Snatch the Crown: OG Millie
On the outskirts of the outer borough, I took the long ride to Jamaica, Queens. I was there to interview OG Millie, the ambitious and innovative artist looking to shake up the game. She welcomed me into the lab, a garage converted into an art studio, decked out in mirrors - floor to ceiling. Still healing from a recent operation, Millie wore her iconic eyepatch, etched with the OG logo. We spoke about overcoming obstacles and her creative vision.
The first time I met Millie was last November, in Cheryl’s Global Soul, at an event celebrating the season opening of Jeff Beler’s Underhill Walls. Jeff has a knack for recognizing style, and tapped Millie to paint a panel. The party featured a diverse set of artists and musicians. Millie was there with her partner Jazz, and chatting with AJ Lavilla, a fellow Filipino-American artist.
AJ had recruited Millie to contribute art to his Holiday Drop 2017, a project designed to raise funds for the ‘Protect Our Dream' organization. The foundation works to develop art education in under-funded communities in the Philippines. Proceeds from the holiday sale were used to provide materials for the country’s young creatives. Millie’s pieces sold out.
It’s not surprising. Millie’s work attracts a wide audience. Despite the OG in her tag, Millie is a young gun in the game. Rather, she sees the OG as referring to her ability to blend old school and new school. Vintage with current sensibilities, pop-art meets street style. Most of her paintings focus on colorful representations of iconic figures, among them: Alicia Keys, John Lennon, Frida Kahlo, Bob Marley, and the Notorious B.I.G.
Millie’s Biggie portrait earned her an invitation to be part of SpreadArtNYC’s 20/20 Show, celebrating the life of Brooklyn’s finest. After the Biggie opening, several of her pieces were also featured in the SpreadArt anniversary show. It was through her SpreadArt connections that Millie developed her street sensibilities.
On Dodworth street in Bushwick, she spray-painted her first mural. Leaf was there to help, and gave her some graffiti pointers and the 101s. Millie learned to create a beautiful rendition of Alicia Keys. While still hesitant to describe herself as a ‘street artist,’ her street style sensibilities have naturally been incorporated into her work.
Her sense for iconography coupled with her diverse array of subjects are complimented best by her bright pop art styling. Describing her vivid palette: “that’s what colors do, they catch your eye.”
Since her Dodworth mural, Millie’s popped off a few more. Her John Lennon piece at Underhill resonates with the musician’s sense of serenity. Up in Connecticut, she painted Basquiat at the Bridgeport Art Tower. And in the boogie down Bronx, she painted in the Mess Hall next to a Spike Lee mural, a tribute to her roots: a basketball.
“Even when I was younger, I was always an artist… but I never dove into the arts until I graduated college.”
In spite of a lifelong talent, OG Millie’s journey toward her artistic career is anything but straightforward. Her first goal was to be the queen of hoops. Millie was a basketball star. The early lessons she learned from playing have created a strong mindset. When it comes to competition, she knows to get psyched up, not psyched out, and to persevere through adversity. She joked about what pushed her: she “didn’t want to be a loser."
As a kid, she had bad eyes, and had to play with glasses or goggles, but Millie didn’t let this discourage her. She honed her skills and upped her game. Senior year of high school, the most valuable year for recruitment, she was working to earn a scholarship for college. But one morning, her eyesight failed her.
Millie woke up, and saw a blackness, which descended “like a curtain… you lose your vision gradually.” At first, she thought to just shake it off, but it got worse. “Straight lines were wavy.” Concerned, her parents took her to the doctor, and rather than finding relief, they got alarming news: she needed immediate surgery on her left eye.
Right after her finals, she went to the hospital. Millie underwent a scleral buckle procedure, an intensive operation that involved a silicon band being sewn around the circumference of the eye. The procedure is designed to repair retinal detachment. Facing the possibility of losing her sight, and consequently her ability to play, Millie was scared. Yet she didn’t back down.
“[Basketball] taught me to be stronger, and to never give up.”
