Robert K. Mills

2023 Fellowship AwardFolk & Traditional Arts2018 Project AwardFolk & Traditional Arts

About the artist

Robert Mills, a Tlingit artist from Kake, is exploring the why of his art and the history of his people. He has found that combining truth and commercial success is an evolution. He is cultivating his audience and building his reputation as an artist.

2023 Fellowship Award

Mills will build a traditional Tlingit tribal house in the Southeast home of Kake to improve community connection to heritage. The tribal house — Kake’s first in more than 100 years — will function as a workspace, cultural space and community space.

Mills will employ local people including mill workers, Forest Service employees and high school students from Kake to harvest and adze the wood, giving texture and life needed for a tribal house. The artist hopes to reconnect the crews to their heritage in a healthy and healing way.

Mills will work with local residents to create connections with the Forest Service’s personal use program. Mills will introduce them to mill owners and study old houses, to learn how to assemble houses using practical knowledge of power and hand tools.

Mill’s goal of creating this tribal home is to give people hope and a traditional space to practice culture and to connect as a community. 

2018 Project Award

Mills will travel to study Northwest transformation masks in museum collections in the U.S. and British Columbia. He will create a new transformation mask that builds on the historic form, and make it available for performance with a new song.

Artwork by Robert Mills

“Raven Unwarranted Disclosure,” a transformation mask by Robert Mills, explores the heaviness of generations of historical trauma and gives form to what can be too hard to talk about. Red cedar and acrylic / 2019.
“Fog Woman,” as artist Robert Mills described, visualized and spoke into existence the salmon she eventually created. Aluminum / 2019.
“The Strength That Resides in Us All” / red cedar, horse hair, acrylic / 2020. Pictured with the artist.
“Oystercatcher Drum” / deer hide / 2018.

To Sell Without Selling Out: Deliberations on Authenticity and Aesthetics

The Foundation partnered with 49 Writers, a literary nonprofit, to profile Individual Artist Award recipients from 2017 and 2018.

Profile by Amanda T. K. Compton

He said he was running from something. Well, maybe, he said.

He said people might not understand. If they didn’t, he didn’t want to spend time explaining. So consider this a challenge. A dare. Fragile and charged. Risky all-around.

He is very measured. Leery, even. He said he was reticent.

The philosophical space of Robert Mills’ artistic endeavors, his deconstruction of his influences and backstories of his backstory, the purpose and goals and effects of his work — those are his medium. The end product — a mask, drum, cuff links or a carved panel — is a formality, a representation of an exploration of his space, of his self.

Mills grew up in his dad’s rig, bumping along the old logging roads of Kake. The heavy earthmoving equipment, the muscles and shouting and lunch, was a ripe scene for a young boy who liked to sketch. Mills did not fixate on huge diggers or the claws of buckets grasped around cedar limbs. He concentrated on elements like rigging lines between the equipment, how cables wrapped around stumps, how trees fell.

“Different things interested me,” he recalled. “I remember spending copious amounts of time thinking about how I could make things work with the limited stuff I had, or have to steal from my dad’s tool shed.”

Though he explored his artistic appetite in his youth, he wanted more challenge. But there was no local mentor to guide his transition from tree forts into exacting formline pieces. Kake is a Tlingit village and Mills is Tlingit, yet he had little exposure to Native art. He worked on his own, trying to reproduce pieces he found in books. But he inevitably reached hurdles, unclear how to execute his intentions.

Also, he was the third of six children, so there was not an abundance of uninterrupted time to develop his skills, or, perhaps more important, a dedicated quiet space.

“There was so much going on, I couldn’t quietly, peacefully step into a room and have my own quiet time for hours,” Mills explained. “The thing about being an artist, when you quiet everything down, what’s left? It’s your thoughts. If there’s turmoil, it’s hard.”

This is a distinctive concept in Mills’ artistic development and his identity today. His thought process became his currency, more essential to his play book than technical skills.

After high school, he shelved his creative ambitions and worked as a commercial fisherman.

“Maybe it was frustration because what I was doing wasn’t what I was seeing,” Mills pondered. “I knew that I needed to learn from somebody.”

