Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Sherry Mills, Artist, New York City

Artist Sherry Mills wants you to know that beauty is closer than you think. Creating large-scale abstract works from her close-up photographs of unlikely beauty—the peeling paste of abandoned posters, rusted oil drums, tarred rooftops—she prompts the viewer to take an alternate perspective on the city landscape. The perspective is flipped again with another branch of her work, box art: whimsical yet concentrated dollhouse-style miniatures evoking a vibrant Joseph Cornell. Her work has shown at the Manhattan Borough President’s Office, on billboards as a part of Clear Channel Outdoor’s Local Spirit campaign, and Galapagos Art Space, and her solo show featuring her commissioned box art opens June 30 at the Rogue Gallery. You can read her blog here. We talked about walking the line between hiding and self-expression, being a woman in the art world, and ways to cry over spilled milk. In her own words:

On Beauty Being Closer Than You Think
I remember being on the subway after 9/11, and the tone was severe depression and fear. And suddenly this popped through: We have this common ground in the very streets of New York. We share this ground; we have these beautiful, normally overlooked abstract images on our streets, in this shared public space. I was so excited to be thinking in those terms, of this common ground. In a way it’s kind of like beauty being in the eye of the beholder, but it’s really more that we’re surrounded by beauty if you’re looking for it. A colleague of mine then said, “Beauty is closer than you think,” and I was like—that’s it! The idea is that perspective is everything. You can find magnificence in the simplest arrangement. Beauty is constantly available to us—the experience of beauty can always be there, because it’s just a matter of our perception.

At the same time, I feel guided to work where there’s grit or grim things that typically wouldn’t be considered beautiful. If you look at this bowl of pomegranates, it’s a still life you can imagine someone painting; it’s a little bit easier. But then—you know how sometimes you see straws on the sidewalk, where there’s a milkshake splatter? Of course you think, Eww, that’s gross, someone should clean that up. But you can also see it as a cylinder of green with this spray of white, and it becomes this beautiful arrangement. The composition sets you free, not the content. It might be more difficult to drive some sense of beauty toward that kind of thing, but that’s what I like to photograph. I have a great appreciation of classical beauty—it definitely guides us to find beauty in other territories. And that’s the beauty we need to find: Most of us are living with those other territories much more than we live with those classical forms of beauty. If you evaluate beauty differently, that way of seeing becomes more of a habit.

Green Straw

It can be the same way with people. I don’t really see the physical element of people as much as I see a compatibility, some kind of ability to connect with the world. People’s physicality is always changing for me—you know when you’re in love, that person looks different to you? You find that appreciation and the composition seems like it actually changes. Of course, when you apply it to people, the flip side is how are they looking at you, and that gets more challenging.

There’s also this odd perspective when we look at ourselves. There’s this funny thing with our bodies where we really only see it from this one close-up perspective, when we’re just looking down at our bodies so everything is out of proportion to how we actually appear. Even if we look in the mirror, we can’t really be sure of what we’re seeing. I’ll look at my body sometimes and not know how to look at it. Like, am I overweight? Am I not? Am I small? Am I average? I really don’t know.

On Hiding and Self-Expression
In seasons that require a coat, I feel more comfortable. It’s almost like I don’t want to be seen—I guess I’m like a bear! I feel kind of private. I want to be able to go out into the world and not really attract much attention. But then people say that’s a contradiction because of the clothes that I wear—tons of layers, lots of color, a lot of patterns worn together, flowing things. It does attract attention. It’s something that’s always going on in me: I don’t want a lot of attention, but I do want to express myself. So when the weather calls for a long coat, everything can go under cover. I can be totally self-expressive yet covered, and no one really knows what’s going on under there until I choose to show it to someone. It’s a private, sort of self-protective thing. I don’t want a lot of energy heading my way necessarily. Also, a coat contains me: I wear a lot of flowy weird things, and in the wind it’s annoying, so I like to be able to pull it in. I don’t want to be mentally distracted by my clothes. When I’m out in the world I want to be able to be open and present with things and people and landscapes. It’s the same reason I can’t wear heels: I can’t be present when I’m constantly focused on my physical self.

