Jon McMillan was in high school when he took an after-hours tour of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond as part of a summer governor’s school program. Deep within the bowels of the museum, experiencing the vast expanse of work that was hidden from public view got McMillan fired up and ready to make art of his own.
This week, McMillan, associate professor and chair of the Department of Art and Art History, returns to the museum that molded him into the ceramicist and sculptor he is today. McMillan is one of 12 professional artists in Virginia who will receive a prestigious VMFA Fellowship for 2019-2020. A reception honoring the fellows will be held on Thursday, March 7 at VMFA.
McMillan, who has taught at Mary Washington since 2011, said he is “humbled and honored” to accept the highly competitive award; he was among the 28 professional and student artists whose work was chosen from 753 applicants. “It’s the most significant professional honor I’ve ever received for my artwork.”
The statewide award, for which only artists from Virginia are eligible, includes opportunities for fellowship recipients to exhibit their work at VMFA, as well as an $8,000 award for each of the 12 professional fellows.
To McMillan, who hails from Richmond, VMFA was a central part of his formative years. He was eager to share the story of that “behind-the-scenes” glimpse into the museum’s collections with VMFA staff.
“It’s meaningful because the museum can understand the long-term impact their education and outreach programs have for young students, and how it connects to the support they are giving professional artists through this fellowship program,” said McMillan, who holds an MFA in ceramics from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and a BFA from James Madison University with a minor in art history.
Professor of Art Carole Garmon said that the fellowship’s ties to Fredericksburg – it was established in 1940 with a generous endowment from the late businessman and philanthropist John Lee Pratt, who lived at Chatham Manor – “make it even more sweet.”
“[McMillan] is a master of detail, form and exquisite surfaces, and his objects bridge a conceptual dance between form and function, resulting in the quiet nature that is the artist himself,” Garmon said.
VMFA selected fellowship recipients through a blind jury process, in which a juror in each of the three categories – professional, graduate and undergraduate – reviewed images of works submitted by each artist, without any identifying information.
Inspired by the natural world and exploring concepts of duality and dichotomy, McMillan’s work features both organic and man-made elements that are ambiguous yet suggestive. The sculptural works that McMillan submitted were created through an “intuitive” process, in which he begins a sculpture without a set plan. “For these works, I use a process called coil-building, which involves slowly building the form by stacking long ropes of clay on top of each other, then carefully blending them together. These sculptures literally grow from the ground up.”
McMillan plans to invest the award money in his home studio, purchasing new equipment, tools, clay and glaze-making materials. Because the fellowship coincides with his fall 2019 sabbatical, he is considering an artist residency at the Red Lodge Clay Center in Montana.
He will soon begin a new body of sculptural work with the purpose of securing a solo exhibition at the upcoming National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts conference, the world’s largest gathering of professional ceramic artists, which convenes in Richmond in March 2020.
“It’s an amazing confluence that my sabbatical semester aligns perfectly with the award,” McMillan said. “And both have the same intention, to support me in my professional work.”