Nobody christens the holiday season with a natural knack for embracing the wacky and romancing the outrageously tacky as local pseudo-celebrity Suzie Millions, seasoned veteran of The Big Crafty and author of “The Complete Book of Retro Crafts.”
I recently visited Millions at the home she shares with her husband, Lance Wille, drummer for local bands Reigning Sound and the Krektones. The couple recently downsized from a 4,000 square foot working studio/loft in downtown Asheville to a much smaller residence on the east side of town. The sight that welcomes visitors as they enter the home is a cozy clutter of pop culture icons and bona fide Americana that might have celebrated the love child of Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol.This time of year, guests may expect to find plenty of kitschy handmade Christmas crafts as well.
Millions’ current studio is confined to a small back bedroom with a rough-framed loft, lending it the feel of a college dorm room. The space is a bright hodgepodge of various paints, collected images, colorful knickknacks and dismantled whatnot, all stacked and crowded and surprisingly organized on shelves, in boxes, and in meticulously labeled multi-drawer cabinets. “Little girls love these drawers,” Millions says, pulling tiny doll figurines and sparkly garland from adjacent compartments. The room is reminiscent of the cigar box dioramas she has made so many of over the years. The entire house is an art project in the making, and a museum of the imagination.
Suzie Millions sold her first painting at age 13, a self-portrait she finished with shoe polish after running out of paint. Thinking outside the box has been a common theme in her art career. She attended and dropped out of two prestigious art schools, including the Art Institute of Chicago where she was a merit scholar. She went on to have what she refers to as a “real” art career, but even then her badge of honor was a reputation for unrefined artwork that was judged by local art reviews with commentaries like “tackily de rigueur” and “the epitome of bad taste.” When asked if she embraced her attraction to all things gaudy, her reply was an unequivocal, “Absolutely.”
“I embrace the tacky, like this piece here,” Millions says proudly, pointing to a snowman diorama she made from a 70s-era coffee decanter. “I’ve always loved vintage coffee carafes.” She brings out a box full of tiny bird nest Christmas ornaments she made from repurposed packaging material she bought from local recycler Trash, Inc. One of her favorite pieces sits on the mantle above her fireplace: an old Mrs. Butterworth syrup bottle transformed into a convincing effigy of Mrs. Claus. Her instincts have served her well. A couple years ago she entered a contest at the WNC Mountain State Fair with a reindeer Christmas ornament she made from a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer can. She won 2nd place.
Millions credits her attraction to crafting and creating Christmas décor, in part, to an animated character. “I’ve always had this Christmas connection,” Millions confesses, “and I think some of it is because I grew up in Michigan, just across from Chicago, and there was a cartoon there called Suzie Snowflake that they showed all year long.”
“Some people’s tacky is going to the store and buying something someone else made,” Millions adds. “Things that are just hopelessly flawed, that’s the kind of stuff that intrigues me. I like the stuff that you see the human foible in.”
Millions’s own stylish eccentricities have attracted the attention of the local arts community, and her anti-fashion sensibilities are in high demand. She was a recent contributor to Lark Books editor Kathleen McCafferty’s first book “Craft-In”; and she was a featured artist in “Where Women Create,” a book about the “inspiring work space of extraordinary women.”
More recently, she has been consulted on the decoration and design of the work spaces of local musicians and music venues. She recently curated the interior of Pulp, the newly opened liquor bar in the basement of the Orange Peel. She also counts local bands Echo Mountain and the Avett Brothers as clients of her stylistic prowess. Her most significant accomplishment, however, was being asked to design and decorate the dressing rooms and lounges backstage at Moogfest, an honor that will certainly garner her even more exposure as she pursues this new incarnation of her offbeat career in the arts.
At the risk of sounding cliché, it seems kitsch has found its niche.
— John Piper Watters is a father, artist and freelance writer with a day job living in the Asheville area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org