Belgravia’s Arts Park: Artist’s reflection from Royden Mills on “Almost Whole”

Belgravia’s Arts Park is a jewel in the neighbourhood, the result of an enormous amount of dedicated work on the part of the Arts Park committee, the artists and the City of Edmonton’s Public Art Program (Edmonton Arts Council).  The following statement by sculpture Roy Mills provides insight into his work and the piece “Almost Whole” (image to come– but it’s the installation seen as you come along 74th Avenue by Belgravia School).  Thank you Arts Park Committee, thank you, Roy.

Alberta, and making art in Alberta should be tied to the people who are here. I should not be making art only aimed at exotic localities where the audience has tastes and needs that are irrelevant here. I take that challenge very seriously. Art should be driven by a deep connection to the place and to the audience that is going to view it. That is a very complex idea because I do not mean making Edmonton Oiler sculptures for a hockey crazed town,….I don’t mean giving people what they think they want, I mean trying to give them something that they really need! I have to risk challenging them beyond their comfort range.

We all need and love to feel satisfaction from life, and I argue that one of the most satisfying experiences on life is to arrive at doing something that one did not ever imagine being able to do prior to being placed in a position to do so. Over-coming a sense of fear, arriving at a kind of awakening to something new is so satisfying, isn’t it. I know that the artists of the world consist of such a spectrum that we cannot ever generalize and make a sweeping statement, but I hate art that does not TRY hard! I like art that demonstrates a significant commitment. If one is going to try to slap the public in the face and aggressively confront them then I want to feel like that challenge came with an extreme commitment. I don’t actually have enough courage to want to slap Albertan’s in the face, but sometimes I feel that artists who try to do so really come through…and other times I feel like they only insult us with a half hearted attempt.

Albertans understand hard work and they will respect commitment, so that is a good place to start, and whether it is just an object built out of material, or a complex conceptual construction I expect a work ethic and investment from the artist. My dad never really understood what I was doing ( probably because when he was alive, I did not yet really understand what I was doing myself! ), but he did say that he respected how hard I worked and he often said “well, at least you can always go and become a welder!”. This IS really significant, it is SO “Red Neck” and so pertinent to Alberta and the homesteader tradition that prevailed here not so long ago! It is pertinent to the commitment that I am making…. because I have heard that welders can make 50 dollars per inch of welding! So in terms of a choice, I am committed to Fine Arts! I believe that I serve the community and my audience and even though I might be able to earn thousands of dollars per day welding in the oil industry, I believe that my life means something to somebody through trying to make art. I have taught for quite low pay at the University for more than 20 years, in a difficult kind of sessional position, and I try to help young people to see a sense of responsibility even beyond just working hard with labor to demonstrate their commitment. I want artists to actually serve others! Bring a service to the world and demonstrate a commitment and a passion for what they believe.

In the end, I want my work to inspire at least some other person to feel that they sense something interesting and true about being alive….and in doing so I hope that at least they will not then feel so alone in the thoughts and feelings that they might have.

Almost Whole, was built at a time in my life where I felt it was a reaction to and against art that only is about its form. I chose to break with the tradition of the Edmonton steel sculpture scene in the only way I knew how to do and that was to use form to propel a feeling that I had for something very personal out into the world. I wanted to see if I could present an abstract feeling about an aspect of challenge in a personal individual part of my own fears and worries about life in such away that the resultant art work was not egotistically about only me or my individual worries or fears, but somehow about a feeling that maybe somebody else has. ( maybe even everyone has ) I did not aim for a literal narrative, I aimed for a metaphor. I aimed for the kind of transference of feeling that one gets with music that has no lyrics, where dissonant tones create a melancholy or wistfulness, and major chords present a sense of completion and comfort. Using these kinds of formal devices, I aimed to describe emotions that were very real to me about events that were happening in the life of my family. For example, there were concerns for what might or might not be going on inside of a body, there was a huge personal discovery that there could be hope and optimism even if one ever was forced to feel only “Almost Whole”. What did it really mean to be whole came to mind. There is a deep mystery to science and the truth beyond our understanding of why we are here,…purpose…role in life….having children, not having children, having strong faith, looking for identity in the the face of social conventions….this and more came to mind and all factor into the making of this piece.

I feel that there is a kind of architectural structure to the piece, it is a container, a surface that is not unlike the surface of our body and there is something within and beyond the plane of that surface, and then, I hope it goes even deeper than that! I mean…Thinking of what is deep and within is only a small part of existing, one has to think about going right through that kind of thought about existing in order to feel part of a “larger Wholeness”. Could I frame something beyond the sculpture itself? How?…a window?….a portal? A gate? What is the main gate? Point of entry, point of departure…scopes to look microscopically, or black hole into another galaxy?…gee that all sounds ambitious… It is a little like trying to come to terms with the divide between the possible truth of “black holes”, “infinity”, beyond being just a body and a mass…….in a period of life where I had every reason to want to give up, retreat, feel fear, and relent on trying to gain awareness, I went to the studio and tried to not make all of these thoughts just be so much about only me. I tried to make a sculpture that might not be so limited that it reveal only my own predicament.

I tried to make a piece that was a result of questioning meaning and purpose and fear with the only thing I know how to do and that is to serve society through the studio process. In the end, I think there is a mystery to this work. I think that there is a sense of hope, but basically it stand first and foremost (as all attempts to make art do) as a demonstration of commitment, a document left behind testifying to the fact that in the face of life’s challenges at least one person did not just lie in bed with the covers pulled up over his head ( for too long at least ), and in the face of life’s regular challenges we all can get up and out and invest of ourselves in something. We can find an alternative. The existence of this sculpture IS an alternative, I could have become a welder, I could have been a hockey player, I could have been a father, or I could have been a son longer, we all have these transitions, these vulnerabilities…..and I have carved out the potential for myself to try to serve society by trying to describe alternatives. I choose to do so using material and space and my physical body to engage.

This sculpture, placed in your beautiful neighborhood in Edmonton, it doesn’t mean that I am any better than my Red neck roots, it actually only signifies that we all can aspire to do things beyond what we ever imagined and that in those wistful times of not knowing what is within and what will come, or what is beyond, we are Whole…a part of a much bigger whole.

So, I am warned by all colleagues that I should edit and craft my writing more…..but I can write fast and passionately or not at all, and I hope that at some point my friends accept that I am better off getting out and to work in the studio than I am to try to serve society through the use of words and writing.

I do think that loving and enjoying art is about being honest and really striving to to give. Edmonton has so many great artists. We have far more than the general public can even understand. We have far more than Edmonton can fund or deserves, but there is such a force of commitment among artists here. It is absolutely remarkable! I advise looking at Sean Caulfield’s work, or Catherine Burgess work at the AGA right now, or Lyndal Osborn’s show out in Sherwood Park….Clay Ellis, I mean there are so many….but we all have to try to get work out of Edmonton in order to survive…..and it is odd sometimes that the general public doesn’t even know enough to try to feel proud and support the art scene as they might wisely do as an investment.

Thank you, and the people in Belgravia for helping me to feel that my efforts are of value!

Be Well, Roy


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