Wm. Coleman Mills has always been able to draw, but it took a while for his artistic ambition to mature. As a child, he regarded art as an interest rather than a passion. After high school, he parlayed his aesthetic abilities into a bachelor’s degree in architecture at Auburn University. He then went on to receive architecture-related master’s degrees from Cornell and Harvard.
“In architecture school, drawing is not a talent. It’s a tool, a necessary skill, ” Mills says. “I didn’t really find a voice for artistic expression until I took an abstract oil painting class at Harvard. Suddenly, the light just came on for me.”
By 2001, Mills, right, and his wife, Alix, were both working in Manhattan. After Sept. 11, they considered moving to coastal New England or California’s wine country, but decided on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay.
As a young married couple with a 6-month-old daughter, they didn’t have room in their decorating budget for art. “The first series of paintings I did were just meant to occupy wall space in our home, ” he says. After seeing the work on his walls, Kelley Lyons, of Lyons Share in Fairhope, asked Mills if he’d be interested in doing a show.
As an architecture student, Mills was used to having his work routinely reviewed, but the thought of putting his paintings on display terrified him. “I wasn’t sure I could be completely exposed like that, hanging my paintings on the wall, because they’re so intensely personal, ”
The artist. Photo courtesy of Stephen Savage
He didn’t need to worry. The show sold out, and painting ceased to be a strictly personal pursuit. Today, Mills doesn’t aspire to paint full time, but art is a substantial part of his Fairhope business, an atelier called wmCM Studio.
“I fantasized when I opened this place that I would do architectural design work for two days; I would paint for two days; and then on Friday I would meet with clients, get out of here early and take the kids fishing. Of course it doesn’t pan out that way, ” he says, laughing. “I’m always on some sort of deadline.”
Mills doesn’t regret forgoing art school for an education in architecture. In fact, when he paints he uses the “scheduled creativity” he learned in architectural design. “I go in the studio and I paint for eight, nine, 10 hours, toward a deadline. I don’t have to wait on inspiration. I have hundreds of sketches for that, ” he explains.
Lately, he has taken on a notable side project, producing work for Neiman Marcus and Horchow – both of which feature giclee reproductions of the paintings as part of their home decor lines. Later this year, he will debut a line of quilts and scarves that reinterpret his paintings in richly colored organic cotton, wool and cashmere. And then there’s his custom-designed furniture – but that, as they say, is another story.
In May, he is moving his studio to a new, larger space next door to Red or White in downtown Fairhope. With high ceilings, a large open floor plan and a caterer’s kitchen, wmCM Studio will be available to host events for 200 – 300 people.
by Adrian Hoff