In time, he did. He worked under several of today’s professional indigenous Northwest Coast artists, who specialize in Tlingit and Haida craftsmanship. He developed and refined strong skill sets in wood sculpture, formline, nuanced aesthetic forms of masters past. And he was pushed to investigate the “why” behind his art, which seemed a critical but intimidating prospect.

Mills is far from emotionally lazy. He isn’t quick to talk about himself, but when he does, it seems like he’s trying to collect any loose threads, untangle them, and understand why they resonated, before proceeding. He’s not used to answering questions with his voice.

He felt that to be a successful Alaska Native artist today, he had to understand the irreversible shift in the purpose and application of Native art, the incongruencies of artistic prosperity between his ancestors and his peers in the 21st century. And he had to cozy up to the recipe of marketability. These are challenges he finds fascinating.

How could he encapsulate his deliberations on social relevancy and retain the flavor of an art form grounded in ceremony and rituals in a way that is both genuine to himself and his culture but also palatable to potential buyers?

“We’re no longer raised ‘traditionally’ so you have to use nontraditional forms to draw full attention to today’s indigenous person,” Mills explained.

Mills referred to “wardrobe Indians,” defining them as people who pick and choose when to identify with their Native heritage “when it’s [convenient.]”

“Every day we get up, and we’re making the choice: ‘Am I a U.S. citizen or a Tlingit being?’”

That one’s identity could be a selection process, an amalgam of Western and indigenous values, is a theme Mills tries to explore in his work. He feels a responsibility to portray the battles of a socially conscious Alaska Native artist.

He doesn’t want to carve masks just for the sake of producing something aesthetically appealing. And he doesn’t want to scare people, but his history is scary. His art isn’t authentic without historical acknowledgement. How can he show the residue of colonialism without ostracizing viewers? How do you sell, without selling-out?

“That’s my biggest angst, worrying how I show that to people, or articulate that, without losing them.”

Mills has found that combining truth and commercial success is an evolution. He explained that he is cultivating his audience, building his reputation as an artist. A light touch now, a simple mask with a benign message — it may pave the way for a heavier hand tomorrow. Mills understands that today’s buyer isn’t exactly ignorant of our country’s history.

“That kind of gives me hope to take the next step,” he explained. “My goal is to always stay ahead of them, but not so far [that they’ll] say ‘What’s he saying?’”

It’s a delicate strategy. Some days, fishing sounds pretty good.

Over the last few years, Mills has explored transformation masks. They are comprised of an exterior mask, typically animal in nature, that opens along a vertical center line to expose an inner mask depicting an animal or human. They were used during potlach dances by several Native groups in the Northwest region, predominantly by the Canadian Kwakwaka’wakw. These masks also were present among the Tsimshian people, and had spread farther north to Haida territory, but they hadn’t quite made it to the Tlingit before settler colonialization.

Mills’ application for his Individual Artist Award proposed the creation of what would be, to the best of his knowledge, one of the first Tlingit transformation masks. These pieces allow the artist to explore two narratives — exterior and the interior. Mills went through a couple initial concepts and settled on an analysis of the frustrating pressure to be “a good Indian,” he explained, depicting mythical legends and void of historical trauma.

The outside component of his transformation mask is a raven, the provocateur, who encourages exploration by challenging conventional wisdom. The inside is split into two additional narratives.

“On one side it’s painted to represent the binary world we live in, Western and indigenous, and they’re connected in a way that thoughts and words are connected together, like a battle,” Mills explained.

The other side of the interior is comprised of three abstract faces, created with Northwest Coast techniques, but presented unconventionally.

“There’s enough traditional form to link it all together but [it’s] abstract enough to produce questions. I painted it like that because there’s been three generations that have been suffering from historical trauma.”

The heart of the mask’s concept is to employ traditional techniques but in an “altered” and “warped” fashion, to mirror the effects of settler colonialization. A cultural transformation within a transformation mask.

He tried, at first, to make the piece more commercial and generic, part of his strategy of massaging his audiences into accepting bolder pieces. This mask wouldn’t let him compromise. “I just couldn’t. It had to come out of me.”

Writer Amanda T. K. Compton is a freelance writer and audio producer from Southcentral living in Juneau.