In some ways, getting myself dressed every day has been a way of keeping a muscle going, with collage and my art. If nothing else, I’ll get myself dressed so at least there is a practice with the relationship of pattern and texture and form. Some photographers take one picture a day no matter what, or a painter will at least touch the brush to the canvas every day, so getting dressed has been a way of keeping my eye going. When I’m making a collage and choosing certain things to go with other things, I might see this green fabric with this weird red-pink thing that wouldn’t normally go together. But there’s a sense in me that it does go, even if the next person might look at the combination and say it doesn’t. When something gets a little too perfect, I try to disturb it a bit. I like to challenge what it means for something to “go together.” After a while it’s become very simple—people sometimes say, “Oh, it must have taken you forever to get dressed.” I dress like this every day! It takes me just a few minutes. It’s my style. 


It’s a similar thing with my glasses. I got this pair of glasses for traveling during college—I’d worn contacts through high school—and I loved not having to worry about getting stuff in my eyes. They were a bold statement for me then, and getting these particular frames set an evolution of some kind for me and my style. I’ve tried many times to get rid of them. I felt like I needed to purge them, like I needed a free face, that I wanted my face to be forward to the world and not these distinctive glasses. I’m hiding behind these. I’ve gone out to try to find new frames, and at one point I did get these really crazy red frames with rhinestones. But I went back to my old black ones. Essentially it was like trading my face. These have been my face for so long, I could never feel comfortable with another pair. It’s got an emotional tie, like I’d be letting go of my image entirely. I don’t want to let them go.

On Feminine Branding in the Art World
I don’t necessarily think of myself as being in the art world; I’m finding my own way to navigate things, which I think everyone is doing now because a lot of the traditional systems aren’t working. But it does still feel a little bit like a man’s world. I don’t feel like a victim, but I do want to be taken seriously, and sometimes that doesn’t happen. I was happy to hear that people didn’t just see my box work as fluffy and whimsical without depth—I get concerned that I come off that way in every way, because I’m a playful person. I think people might see me as light, playful, emotional, non-intellectual—kind of dancing around but not focused enough. All these things are probably true in a way, but they’re also things that are associated with being a woman. It’s easy to get scattered with doing too many projects in order to sort of prove my seriousness.

Bear Face

It seems like women have a lot of hats going all the time. My partner is this competent, amazing, very focused man who I learn from and appreciate so much, and it’s almost like I want that, but I operate from a different place. It’s a different way of maneuvering in life. I think when I started dressing in my current style, I was looking to express something about myself—something more solid, even though the look I have might be seen as crazy sometimes! But I learned to be comfortable enough to break the rules and be okay with funny stares. It was like a strengthening technique, consciously or unconsciously. It was difficult to present myself like that with consistency in public, yet I felt it was true to myself. Over time it became easier, and the idea of self-expression stopped being so much of an effort—I was just being me, coming out of myself.

So now I have this look and people will say that they’re inspired by it, and I realize that in some ways, my brand is my presentation. It becomes important. It’s one of the elements of presenting myself—my photography, the video, a documentary, my blog, and the outfits. It’s kind of like giving a snippet of what my work is about. It’s all about alternate perspectives.


  1. This resonated with me in so many ways...from the "common ground" idea. I found after 9/11 that I noticed and appreciated things in a way I had previously.

    I can understand too that need to express oneself and yet preserve a bit of invisibility (the bear idea). When you simply want to observe the is best not to be the focus of attention yourself. Nice interview.

  2. Terri, with the way that you consider and play with various aspects of clothing--sort of theme dressing without verging into costumery--I could see a connection between the ways each of you view fashion. Common ground indeed! Glad you enjoyed the interview.

  3. Just great here, keep sharing! I will look out more from that.

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