By VICTORIA RICKMOND
Professor Jon McMillan always knew he wanted to be an artist, but it was during a high school behind-the-scenes tour of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia that his passion was further sparked. In what now seems like a full circle moment of his artistic career, the museum awarded him with a prestigious Visual Arts Fellowship earlier this month.
“In retrospect, you can look back and pick out turning points,” McMillan said of that initial VMFA tour. “It’s a moment that sticks out in my memory. I was always making art since I was a very young child and by that point, I was looking to go to college to study art.”
McMillan, who is currently an associate professor and chair of the Art and Art History Department, was among twelve professional artists who were recognized. In his case, it was specifically for his work in ceramic sculpture. He said that he draws upon many inspirations for his pieces.
“The influences are all recombined into these new forms and objects. I wanted to make references to many different things, and the way to do that is to abstract them to the point where they’re ambiguous but still suggestive. They become new objects that are just undefinable, but rich with a lot of connotations.”
McMillan said that after taking a ceramics class in college, he never looked back. “I took an Intro to Ceramics class in college and that was it. When I sat down on the potter’s wheel, I was fascinated and never wanted to stop.”
He never has. After graduating from James Madison University, McMillan worked exclusively in pottery for both his own personal business and for various art fairs. After years of exploring the medium and materials, he discovered a curiosity for both sculptural works and for teaching during his graduate work at Southern Illinois University.
“The demands of making art for a living were limiting my creative work in a sense. I grew a little restless with that and started exploring the idea of teaching.” He said that UMW appealed to him for several reasons, including its being a small liberal arts college. “I’ve taught at large universities and there’s resources at those types of schools that smaller schools don’t have, but the trade-off is a sense of community and interdisciplinary nature, and the fact that our department is a great size where we get to know our students on a personal level.”
McMillan finds his students’ successes, both big and small, to be the most rewarding aspect of his job. He recalled one moment in particular during a ceramics and pottery-oriented art festival in downtown Fredericksburg called the Sophia Street Pottery Throwdown.
“By the second year of the festival, I think six or seven of the twenty-five booths were my former students who were out making work for a living now and doing it professionally. Those kinds of moments are the really big, rewarding moments. There’s lot of little ones along the way, like just seeing that moment of inspiration or seeing the work really come together successfully, those are the best parts.”
While McMillan plans to use the $8,000 fellowship award for enhancing his personal studio and purchasing new equipment, he also said that the award will undoubtedly impact his students positively in the long run.
“Just like any professor in any discipline here, our professional research or professional creative work is completely integrated with what we teach because they go hand in hand. Having time and resources to develop our professional work is really important,” said McMillan.
“Part of teaching is not just showing students the technical skills or helping them to develop their own voice as an artist, but demonstrating what it looks like to be a professional artist. In many ways, the exhibition opportunities that an award like this comes with and the kind of exposure that it brings is an important part of teaching and modelling a career path.”
The VMFA fellowship also happens to line up perfectly with McMillan’s plans for a fall sabbatical at the end of this year in preparation for another exciting event in the art world. In March of 2020, the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts Conference will take place in Richmond and one of the main goals of his sabbatical, McMillan said, is to prepare to develop a body of work for a solo exhibition in the conference.
“It’s the biggest art conference in the world, with 7,000 ceramic artists all in Richmond,” he said. “It’s a huge opportunity for the region in terms of ceramic art and in terms of promoting our programs here at the university. And it’s my hometown, so it’s very cool.”