Creative gifts from my father…

Creative influences are extremely important to artists. We are like cauldrons, in which everything we see, hear, taste, feel, or sense gets mixed together into our creative “soup.” Luckily for me, the cauldron began to fill in early life with some significant contributions by my father.  As some of you are aware, my father passed away on November 9th.  Here is a the first of several tributes to his creative life and his influences for mine.

Thomas Maurice Mills, Jr., was born to a hard-drinking “roughneck” [oil field worker] and a Cajun girl [bayou Louisiana native of French descent].  His mother died when he was around eight years old. Some would think he hadn’t much of a chance for survival at all in this fiscally and culturally impoverished situation, much less possessing a creative cauldron of his own.

I don’t know much about his early creative life, but I assume that it was often a case of “making something out of nothing” as children will do. Cardboard boxes become playhouses, sticks become swords or guns. His formal education was a bit of a miracle in itself.

Toddler Tom

Having one’s photo made on a pony was undoubtedly a rare treat!

His family moved from one oil field boom to another and he recounted that he went to twelve different schools before he graduated from high school in Seminole, Texas.

Mother, Tom, Father

Mother, Tom and Father….

If not for the fact that he displayed a talent for drawing, and the influence of his high school art teacher [coincidentally] named Christine Mills, his life wouldn’t have been much different from that of his own father. In addition to guiding young Tom’s art studies she kept after him to seek further education—to go to college, when no one in his family had ever done so before.

Dad followed his teacher’s advice and enrolled in Texas Technological College [now, Texas Tech University]. It was 1946, and though my father didn’t serve in the military, his college friends were mostly veterans supported in their educations by the G.I. Bill. Not so, my dad. He always had at least one part time job, sometimes two or three to make his way.

TomMillsAndArchModel1952medPublished in the April, 1953, issue of The Texas Techsan, alumni magazine. Photo from his senior year, 1952.

It took him longer to finish, but he graduated in 1952, just a few months before I was born.


Pauline, Tom and Anita Mills, 1952

My father chose architecture as his profession. I have always suspected that he would have chosen a bit differently had he hailed from different family resources, or had been living in a different social backdrop. It was the late forties, when men and women were influenced to seek that “all American” family dream—a home of their own, two cars in the drive, and two or three children to make their lives complete. I believe my father would have been a painter or sculptor if the “reality” of his situation had been different. Dad had a classmate at Texas Tech who did choose the painting/sculpture route, and the man’s family always seemed to have “the wolf at the door,” though he always seemed creatively fulfilled.

He chose architecture because he saw that it would be a route to a creative life—with centuries of history in which its practitioners were esteemed “gentlemen and scholars.” In short, he would get to design and draw AND pay the bills of the burgeoning 50s lifestyle. Though, in retrospect, he didn’t always enjoy his work. He designed commercial buildings—schools, churches, office buildings—in West Texas, where the public tastes, provincial clients, and the terrain often proved to be uninspiring.  I recently found this cartoon in my father’s personal papers…

CarpenterCartoonMed“I’m a carpenter, ma’am; you want anything in particular built, you call an architect.”

But, it was a good choice for him in another aspect: my father was an extreme extrovert. He loved his fellow humans and he loved working in collaboration with them to achieve things that none could do alone. I’ll elaborate on such projects in a later post…

When I was a girl I was often allowed to spend time “doodling” at one of my father’s drafting tables. The tools of his trade—T-squares, parallel rules, triangles, templates, mechanical pencils, and the like—were fascinating to me. They still evoke feelings of “comfort” and of “possibility” within me. I would spend hours drawing plans for my own dream houses, and when bored with that, I’d use his tools to make abstracted, yet geometric designs that simply pleased my eye [and this was without any knowledge yet of the Bauhaus!!]. Later [and this is a little confession] when I was a middle school student and hired to answer his office phones on Saturdays, I would sometimes be so wrapped up in my work at his drafting table that I’d completely forget to answer the phone when it rang.

When I would bring my art projects home from school, Dad would always have good, constructive criticism for me—though, of course, what I wanted to hear was, “Oh, my god, my daughter is a creative genius!” I never heard that. Instead, what I got from him was the steady message that what I was doing represented honest effort, and that eventually it would all come to something. I’ve written of my father’s help before, here. Never did I hear from either of my parents that a young girl had to have limitations to her dreams. For this reason, and my early recognition of the things I LOVED to do, I knew from age five that I wanted to be an artist.

To be continued…

12 Responses

  1. Monica Fogg says:

    For some reason, I snagged onto the “extrovert” part… While I know you have an introverted side, you have that part that really enjoys engaging in conversation with others…and you are GOOD at it! (unlike some of us who really struggle to do so.)

  2. Tom Davis says:

    Tom Mills, with his keen architect’s/photographer’s eye, is observing, with interest, his daughter’s perspective, as she “draws” it. Perhaps something Anita writes will “draw” out her brother’s reflections on his Dad, “illustrating” the son’s own perspective. Tom Mills was a fine architect and mentor…but in the end, his finest works were his kids!

    • Anita Mills says:

      Tom, thanks for your kind remarks. Yes, I suppose everyone’s perspective on the life of a man might eventually add up to the whole man. All I know is what impact he had on my own life… it was considerable, of course. And, I wish I still were a “kid.” A “kid” at heart, hopefully! xo AM

    • Anita Mills says:

      Hi, Linda! Thanks for reading my blog. I’ve been sorting through Dad’s papers, and it just seems like there’s so much here left to tell. He WAS an amazing guy… but isn’t that what most people think of their daddies? AM

    • Anita Mills says:

      Hi, Marjorie! Yes, he was. And, he was a sharp dresser, too! Always wore hats. When my brother and I cleaned out his closet, we found 60+ hats!
      ;) Thanks for reading and posting! xo AM

  3. Trudy says:

    This background makes perfect sense to me. And what a delight to read this about your childhood, experiences and influences! Looking forward to me. Keep them coming!

    • Anita Mills says:

      Trudy, these reminiscences are important to me for many reasons… not the least of which is that my father and I “suffered” a 19 year estrangement when I came out to him in 1989. It was only the last five years that we were reunited… and I must say, in many ways, it was the best five years of our relationship to one another. I’m grateful.

    • Anita Mills says:

      Dave, isn’t it interesting that those of us who are either approaching or living in our sixth decade now have family photos that look “classic.” And, I really wonder how, in the digital age, we will manage to keep family photos “alive.” Thoughts?
      Thanks for reading this post! AM

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