“When you are starting you can be free with what you do. You can experiment, be bold, and adventurous…
…as you move along the line of life this changes and so the challenge becomes to keep that, to be what you were when you started, to refer to your youth in a way that keeps things saying something, to speak of the past with a gentle understanding and make images that talk to the times we are in.”
For almost three decades, Australian artist Stormie Mills explored the realms of humanity through his enigmatic, whimsical characters that touch the human spirit — its strength, struggle, and triumphs.
In this interview, he delved into his beginnings, the in-between, and what artists today should remember.
You started doing graffiti in 1984 – how was the street art scene back then? And how has it changed over the years?
It was sometime around then – maybe a bit earlier.
I used to write 82 after one of my tags because I’d first done some graffiti at that time. For me, there wasn’t a street art scene or a graffiti scene in the city I lived in. There was graffiti like, “Fred says, No Nukes’ or “this used to be the land of laughing trees” – social-political statement stuff. What was going on was in the background of music video clips coming in from New York like Rock Steady Crew’s “Hey you”.
I had already heard Blondie’s “Rapture’ on a plane trip from Europe to Australia and loved it “Beat Street” came out in the cinema and had a lot of set painted graffiti in it.
The combination of visuals and music kept drawing my interest deeper. So I was being more and more influenced by this new thing from afar and my drawings reflected that until one night the influence meant I had to go out and paint in the streets.
The predominant theme in your work revolves around sadness, isolation, and human emotions – how did it start?
It is all of those things but it is also about internal strength, mental strength, and intestinal fortitude.
In my childhood, I found reading to be very difficult because of dyslexia and learning difficulties. When I was very young I carried around a book on the Battle of Waterloo, I didn’t understand a word but I liked the illustrations of ships. Then, I discovered Roald Dahl and his stories were captivating and words also came with Sir Quentin Blakes illustrations which really started me drawing. From figures to people to flying to cupboards, or people flying on cupboards!
The thing about graffiti writing was there were also figures (characters) used to accent the lettering. This is what drew me in. Many years later of doing these figures, of naturally being drawn to them, to create them, I took some time to go through everything I did and discovered their iconic themes in life, struggle, and death.
I began to focus on these and what it meant and how to turn this into something that had meaning, not just something that was about self.
When was it you started to develop an interest in visual/street arts?
Painting came along later but as a kid a lot of the time I was drawing. So for me, the drawing and painting connect was in the early ’80s. My very first awareness of painting walls outside was in the late 70’s. I saw a film on TV about a kid in New York and he did some graffiti – someone’s name on a wall and I liked that idea. So again in the 80’s I was able to connect the concepts and started making my own work.
Do you remember the very first paid job you had?
My first paid job might have been a canvas for a guy that owned a shop – he wanted something for his kid, but I don’t think I really made any money from making paintings or walls for a very long time.
It was never about making money – often it wasn’t about even getting paid. It was about making artwork, trying to say something which cost me more than I have made, but I am richer in spirit because of this.
What is your favourite piece of work you’ve done and why?
My answer to that question has always been my last one and my next one, but really there isn’t any one favourite for any one reason.
Every time you paint something you learn. Every time you paint something there are many different successes and failures. This is for me the process of making works. The action of this is important to the contribution of the work, its environment and ultimately it’s “life” what happens to it after you are finished and it is left for others.
What are you working on right now?
There’s a bunch of things, right now (October 2020). This week is Carers Week for a 20,000 strong sticker campaign that has just launched to support the many young carers in Western Australia that are at home caring for their family members that are sick, or elderly, or have an ongoing mental health issue. www.carerswa.asn.au
I have just completed a painting for The Magic Coat, a mental health organization who will auction off (the painting) to raise money for services to young people. Another painting is going to telethon to be auctioned to help contribute to their services to children with long term physical and mental difficulties. We are also holding our own fundraiser at the end of this month to raise funds for On My Feet – a 100% volunteer-run organization that helps homeless people through exercise, education, and employment.
I’m also working on the construction of a 2-meter diameter public artwork for a former concrete recycling centre and restoring a 1942 Harley Davidson WLA amongst a few other bits…
I’ve recently painted 10 small watercoluor works that are going to Newcastle, England for Unit 44’s anniversary show in November – check them out for more info!
How does the recent pandemic affect your current and future projects?
For the most part, it hasn’t. Where I live in Perth, Western Australia is very far from most places geographically so as far as the infection is concerned it hasn’t had any community spread, and our state is locked from people leaving so people are perhaps a little stir crazy but healthy!
My response has been to try to operate respectfully of those around the world that are suffering, to lend more of a hand to charity organizations, and put a concerted effort to help those that are affected by this in terms of homelessness were possible.
What is the most difficult part of being an independent artist?
Living up to you own personal moral guidelines. How you make work, who it’s for, where it goes.
All those things that are about being an independent artist that keeps as free as possible the idea of what the essence of their work is, what it stands for and how it is put out there. It is super personalized and self-reflection with a view towards incremental improvement in technique or wild experimentation means you have to be critical of yourself in some ways, it also makes me difficult to live with!
What challenges do you face today that are different than when you started?
When you are starting you can be free with what you do, experiment, be bold, and adventurous. As you move along the line of life this changes and so the challenge becomes to keep that, to be what you were when you started, to refer to your youth in a way that keeps things saying something, to speak of the past with a gentle understanding and make images that talk to the times we are in.
And why does street art matter more now than ever?
In this day and age when so much communication is via the internet. To make work on the street that people still want to go to see, to be in that space and not cyberspace, for me this is the challenge of painting at this time. Social media is so owned by the larger media field, although it might seem independent I don’t think it is so much anymore and so it’s censored or it’s edited, or even removed, or worse still it is drowning in misinformation.
I’ve heard it said that “the streets don’t lie” of course this in itself is a lie, but there’s more truth there than social media. The backdrop to breaking used to be graffiti, now the background to protests is street art and it matters.
Is there anything that you want to share with other independent artists across the globe?
Keep going, don’t listen to those that would like you to stop because you are making waves, keep going because you are waking waves for other people’s benefit, keep going because you have a powerful, uncontrollable medium at your disposal and use it to make other peoples’ lives better.
For more of Stormie’s works, head on to his website, and check out his Instagram. If you need to commission him or you need some creative video, motion graphics / animation / shooting or editing please email us here or schedule a conversation with us.