Gallery West’s current exhibition of James C. McMillan’s career-spanning work – Art – Life Itself, will conclude in a way most appropriate for this venerable artist and teacher – with his paintings, drawings and fine art prints sharing space with local art students.
To cap off the McMillan exhibition, Gallery West plans September 30 as an evening on its back terrace featuring the young African American urban jazz musician known as Dubber. And on the gallery walls, McMillan’s work will be joined by works of two art students from Benedict; the students’ work will remain on view a view weeks beyond McMillan’s show - Art – Life Itself - which ends October 1.
Although McMillan’s work, currently on view at Gallery West, 118 State Street in West Columbia, is not presented as a retrospective, the North Carolina native and octogenarian said the pieces gallery owner Sara Cogswell chose for Art - Life Itself span many of his creative and artistic iterations. When he arrived for his own show, to see for himself how the work had been hung, he sauntered through the connected gallery spaces as though he was perusing a review of his life.
A ground-breaking arts educator and college professor, having retired in 1988 from Guilford College where he became the Art Department’s first African-American chair, after teacher earlier at Bennett College, McMillan nurtured many fledging artists during four decades of teaching. At his Gallery West show, he reminisced about the art teacher who first validated the artist in him.
“The first time I had real art materials in my hands, they were given to me by an art teacher who had bought them and brought them back from New York, so the way she presented them to me articulated that this was special. I was special; she saw promise in me,” McMillan recalled. “They were charcoals, and I began to realize you could do different things with different materials. I was just a kid then, only in the eighth grade.”
Yet the realization that an art teacher could have such impact on an inspiring young artist remains with McMillan still, and he has taken great care, and felt great responsibility throughout his career as a teacher – to protect and nurture creativity. “Because I was encouraged by teachers as well as my parents, who were educators before me, I sensed a particular obligation to encourage curiosity, creativity’s doorway.”
Having begun college at only 15, McMillan had barely completed three of his undergraduate years at Howard University when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and he was drafted, with one year remaining before he would have earned his degree. His early service in the U.S. Navy took him back to the Pacific, to the very place where WWII was ignited for America. After armistice the G.I. Bill allowed him to continue his education at Skowhegen School in Maine. Visiting artists to the revered school, from Europe and America’s cultural centers, became McMillan’s mentors.
He recognizes that his own art was “still blooming when I began teaching. I felt that teaching came with the requirement to continue learning, growing, experimenting, and that I must take care of my own creativity as I was coaxing it out of my students.”
Before Gallery West officially opened Art-Life Itself, McMillan was welcomed to Columbia one day early by Friends of African American Art and Culture. This show, in mediums ranging from painting and drawing to printmaking, represents work created before and during his time in Paris, carrying through to the Civil Rights Movement, and now into McMillan's most recent work that captures the "movement" of North Carolina’s landscape, from mountains to sea, created from the 1940s to the present.