BLACKSBURG — Maybe you’ve driven by them on your way to work and thought to yourself, who are they? Where are they from? What does it all mean?
As a longtime resident of Blacksburg I have always been intrigued by the sculptures in front of the town building. I am a writer and lover of local lore so many times people assume I know general town trivia. And most of the time I am pretty on point. But recently, as I drove by these sculptures as I’ve done thousands of times before, my friend turned to me and asked, “So Emily, what’s the story with them?”
I had to confess that I did not know. After a bit of sleuthing I was able to find out more about this mysterious pair. The piece is entitled “Father and Son” and the story of their debut in front of the town building is truly monumental.
A native of Virginia Beach, Jim Mills arrived at Virginia Tech in 1975 and began taking courses in sociology and psychology. He accepted an undergraduate summer internship working at a pediatric rehabilitation center where he would wind up meeting the woman of his dreams — a child development major and fellow Hokie. The pair has been together ever since.
Mills did change his mind about one thing though. He decided to take a chance on his lifelong love of art and transfer into the art department during his junior year. He teases that he stuck with sociology “just long enough to meet his wife.”
Back in the ’70s the art department at Virginia Tech was a rather small and intimate place, established by the celebrated sculptor and artist Dean Carter just over a decade prior to Mills’ enrollment.
Under the mentorship of the late Dean Carter, a professor emeritus whose “Madonna and Child” sculpture is displayed in Wallace Hall, Mills enjoyed what he praises as “a fantastic educational experience” and fell in love with sculpting.
He went on to create a series of stylized busts using wire and plaster, of which he was very proud. But time was passing quickly and he knew that he wanted to create a lasting impression before graduation. For his senior year design project, he got the idea to enlarge his bust sculptures “up to 10 feet” using cement, metal lath and steel. But of course that would cost more money than a proverbial starving artist had to spare.
“Go to a bank and ask for money,” was the frank advice given to him by Professor Emeritus of Art Ray Kass, a watercolor and oil painter and writer who currently splits his time between New York City and Blacksburg.
But Mills had a better, even bolder idea and decided to attend that evening’s Blacksburg Town Council meeting with a painting “tucked under his arm” illustrating the superimposed images of his bust series and his model for the 10 foot future work of art.
During the open mic portion of the meeting, Mills stood up and pitched his idea to the council members, proposing that if the town could simply cover the cost of the materials, he would leave the sculpture with the town as a gift.
The council voted and it was a slam-dunk. As Mills was leaving, he overheard one council member say to another, “What exactly did we just vote on?”
Mills was excited as he left the building, eager to get started on the project as his final semester was drawing to a close. A reporter from The Roanoke Times had been at the meeting and approached Mills afterwards to tell him he’d never seen anything pass so quickly through the council. The next morning, newspaper headlines read “Tech Sculptor Sells Council” and Mills was on his way to creating a legacy.
Imagine his surprise when he learned that the council actually wanted this work of art displayed right out in front of the town building itself, prominently on Main Street.
“I thought it would wind up going in some obscure park or something, but right in front of the building, wow, that was very special.”
A four-man crew with a backhoe went to work digging the foundation and welding the armature for the concrete slab. Though the Art Department was behind him, the undertaking was not without controversy from others who alleged that Mills was too young and inexperienced to attain such a coveted spot to showcase his art.
Nonetheless, the townspeople embraced Mills’ creation (finished in 1977) and Mills went on to achieve great success as an artist, joining the Johnson Atelier Technical Institute of Sculpture in Princeton, New Jersey, where he studied sculpture as a teaching foundry.
There he served on the senior staff of the resin department and was able to work alongside experts such as Francesco Clemente and Seward Johnson, who is known as “America’s Sculptor.”
Johnson is a philanthropist who has dedicated his career to public art, and founded the not-for-profit Grounds For Sculpture, which opened its doors to the public in 1992 and includes works from such notable artists as Clement Meadmore and George Segal. The park, located in Hamilton Township, New Jersey, welcomes nearly 160,000 visitors annually and is the largest of its kind in the entire world, showcasing millions of dollars worth of breathtaking creations.
The Atelier teaching foundry eventually closed but by that time Mills had a leg up to start his own business. Mills currently runs his company, Sculpture Cast, from his studio in Roosevelt, New Jersey, and has been active in the art world for 30 years, exhibiting his paintings and sculpture while working with prominent artists and architects including Julian Schnabel, Georgia O’Keefe, Robert A. M. Stern, and Segal.
His recent Sculpture Cast projects include casting two life size sculptures, Yogi Berra and Don Larson, for the new Yankee Stadium Sports Museum.
During my interview with Mills, I asked him for the title of his first major work of art, the sculpture he commissioned for the town of Blacksburg, and to my surprise he responded “Father and Son.”
I guess I like many others had assumed the pair was a couple, perhaps even man and wife. He quickly added that he is “terrible with titles” and the piece is “definitely more about the image than the name.”
But I wanted to know more. Mills went on to explain that he had wanted to convey a feeling of encouragement — and that of a support system.
“Perhaps it is my sociology and psychology background coming through,” he laughed, “but I wanted to honor my father, as well as all of those in the art department at Virginia Tech who had shaped me through their teaching, and even the town council for their support of my work.”
Did you know the town often dresses the pair up for special occasions? During Breast Cancer Awareness month they can be seen outfitted with stylish pink tulle scarves. During the holiday season the pair don festive red and green scarves and the occasional elfin hat. They were even dressed as a bride in groom for the royal wedding years ago, so I guess art truly is in the eye of the beholder.
Check out Mills’ other creations at www.sculpturecast.com and the next time you pass by the town building, think of a young kid taking a chance on his dreams and leaving a lasting legacy for many years to come.