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Futura was a big influence on me as well because of his use of the spray-can. I wasn’t trying to do what he was doing, but I understood he took a different approach to how he used spray-paint. I think that’s where my intellectual growth as an artist really started. I went back to Australia and of course I had missed out on a big part of how the graffiti scene had evolved in Perth. I came back with a different sort of approach to what everybody else was doing. I kind of worked in my own way and I always tried to go back to what I was like when I was a kid, which was to have my own… to have a very small restricted palette. There weren’t a lot of colors available when I first started painting, so I always tried to get back to that. It’s a bit like being the kid in the candy store. To start with I only used 3 or 4 colors, and then all of a sudden there was lots of colors available, so I used lots of colors, but I never felt that I used them very well so I went back to where I began and I started again. I worked for a long time with lots of different art projects and helping other people do their painting, and then in the nineties I stopped doing all of that and just focused on my own stuff – whether that was walls or canvas paintings. I always kind of struggled with painting on canvas for a very long time but eventually in 1999 I had my first solo exhibition and that was very autobiographical – all of  the works. There were 10 works that were sort of about my life as a painter, as a kid and how I evolved, that sort of thing. And yeah, pretty much from there it’s been the same.

Urban Forms Foundation: You used the word “graffiti” and also the word “street art”. Different artists have different ideas of relation between these two. What is your personal idea what is a relation between graffiti and street art?

Stormie Mills: Personally I think it is snails or escargot to me. For example John Fekner, I know him really well and I know John as a street artist, but also as an activist. Those two things are interlinked for him. And I think that my work… It’s important for me to say something with my work. Like I’ve said, I grew up in a small city or big town. My experience is different to a kid in New York surrounded by millions of people. I think what they have to say is important, but what I have to say is different, so I made my work more about other people, whereas for others it was necessary for them to make the work about themselves. There are people that – over the years I’ve noticed it anyway – people that started to look back at where the origins of the first markings on walls in their city are, and have gone back to that. And I think that’s where there is great substance. I don’t buy into the idea that anyone owns the rights to paint the walls of the city, that any subculture owns these rights. The city and its space are there for everybody. It’s there for people to live, it’s there for people to work, and it’s there for people to play.

Urban Forms Foundation: Yes, it is public.

Stormie Mills: Yeah, totally. And so I think all art is valid and it’s all good.

Urban Forms Foundation: What is your personal opinion about the idea of “site specific” murals?

Stormie Mills:  When I was a kid growing up you would get a hold of whatever spray-paint you could get a hold of. There weren’t companies making spray-paint to paint murals. So you would get whatever you can. Then the struggle with the spray-paints to make a painting was and still is very important to me, so I like the idea of having to go somewhere and then find what mediums you can work with to create a painting. The painting then becomes site-specific because of what you can get a hold of, what that city has, what that country has, what that area has access to. And I think that’s for me really important. Then the struggle to make a painting…I learnt something, because sometimes I am working with a different spray-paint, or a different acrylic or whatever it may be. So I’m always learning and having a different creative process. I also think that I’m not like the conquistador of art, so I am not going somewhere to put MY name, MY stamp on somebody else’s area. For me I have to respect the space I am working and the people that live there, because ultimately it’s for them. So it is site-specific but it’s also like a gift that I give to them. I don’t own it anymore. They own it.

Urban Forms Foundation: We are very happy that our city Lodz join the community of Lost Giants. But I have a question: how do you choose such cities? How have you chosen them so far? And why have you chosen Lodz? Is it just an accident, or do you do it on purpose? Is there any idea behind it?

Stormie Mills: I think there is a part of them that is random. A part of them is also of course, because I am invited. I started in Perth, but I think the idea of the Giants being lost in the world is something that’s very much connected to my experiences and journeys as a child. It’s a bit like once they are painted, they feel at home. So I think when Teresa was saying, “Would you like to come and do this work, create this work, what would it be about…” There has to be a synergy. It becomes real. Coming here and working in Bałuty with the history of that place and understanding it much more when I got here – it evolved the work past the sketch stage and made it more important for me, and hopefully for the people that live there.

Urban Forms Foundation: And do you usually try to gather information about the place you will paint? Because here you worked with Teresa and with the Centre of Mark Edelman and they provided you with some information. When you go somewhere and don’t have this kind of connection, do you do your own research or just go to place and try to find something there?

Stormie Mills: Yeah, again it can be random. Sometimes I’ll do research because I need to, other times it just happens. And sometimes it’s not necessarily… It doesn’t necessarily need to be about the place. It could be about a person or it could be about the sense or feelings, so it doesn’t necessarily need to be driven by research but I think here it was important that it was.

