Lines of discovery: In conversation with Holly Mills

Holly Mills is intimately familiar with the unknown. Through a gestural and emotive process, she’s made herself at home in not knowing, in doubt, in questions without answers. Opening herself up to intuition and impulse, Holly follows a line, a colour, a gesture towards… an unknown outcome. Like trying to recall a dream when all that remains is a feeling or sensation. She allows herself to become lost in the process, and through this, can discover the potential of a work. “This dissolution of certainty can create a murkiness that feels a bit like searching for something familiar in the dark,” she explains, “I cover and uncover, the works change often and live many lives. And then there is that moment of recognition.”

This process produces a richly tactile quality in Holly’s work. The accumulated and erased marks and pigments build up dense visual layers, and images that seem to hover on the cusp of fully forming. Scratchy linework and sweeping swaths of colour are both central aspects of Holly’s stylistic vocabulary. These formulate images with ambiguous motifs that move fluidly between semi-abstract landscapes and intricate figurative scenes. For Holly, art-making is a form of processing experiences outside of language and logic, a way of “feeling” her way through the world. Her illusive dreamscape images are windows into a uniquely personal interior world. Moody and beguiling, the opaque layers and symbols in her work convey multiple, simultaneous narratives with open possibilities for interpretation.

In this conversation Holly tells us about gaining the confidence to pursue her art fulltime, about remaining curious and open to experimentation, and how surrendering control empowers her work.

AMM: Hi Holly! As a relatively recent graduate, what has been your experience starting out your career in the art world? Are there things you wished you’d learned in college?

HM: After leaving Camberwell I learnt how tough it can be to sustain a practice whilst still trying to balance having a job, paying rent and having a life outside of it all. Keeping a studio practice at the centre of your priorities can be a scary thing, especially in an expensive city like London. After leaving education for the second time I was determined to sustain that energy I had built up after a year’s worth of intensive drawing. I think if it’s important to you, you have no choice but to make it work, you find the time, and eventually a routine that works. It’s a place I’m beginning to arrive at and that’s a freeing feeling!

AMM: What ideas or themes are you currently exploring in your work?

HM: I recently read a Russell Edson interview in which he said, “I want to discover something I didn’t know forming on the page. Experience made into an artifact formed with the logic of a dream.” I like the idea of painting or drawing as an act of discovery. Smudging, brushing or scratching away as a way to process and make sense of contemporary lived experience, memory and dreams. I’ve been told my work sometimes feels melancholic – but I think it’s closer to a kind of doubt, an obsession with not knowing and a kind of questioning. I poke at my own experience of the world through the process of drawing, trying to work out what is real and true.

I’m drawn to subjects I struggle to explain through language and often return to nature as a vehicle of translation. Speech, in its many forms, litters my imagined landscapes; rooms fill with smoke and contorted speech-bubbles, clouds are at the same time words, eyes, nostrils, mouths –  it’s a fuzzy alt-language fuelled by an emotional and sensory recollection of place. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the inconsistency of memory and its ability to confuse the forward momentum of time.

‘Above/below’, 15 x 18 cm, wax, linen, egg tempera and watercolour on board

AMM: Is there a relationship between your work and your own state of being?

Definitely. Everything I make is an extension of me in some way – it’s impossible to separate from my own feelings or sensations in that moment of making; I don’t try to. It’s told in the way marks are made – I push parts of myself into the pastel as I rub it into paper. Sometimes I think of my drawings and paintings as little sponges absorbing everything that I absorb; they are made up of inside impulses and a lot of the outside too. I’m intrigued by the physicality of emotion, how feelings are so intertwined with feeling; the all-over vibration of nervousness, a knot in the stomach or heavy legs of fear. I attempt to “feel” my way through making rather than over-thinking it.

AMM: From the titles and figurative elements in your work it appears that narrative is an important aspect of your art. How does narrative interplay with the themes in your work?

HM: It’s natural for me, to try to make sense of one thing by relating it to another – this way of working things out results in a sort of visceral ‘collaging’ in which new narratives can emerge. The stories themselves are vague – it is more a sensation, an emotion or a movement. I always have a keen awareness of how fast or slow the figures and objects in my paintings are moving, and in which direction. I like the sense that someone has just left or is about to enter a space. Sort of like a sentence cut in half. For me it creates this sense of possibility – a heightened tension of the unknown.

