By Sara Brandenburg
Phoebe-Agnès Mills (C’22) has been surrounded by art her whole life. Whether it was through her father’s multiple artistic pursuits at Sewanee, like having a gallery of his own at Stirling’s, her mother’s outpouring of love for beauty found in physical art and in the French language, or her older brother Benjamin’s own art, Mills has been absorbing what it means to be a well-rounded lover of art and life from a young age.
She did not become truly interested in being a painter and photographer herself until she had a hip injury from ballet that halted her dance training. While recuperating from this injury, Mills found that she loved the process of creating physical art through photography and painting.
When one meets Mills, they can right away see this kind and joyful aura that encompasses her. Mills’s mother specifically helped enforce her positive nature, Mills said: “She is really what has made me appreciate beautiful things around me. She finds meaning in rainbows and she always wants me to open up my curtains to let in natural light. She takes joy in simple pleasures and that’s really influenced my philosophy of life.”
When asked what she would call her philosophy of life, she responded with one simple word: “appreciation.” One can see this outlook of life in Mills’ oil paintings and photography. Instead of focusing on the darker side of life, she chooses instead to shine a light on the good nature she finds in humans. “I like to use my art to kind of characterize the way that I see the world and using it to find a way to show people how beautiful everything around you can be if you look at it in the right way.”
Focusing on oil painting portraits, her signature style is broad brush strokes that do not blend into the background but instead give a romantic vision of reality. The choice to keep these brushstrokes seen is intended, she explained: “I had a moment while studying art history where I thought if you could take a picture and have it reproduced, like what you’re looking at, perfectly then what’s the point in doing the same thing with painting? I tend to use my photography for my paintings. I take the reference pictures that I use but I try not to be committed to exact reproduction of the picture that I took because that’s kind of a whole separate art, the exact reproduction versus ‘this is what I see in you’, like the spirit of the picture.”
Mills was able to recently share her vision of the world by winning first place in the Congressional Art Competition. As a prize, her painting will be displayed for a year in the United States capitol building in Washington, D.C. The painting that she chose to have displayed is called “Watercolor Window.”
“It’s based on this picture that I took of a friend when she was sitting on a bus. There was a whole lot of condensation on the windows from outside and traffic lights coming through the windows, blurring across. I thought it was really beautiful so I took a picture and I painted that picture,” Mills said.
While Mills’s time at Sewanee so far has been brief, she said she already has multiple academic and recreational activities that she hopes to pursue her freshman year that will help guide her on her artistic path. Undeclared major-wise as of now, Mills is taking a wide variety classes.
Two of her classes focus on art in a very precise and detailed way: Painting from Life taught by Professor Karen Seapker and Philosophy of Art taught by Professor Mark Hopwood. Outside of class, Mills is a part of Perpetual Motion and the Art Forum. She also hopes to study abroad her junior year in France. Her biggest goal as of now is to follow in the footsteps of her father and have a gallery of her own in Stirling’s.