Benjamin Mills (C’20): Master of chaos

Mills practicing photography, one of his many artistic endeavors. Photo courtesy of Mills.

By Bramwell Atkins
Contributing Writer

Benjamin Mills (C’20) is a painter, a poet, a photographer, a videographer, and a musician.  He is also a stonemason. 

“I consider stonemasonry an art,” he said. “I spent a year in France when I was seven. Seeing French barns and houses has given me a love of shaping stone. . . . I want more buildings here,” he said, speaking of Sewanee, “I want student-built stone buildings.”

His artistic presence on campus is understated, but it is powerful. He doesn’t often put his art on display. This is because his art is an extension of his life. The two blend together and at times become indistinguishable. 

Mills sees his artistic process as a transformation of chaos into order. This philosophy transcends mediums. It transcends art. It’s his life. In his paintings and poems as well as his daily interactions, Mills tries to make sense out of a chaotic world. 

Chaos is, of course, a Greek word, referring to the tangle of elements which existed before the natural, ordered world. When walking into Mills’s room, one can’t help but imagine that ancient tangle. His room is a clutter of pots, pans, knives, free-weights, and an overturned lamp. Two rusty and disassembled typewriters are on his nightstand. “Messy” is not the word for it. It is a vibrant, swirling, and violent room. 

Mills had invited me to the McCrady house, where he is living this year, he sat across from me in a leather armchair. His right foot was resting in a bucket of very hot water with steam coming out. The water was to either disinfect or ease the pain of a wound in his foot, which he’d got while stacking wood near his childhood home. 

“I stepped on a nail,” he told me. 

It’s not his first mishap. When Mills was 10 years old, while helping his father and grandfather build a treehouse, he was almost decapitated by a sliding piece of tin. 

“I would hurt myself whittling things,” he said, “and it’s something I still do. I’m clumsy and that clumsiness is part of the chaos.”

Mills likes to build things. He is building a barn, in anticipation that he will eventually turn that barn into a house for himself. For Mills, self-sustainability is as much of an art as music, poetry, or painting. The desire to nurture life in a vast natural landscape is a big part of Mills’s personality, and as with many of his skills and traits, it is one he learned from his father. 

Ben Mills’ father, Wilmer Mills (C’92), poet, carpenter, basket-weaver, and bread-maker, built the house in which Ben Mills spent his childhood. He built it between Sewanee and Monteagle, in the style of a bungalow. Ivy is now crawling up the walls. There is a writing studio in the back and a large, wood-fired bread oven to the side. The oven is titled com-panis: Latin for “together with bread.” 

Wilmer wanted to communicate something: the importance of bread to community. When people are breaking bread together, they become a company, a com-panis. Food and communal life go hand in hand.

The oven is a symbol of a legacy that Mills has come to represent — a legacy in which artists use their hands and laborers use their heads. Under this philosophy, the poet is a baker and the farmer is a poet. Community, discovery, culture, and food are all essential to a people living day by day in the woods. Ben Mills inherited his father’s love of words, of cooking, and of community. 

“Recant,” he said, “It means to sing again. French: chant. Like Chanterelle mushrooms,” he continued, in his stream-of-consciousness style, “Chanterelle. I collected a bag of them. I’m planning to cook them for my family.”

Mills also loves music. “Music is an incredible, social, exploratory, creative, and communal experience,” he said. “Shout-out to the musicians at Sewanee.”

The musicians at Sewanee know Mills for his distinct style of playing music. If there is a guitar at hand he will take it and begin to “un-tune” it. By this I mean, he tunes the strings to notes which seem random, but which to Mills must have some musical or philosophical significance — notes which the other musicians can’t play since they often don’t appear on the traditional scales. 

The result is a trippy, spacey guitar solo. He plays harmonies which you have never heard before. The music is deeply experimental, often impossible to follow, and usually chaotic.

In this light, Mills looks less like a master of chaos, and more like a part of it. Sometimes, in conversation, his thoughts will become too deep to follow. He begins to use big words, long sentences, and extended metaphors. 

He told me: “If we de-root ourselves, if we derascinate ourselves from the analog ways of interacting with our consciousness and our identity, I think that we risk losing a lot that could set us back as far as what practices we try to hone in ourselves.” To this I had no response. 

“The obnoxious, the toxic, and the destructive,” he told me, “can be useful. . . . I would hope they could be an antidote to the undesirable.”

His paintings and his poems, however, are not the products of a scattered mind. They are not obnoxious, toxic, or destructive. They are clear, and they get at single ideas, but this does not mean that they are perfect. 

“I work speedily when I draw,” he told me, “I am impatient, impatience has a lot to do with how the drawings look, because I don’t just use one line. When I do use one line, it’s rarely the right line, and so I put more of them. I use patterned movements to put many lines into place. . . . Out of chaos, out of many brushed and flurried lines, there will be some that say what you want.”

Building a house in the wilderness, making poetry out of scattered thoughts, drawing pictures with a thousand imperfect lines: these are some ways Mills has of finding order in the midst of chaos. In this way, his art is an extension of his life. 

When I asked him about upcoming projects or performances, he said, “Well. I have some wood that I found out of a dumpster. I need to pull the nails out of it and saw it, so that I can make a picture frame. I’ll stretch canvas over it. This, as a matter of fact, is what I’ll do it with.”

He held up a large dirty roll of canvas.

“So I’ll paint a picture on it. But that’s for later. That’s not for tonight,” he said, “Tonight I need to organize my room.”

Mills’s life and his art express a continual desire to organize — to make a building, a poem, a loaf of bread, a home out of the wild world he lives in.