I used to read a lot of graphic novels (Oliver Schrauwen’s The Man Who Grew His Beard and Brecht Evens’ The Wrong Place being favourites) and often return to their use of divided space. I like that line that slices through the page suggesting a movement of time or of multiple moments happening at once. An awareness of human presence is also very important to me – however faint and fleeting. It could be the imprint of a foot, a swoosh of hair or the top of a head that is also a hill – a silent room feels heavier when full of people.

‘Us’, 12 x 16 cm, oil pastel transfer on paper

AMM: Please tell us the story of finding your visual language and style of mark-making.

HM: It’s an ongoing process of discovery that is constantly evolving and changing. Keeping an element of the unknown is really important for me and I partly achieve this by being open and responsive to the materials I am using. There can sometimes feel like a pressure to ‘find your style’ and stick to one way of making. However, the joy of discovery and experimentation is such an integral part of my process that I have to allow myself to be distracted by a texture, or colour, and allow that to dictate the direction of a work. Even if this means that my ‘style’ is forever jumping around – I hope that there is a feeling of sincerity that holds it all together.

AMM: While you work in a wide range of media, drawing seems to be at the heart of your practice. Does this stem from your illustration training? Please tell us more about the role and function of this medium for you.

HM: Drawing (from life) holds this sort of comfort, a deep familiarity mixed with the uncomplicated-ness of the material that can often feel almost like a form of meditation. It clears the frenzy of thoughts that usually take root in my head and creates space for mulling over old ideas and creating new ones. I get a similar sense of clarity when drawing quickly using oil transfer paper. I want to grab hold of a rare moment of clear intention before it slips away and need to be able to do this in the most direct way possible.

AMM: Please tell us more about your aesthetic decisions – your muted colour palettes and gestural style of mark-making etc.

HM: It’s nothing more than intuition, a purely desire-led decision. My mum used to be a textile designer so I was bought up surrounded by beautiful fabrics and books about pattern and colour –  her love of these things has definitely passed on to me and the way I look at the world. The marks are often led by the medium. I have this indigo furniture wax, a bit like closing your eyes at night – purplish black with tiny flecks of gold – it’s good to smudge and rub in with the finger. An old buff titanium acrylic which has this pulpous grainy texture, I like it next to grassy green and warm greys. I’m not too good at following the rules, there’s too much excitement in instability – I like watching oil and water based paints repel each other like magnets. I want people to want to touch my work.

‘Staircase’, 9 x 13 cm, plany, egg tempers, watercolour, soft pastel and pigment on board

AMM: The subject matter in your work moves fluidly between abstraction and figuration. Both equally emotive, please tell us about the motifs and impulses that inform this.

Only Shallow – I’d been walking in Scotland with Ryan, climbing blindly through cloud to get to the top of a mountain, we’d forgotten what we’d come to see was below, or under. The soft ground makes the hillside feel hollow, and there is a heightened awareness of the movement of the water, and of the wind, on my skin. The deafening flap of my coat on my ear. The rain parts my hair into tiny neat rivers, water heading for ground. I remember seeing My Bloody Valentine at Hammersmith Apollo in 2013 and the smoke machines turned the air to cloud. They played Only Shallow and it felt like sound was a solid thing. You could lean back into and be held up by the vibrations. Aware of each hair on my head as it stands to attention, excitement and fear. Music and sound and rain and mist.

AMM: Are you influenced by your surroundings? Please give us a peek inside your studio and take us through what a typical day looks like.

HM: I think my studio is more somewhere I go to process everything that has happened outside of it. I have a shelf of reference books (Fellini’s Faces and a tiny book on Russian Icon painting are my favourites) but generally I put them away once I actually start making work. It’s often a slow start to the day – I need lunch before anything decisive can happen! I work on a lot of things at once so my desk is often littered with little piles of drawings, paintings and scribbles. It’s all quite messy and not at all precious until something is finished. I share the studio with my friend Naomi, it’s in this beautiful, creepy, spirally old building in North Greenwich. The most important thing is the window and I sit at my desk beneath it – the changing natural light shifting the way things appear. I hold smaller works in my lap or bow my head close down to the table – as close as I can get whist seeing. In this way I get sucked into the tiny textures and little details of each colour. I’ve always been drawn to working in this way – I remember writing in school, head on the table next to a piece of paper. Only just able to make out the slanting letters my hand is making, intimate and slightly blurred.

