Chronicled through a career spanning over three decades, Stormie’s ‘lost souls’ have become an iconic collection in Australian contemporary art.
At The Cullen, we’ve been lucky to have a longstanding relationship with Stormie, originating from our collaboration on the Street Art Suite. When he needed to bring a new character to life in a basement space, you can image we were only too happy to oblige.
While Stormie was about our digs we sat him down for a chat; but instead of asking the questions ourselves, we got one of our in-house Cullen crew and an artist herself, Genevieve Crinion, to do the talking. What ensured was a conversation spanning the works of Roald Dahl, New York City circa 1986 and Japanese philosophy. Yeah, these guys can talk.
Genevieve Crinion: Do you remember what first sparked your interest in art?
Stormie Mills: When I was growing up, I was always drawing something. My drawings consisted mostly of depictions of monsters and I was particularly fascinated by Gerald Scarfe’s animated illustrations in the opening titles of “Yes Minister”.
I was however not that keen on reading but Roald Dahl’s books were full of illustrations by Quentin Blake, which added another dimension to the stories, expanding and filling them out very much in the way that a picture so often tells a thousand words.
So whilst drawing kept me quiet and occupied, something that the parents of three young boys I’m sure were very grateful for, I didn’t feel that it had a real sense of purpose or focus. As I grew, it was Frank Frazetta’s posters & “Ripley‘s Believe It or Not” comic books that inspired and influenced the content of my drawings. They were still about monsters but they also became about people.
Sometime around 1982 I discovered the sub-culture of graffiti, the New York City graffiti painted as pictures on walls, and it was the characters that grabbed my attention immediately. With no one to teach me, I closely watched “Countdown”, scanning the backgrounds of music videos for imagery and inspiration. I continued to draw until one night, with two friends from school and a bag full of spray paint, I went out to paint a water tank. That was it. I was hooked. I had purpose.
GC: Can you tell us how your style has evolved over time and how, what and who has influenced you?
SM: I grew up in Perth in the 70’s/80’s, so at the time I felt quite isolated and removed from the rest of the world. This is something I’m very grateful for now but back then I wanted to be where it was all happening, where the action was, which for me wasn’t just NYC, it was Europe, a place I was born and had visited a few times but not a place I understood or felt was my home. At the ripe old age of 16 in 1986, in what I’d now like to think of as a bit of inspired reverse colonialism, I travelled to the UK to live with my grandmother and see the world.
By July 1986 I was in New York. I was riding trains into the South Bronx, meeting and hanging out with kids from New York who painted trains and walls, and receiving an education that only the type of travelling by the seat of your pants experience can give you.
During this time, I learnt so much. In particular, I learnt about a movement of artists that lived and worked in New York, who were making different types of art in the streets imbued with political and social commentary reflecting the city in which they lived. The works of people like Jenny Holzer and her bill posting series titled “Inflammatory Essays”, John Fekner and Don Leight’s South Bronx stencils, A.One and Futura's abstracts, and characters by Staff, Doze Green, Keith Haring and Basquiat were what really inspired me.
Seven years later I returned to Perth with a wealth of experiences to draw upon. I initially I felt that the palette I was using was too great, so I first went about restricting my palette to primary colours, then to my signature palette of black, white, grey and silver.
There are always opportunities to learn something new about painting, someone else or yourself.
GC: What about street art do you love the most?
SM: As a painter, what I love most about street art is its immediacy but also the level of engagement is phenomenal. It is very different to painting in a studio. There are even differences in painting a wall at night and painting during the day. I also enjoy the dialogue that unfolds when a wall becomes the canvas. There are always opportunities to learn something new about painting, someone else or yourself.
GC: Your work creates a narrative around characters with a minimalist background. When did you start to create the characters such as from your piece “Letting off Steam”?
SM: For me it has always been about characters, people and monsters. It is what drew me to graffiti in the first place. When I first saw graffiti, it was characters that were used to accentuate names. The medium was a fascination, as was the scale of the work. This is what I wanted to focus on. My experience of growing up was that of a kid in Perth, not a kid in New York, so my work does comes from a different place and feeling and is created for a different reason.
In the early 90’s I set about restricting my palette as a way of going back to how I started. I looked first for a return to concentrating on form, influenced by Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie”. I used only the primary colours of red, yellow and blue, but this wasn’t enough for me. I recalled Henry Moore’s sketches of people in bomb shelters and always loved the form they took, so after reading a lot of information on Art Therapy I made the transition to black, white, grey and silver, assigning emotions to these colours based on my experiences.
Black shows the accumulation of dirt, white represents the attempt to remove dirt, grey is symbolic of the cityscape and silver is the language of dreams.
GC: Are there any current/new/up and coming artists whose work stands out or that you like?
SM: There are plenty! Unfortunately we lost one of the greatest a couple of years ago. Matt Doust was a true artist in every sense of the word and a true friend.
I am also always interested in the discussions that other artists have and the opportunity to study a work, to get an insight into how it was painted and then how the artist thinks. I had a great discussion about the Japanese philosophy of “less hand” when painting recently with TwoOne, while we were looking at a work completed in Perth by Andrew Hem as part of PUBLIC2015 presented by FORM.
GC: As an established artist, is there any words of wisdom that you would give someone who is looking to pursue a career in art?
SM: Nowadays, I think that you can pursue a career in art and be an artist. When I was younger I certainly didn’t feel that it was like that at all, so if you are going to do it, do it with tenacity and be polite.
Stormie is currently working on ‘A Fish Tale’, an animation created by filmmaker Mark Strong and based on Stormie’s painting ‘I miss my friend, I want him back’.
A Kickstarter funding drive is running to get the project happening, so dig deep and help support them here.