Living with Art: Paula Mills

In her 1920s Victorian weatherboard workers cottage, artist Paula Mills displays a collection that manifests her belief that art should be a resistance to the demands of daily life. Cardia Speziale writes. Photography by Brian Doherty.

Inspired by life, death and everything in between, South-African born and Melbourne-based artist Paula Mills fosters a practice based on the notion that art should be nourishing, a peaceful resistance to the demands of daily life. Her home, as well as the art within it, is a direct reflection of this sentiment – one which Mills lives by each day.

With a belief in the power of art to encourage connection, transformation, hope and critical thinking towards alternative futures, Mills challenges herself to create from a place that explores the contrast of beauty and strength in nature. Her preference is to work with a subject matter that is simultaneously bold and tender. The Protea, for example – a robust native South African flower that thrives in Australia – is often a central figure in her work.

Following her studies in commercial art and design in Cape Town and then an advertising stint in London, Mills made a move to Melbourne to raise her family and build her career as a freelance illustrator and full-time artist. Eventually, she rebranded to Paula Mills Art in 2018.

“After tragically losing my mother, art became a way for me to heal,” reflects Mills. “I turned back to painting and drawing and am very interested in how creativity can be used as a force of resistance and repair in society.”

Mills lives with her husband, Peter, three daughters, Lia, Rosie and Liberty, and their elderly pugalier named Bella in their 1920s Victorian weatherboard workers cottage, located in the inner-western suburb of Yarraville. Having purchased the home in 2021, the couple made alterations to refresh the space that had already undergone a renovation 20 years earlier.

“We refreshed all the paint, removed an internal wall to open up the living area and installed a huge glass and steel window panel to bring the outside in,” says Mills. “We spent a lot of time developing the garden, which is now full of beautiful indigenous plants. The reason we bought this home was for more space and a garden, as our previous inner-city house only had a courtyard, which drove us stir crazy during lockdown.”

In her home, Mills’ personal art collection is varied and comforting, echoing the artistic sentiment and philosophy that informs and inspires her own work. Lovingly placed in abundance throughout her home, each piece carries its own sense of belonging, along with a storied past. “Our art and our home are one,” says Mills. “We have an eclectic art collection that we think sits well within our eclectic home.”

Acknowledging that starting one’s own art collection can be a daunting task and reflecting on her own experiences as a young collector acquiring her first pieces from artistic friends or from vintage markets, Mills encourages new collectors to go with gut instinct and to not be too precious about the process. “Art is an investment, but it’s more about surrounding yourself with the things you love,” she says. “I would say I’m pretty compulsive – if I see something and I love it, it’s coming home with me.”

Adorning the walls of the entrance hallway is the Honour Country poster from Clothing The Gaps, a welcoming statement of acknowledgement and respect to the traditional custodians of Country. Beside it is an oil on double canvas by Mills herself, named Daisies on Pink.

Among her collection are a handful of prized pieces: a small still life by Stacey McCall, Farm Bench, acquired through Boom Gallery; a brightly coloured mixed media on canvas by Soni Irawan via No Vacancy Gallery; various ceramics by Shelley Gardner along with several original paintings by Melbourne-based artist Ali McNabney-Stevens.

Lisa Kerr’s landscape painting Yarra Valley Saturday takes a prominent space in the main living room, surrounded by natural light, colour and character. Comfortably woven among these treasures of revered peers and friends is Mills’ own work – bold interpretations of flora and fauna brought to life in watercolour, oils and ink – and the work of her eldest daughter, Lia, who is currently studying Fine Art at the Victorian College of the Arts. 

“Living with art offers possibilities of meaning and ways of seeing,” says Mills. “It brings life and character and reflects those who live in the home. It also opens up our interior lives for others to see so that we get to share who we are and connect with others through the art in our homes.”

Above: Artist Paula Mills in the reading area of the main living room. A vintage protea painting from a flea market in South Africa directly to her left, and next along an African heads headresser signage from a vintage Melbourne shop. Courtesy: Paula Mills.

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