AMM: From the many mediums that you work in it seems like experimentation and play is part of your practice. Can you tell us about your approach and process of working, and also how you know when a work is complete?

Each process I use totally changes the way I make marks and ultimately the images that evolve out of them. I’ve recently been getting really into egg tempera, it feels sensitive and requires a quiet kind of attention. I’ll often scratch back into the surface leaving only a trace of the image before. I arrive at paintings through the act of making rather than having a predetermined plan – it’s more a vague intention. It could be triggered by something I’ve read, a dream or figure that I want to bring to the surface. Any delusion of control slips slowly away with every mark that is made as other memories emerge and merge. This dissolution of certainty can create a murkiness that feels a bit like searching for something familiar in the dark. I cover and uncover, the works change often and live many lives. And then there is that moment of recognition – and that is the feeling when something is finished.

‘When the bords go quiet’, 13 x 18 cm, egg tempera and acrylic on paper

AMM: Where do you look for daily inspiration?

HM: I think a lot about being in nature; wild camping, swimming in the sea and climbing wet and windy mountains. Those moments of slight fear that come with facing the unknown, an excitement of sensory overload. I’m inspired by the sound of underwater, of wind and leaves. Vivid dreams, Pina Bausch, Joseph Yoakum, and De Chico’s suns. Louise Bourgeois, Fellini, 17th century stumpwork. Scotland. Flowers growing through cracks in the pavement (the wonder!), Ryan asleep on the sofa, Breugel, my garden. I’m inspired by hearing live music, being with the people I love – and dancing with them too…

AMM: What are you watching, reading, listening to right now?

HM: I went to see Peter Gizzi give a reading at Set in Dalston shortly before the first lockdown – it totally blew my mind and has stuck with me since. I’ve been reading a lot of his poetry, and stealing a lot of his words. I had a similar reaction the first time I read Anne Carson, there’s this feeling of things clicking into place, sharp moments of clarity that disappear as quickly as they came. They give me a buzz and speak to my soul!

New Yorker Fiction and the London Review of Books are go-to podcasts. I tend to obsessively listen to music on repeat – at the moment it’s Adrienne Lenker. And now that the football is over I’m looking forward to watching other things again!

AMM: Are there any young artists that you’re particularly excited about right now?

HM: I live with a small shimmery painting by Francesca Mollett that sits beside a little pink paper work by Rema Ghuloum. They are side by side in my living room, the colours shifting and fizzing as the sun moves across the room. I will never tire of staring at these – so much joy – in colour, and texture, and emotion. Hannah Ackroyd is another – each one of her small collages feels like a little self-contained poem, there’s a touching connection to language and words that I can’t quite articulate. I’ve also been enjoying the work of Mathieu Larone, Virginia Russulo, Andrei Pokrovskii, Florence Dwyer, and Mitsuko Brooks.

AMM: Have you had any significant mentors along your artistic journey? What important lessons did they teach you?

HM: Beers gallery put a huge amount of trust in me at a time when I was pretty confused about my practice. I’d been working as an illustrator since leaving Camberwell and had stopped enjoying working to briefs. I was painting and drawing for myself but didn’t have the confidence to put it out there, or even know how to. The art shop I was working in at the time (Paintworks) had an exhibition of the staffs’ work and I put in a little sketchbook drawing. Andrew bought it and Kurt put me in a show at the gallery the following week. I feel really lucky to have had such unwavering support in that moment. The shows I was in at Beers gave me a new surety of what I wanted from making, and encouraged me to go back into education.

AMM: Despite the general uncertainty, do you have any exciting projects coming up? What’s next for you?

HM: I’ve just begun working on a number of larger canvases in the studio. I’m drawn to the possibilities they offer – that feeling of being enveloped in a vast and all-consuming world. There’s a tension in working across these various scales and surfaces which I find refreshing. I tend to work quickly, producing lots, but find these bigger pieces much harder to ‘let go’ of. I get sucked into the colour and the marks – they trick you and it becomes a battle of sorts, trying to coax the images out. I’m looking forward to seeing what direction they will take, to see if I can replicate the intimacy I feel when cradling a smaller work in my hand, getting lost in the textures and touch.

Find out more about the artist:

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

‘Fallen sun’, 9 x 13 cm, egg tempera on board


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