FORT LAUDERDALE — As an octogenarian artist, Charles Mills has so much to share with South Florida.
Currently, his bold and colorful artwork is on display at Broward County’s Main Library in downtown Fort Lauderdale. His varied art styles comprise a wide spectrum, incorporating prints, watercolors and his signature scratch board style.
During an interview with the South Florida Times, Mills said he has always felt that art, “aside from being beautiful, should make a statement about life.”
For that reason, his art reflects the history and social conditions of the modern African-American.
Born in 1920, just before the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Mills said he remembers seeing the people we read about in history books. He went to school with Mercer Ellington, the son of jazz musician Duke Ellington.
He remembers a treasured invitation to attend a birthday party at the Ellington home on the Upper West Side of New York City. After cake and ice cream, the young friends were treated to a private concert by the great pianist. To have Harlem so lovingly presented in art by someone who witnessed the change in Black Art Culture is a unique experience.
Mills’ bright mix of collages and paintings hark to classical forms like in “The Black Pieta.” In classical art history, the piece is a marble form with a very dominant Virgin Mary cradling the adult form of Jesus Christ in her lap.
Mills’ modern take, painted in 2005, shows a black mother weeping for her murdered child, its messianic shape covered with a blanket.
Other topics range from depictions of West African griots, or storytellers, to a graphic modern take on President-elect Barack Obama. Wood-cut prints of Harriet Tubman clash on a lithograph sheet with a painted collage of African masks.
Mills said he chose the pieces for the exhibit based on the idea of “glorifying people in our race who came before us.”
At the Gallery Six exhibit, on the sixth floor of the library, you can expect a walk through black history. The works are not framed in a time line. Rather, they express a continuum of time, as often referenced in African cosmologies.
The expressions are grouped by theme, such as The Target Series, which highlights portraits of Malcolm X, Angela Davis and Jean-Michel Basquiat, a 1980s Neo-expressionist artist.
A portion of the exhibit highlights Mills’ scratchboard portrait series. During his time as a medical illustrator in the VA Hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y., he became familiar with this technique: A thin layer of India ink is brushed on a white clay surface. With that, he is able to make white lines on a black background that he accents with watercolors, “a third dimension,” as he calls it.
In this particular style, he created a homage to jazz musicians, including Dizzy Gillespie and other greats. Speaking about his love of jazz music, he said, “You know, I was a frustrated musician myself. They were people that I was fond of.”
Painting since he was a child, he said that, “It’s the thing that keeps me going.”
He recalled a junior high teacher, Ms. Turner, who encouraged him to hone his craft. Now, at 88 years old, he produces artwork that is prolific and sharply poignant.
“I just can’t stop,” he said. A crying figure in a painting entitled, “Darfur,” is impossible to turn away from. It is timely and jarring at the same time.
The exhibit also presents the opportunity to examine a variety of styles and personal memorabilia of the artist. Stories abound from Mills, as he recalls how he wrote a letter to Duke Ellington and received in return a signed portrait. The portrait is featured alongside two books autographed to the artist by Langston Hughes. It is a great way to start a conversation about history with your family. It’s also the chance to appreciate the treasure that we have within our midst.
Photo by Mychal MCDonald. Artist Charles Mills
IF YOU GO
WHAT: "With a Very Wide View of History-Charles Mills and the Twentieth Century"
WHERE: Broward County Main Library, 100 S. Andrews Avenue, Fort Lauderdale.
WHEN: The exhibit is on display now through Jan. 2, 2009. The library is open Monday through Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. It is closed Christmas and New Year’s Day.
CONTACT: Broward County Main Library 954-357-7444.