Urban Forms Foundation: What is the story about two giants in Lodz?

Stormie Mills: I think the story is very much based in the history of the area, but I think it also has a synergy with my way of thinking, my way of painting – it’s that the glass is always half-full. You know, it’s a terrible history, but the fact that there are people that are living in this area, that are still trying to make a living, trying to move forward and like all of us sometimes they have struggles, and sometimes it is successful and sometimes it is not. But as long as they keep going, that’s the most important thing. These two characters are kind of paying respect to that. I’ve never painted two giants together but it just felt very necessary to do that. My initial idea was more of a “Memento mori” piece, which is “Remember you must live today”. When I sent that through to Teresa, we received feedback that they did not think that would be necessarily such a good idea and I understand that, so I go back to looking at it differently to change the sketch a little bit, and it became two people instead of life and death people.

Urban Forms Foundation: We are discussing it with many people and the question arises whether these two people are saying goodbye or saying hello again. So is it parting, leaving or embracing for “hello”, “we meet again”?

Stormie Mills: It is one of those bitter-sweet things isn’t it? Because it could be both. It could be one or the other. I think it says a lot about the observer. Because some people would say it’s “Hello”, some people would decide it’s “Goodbye”. And sometimes it’s just an ephemeral thing: two people – whether they know each other, they could be brothers, they could be cousins, or they could be complete strangers, but that second of connection changes a lot of things for a lot of people, and that’s for me, really important. You know like yesterday when we were there with Opi and doing the eggs, there was one old guy and he was staring at the table of eggs, of what had been cooked from the eggs and I went over to him and said: “Have something to eat”. And he had something to eat, and we had a little bit of a talk with somebody else, and maybe he just left that place a little bit less alone hopefully. Certainly with a full belly. And that’s a great thing about art – it’s the opportunity for complete strangers to share something about themselves. That’s really important to me.

Urban Forms Foundation: Which of your projects was the most difficult for you?

Stormie Mills: I went to Antarctica a few years ago and I did a painting based on the landscape and my experiences there. I tried to transcribe that sense of how small I felt within the world and within the time that this world has been around – that was really difficult. The sense of beauty and the sense of wonder, but also the sense of “I’m just this little person within this place that has been around for far longer than us”. So that was probably one of the most difficult things.

Urban Forms Foundation: And the best, the warmest memories of your projects?

Stormie Mills: That’s like asking somebody who’s your favourite child? It’s difficult. I couldn’t say any one thing. But I could tell you lots of little things. For instance this week, obviously there is a major language barrier because I don’t speak Polish, but I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and try to ask me questions, and I can’t communicate to them effectively. One guy just clapped. He said something in Polish and he started clapping, and he said something else and he clapped again. There was a girl in one of the flats of the building that I was working on, and every morning she’d come, sit there with a cup of coffee and watch while I was painting. Then the day before yesterday she had done a drawing of me and said, “The mornings you’ve been here painting have been really nice and thank you”. Those are really special things. And lots of those things happen a lot of the time.

Urban Forms Foundation: How would you describe your artistic creed?

Stormie Mills: It sounds very cliché what I say, but it’s about the human condition. It’s about the humanity within us and our ability to make small changes to people’s life by saying “Hello” to somebody that might not have spoken to somebody in the last twelve hours. That can mean a lot. And the idea for me is to make a painting that two people can talk about, and discover more about each other in the process of doing that.

I have this theory of – you know – these colours. Black, white, grey and silver are colours that I use, because I understand from when I was younger and I was in London, that it was a very dirty city. I noticed that if people walked past the wall and their clothes caught on the wall it would leave a cleaner patch on the wall, and on their clothes, the wall left a mark. And to me that’s how we would unconsciously let the world know that other people have been here. But also particularly in London, because I was there when I was 16, I remember lots of tags and the graffiti were in silver. I could notice those things and know that I was on the right path. So I was going in the right direction to get back to wherever it was I was staying. Those things… I always say they’re like the stars that were left at night, but I can still see them in the daytime. I knew that I was going the right way and the anxiety of being lost had less impact on me. So for me silver became very much the symbol of hope. The grey is always going to be representative of lots of our cities. We say that without really looking at our cities and go “This is the colour of our city.” But I think it applies to mentality, it’s more philosophical than reality.

Urban Forms Foundation: Thank you very much.

(Noemi Modnicka)

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