The operation was a success. Healing was an arduous process, taking almost 3 months, but she got along with the help of her family, and by painting as a hobby. Luckily, or should I say persistently, she was awarded a sports scholarship to a university in Long Island. While in college, she continued on the courts, and also began to pursue art more seriously. Millie studied graphic design, and practiced her fundamentals, in particular, color theory.
Through life’s struggles, Millie has kept her head up with the help of her family. Millie is Filipino-American, and comes from traditional roots. She joked, “my grandma is straight-off-the-boat.” Even though they had reservations about her artistic ambitions, the family is very supportive of her pursuits. As Millie explained, in Filipino culture, “family is family.”
Millie’s eye problems have been a burden, but they’ve also forced her to look inward, and reconsider her artistic approach. It’s helped push her to innovate, and paint with new perspective.
Reflections on the Past, Visions of the Future
Tools of the trade were stocked around the room, from spray cans to paint brushes. Millie told me she was looking to try out her marker skills, and work on tags to up her black book game. Like a true OG, she has a dedication to the craft.
I marveled at the wall of mirrors. A dozen reflections shifted before me as I switched my angle of sight. Each frame was unique with intricate carvings, ornate metalwork, or wooden designs. Each mirror a custom canvas.
“[There’s] a lot of competition in the art game, you have to make yourself stand out.”
Millie gave me the rationale to her innovative approach. “I was never pleased with the mediums I was working with.”
She had explored different mediums, from wooden boards to sneakers. Evidence of these experiments lay opposite the mirror wall. ‘Notorious’ in the coogi sweater was painted on a piece of timber, and popping pair of kicks were shelved above her desk. Millie planned which figure would be paired with which mirror, based on the age and design of the frame. For example, a golden chassis emboldened with a bald eagle had a natural presidential feel. Millie planned to paint Obama.
Looking at the decorative mirrors, I noticed something. The portraits had unfilled irises. She explained: "Canvases are filled in with color, but with mirrors, that’s the beauty of it, you see your reflection. It’s about living in the now. Wherever you go, you’re there, present, looking at yourself in the now.”
Millie’s come to appreciate living in the now, more than once. Shortly after the dinner at Cheryl’s, Millie had to go under the knife again. Complications with her eye threatened to destroy what she’d been working to build. But not one to break under pressure, Millie took it like a champ. After the success of the operation, she gifted one of her paintings to the surgeon.
While she recovered once more, she tested her skills with one eye. Although the eye-patch distorted her depth, she sketched out a colorful Biggie. Looking at the canvas, the character is more abstract, but still instantly recognizable as the hip-hop king.
As she recuperates her strength, Millie is as always supported by her family, who are there for encouragement and love, to remind her why she’s working to be Queen of the game. I sensed inside OG Millie a fire looking to shine. As we wrapped up the interview, I asked if she had any closing thoughts.
“Everything happens for a reason.” Millie said. “No matter what you go through in life, keep a positive outlook.”
Shortly after our interview, a friend of Millie’s tagged her in a Facebook post, linking her to a contest for an art residency. She applied to the position and won.
Sponsored by the Queens Council of Arts, Millie’s residency will be hosted out of the Paper Factory Hotel in Long Island City. The 3-month stay is designed to help build exposure for artists, and create a public dialogue on the role of art.
In her artistic statement for the gig, OG Millie articulates her ideas for the project: “my concept for this exhibit is to paint the Queens ‘Unisphere’ on a circle mirror to celebrate the beloved symbol of Queens, illustrating the diversity of the world’s most diverse borough. The socio-political inspiration of my proposed art installation is to represent the peace of a community that arrives through understanding.”
“I plan to find four ornate mirrors, and paint iconic international figures: Bruce Lee, Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, and Michael Jackson. [...] these individuals are superstar celebrities that transcend race, nationality, gender, and economic and social classes. I believe my painting will express how Queens is a melting pot for the community that calls it home, and travelers who explore and visit it. Queens is world renowned for its diverse cultures and its open arms to various races.”
“My hope is that my artwork will continue to inspire everyone in its audience to respect diversity, honor individuality, and love their community.”
Photo courtesy of T.K Mills and OG Millie