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The Mill transformation captured by artists

By Kathy DeMott

The Mill: rich in history, memories, and Vicksburg’s economic driver of the past.

Its future: a community thriving with shops, music, breweries, more.

Its present: an active construction site with hard hats, building materials, noises of machines once again.

This transformation is being captured by participants in the Prairie Ronde Artist Residency. Director John Kern explains the resolve to attract high-quality artists where they can have artistic freedom to create. “These artists are capturing what is happening at the Mill currently, during the renovation. This time is equally as important to the Mill’s story.”

Artists receive a comprehensive tour of the 420,000 square feet space that includes a description of history, current construction activities and future plans. It is only when they walk the grounds and buildings that the magnitude of the size and space is realized. It is an industrial space in process, changing daily as work crews work transform it. They too are part of the story. As artists commune with the space, as they explore Vicksburg, their creative processes begin.

Being present. Experiencing. Capturing the culture of the Mill.

For collaborative duo and “media archeologists” Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder, the appeal and uniqueness of the residency is the “opportunity to pursue long term creative projects at the Mill and hopefully contribute to its visionary history in the making.” Their various site-specific interventions at the Mill are conceived as work-in-progress “sketches” for a future exhibition, tentatively titled “Footprints”, featuring filmic and sculptural objects. The installation will consist in sculptural casts made from a group of concrete machine pedestals discovered at the Mill. The original pedestals will eventually be demolished. In the meantime they are “currently on view until their demise,” according to the artists. The pedestals have been painted black in order to call attention to their “involuntary minimalist aesthetic.” A glimpse of this project can be seen in their 16mm film titled “Mill Film” via the Mill’s Youtube channel. Aside from this, Gibson and Recoder made approximately two dozen collages titled “Lee Paper Mill Color Sample Book”, created with paper that was made at the paper mill while it was in operation. These collages are now part of the residency’s permanent art collection. 

Musician and filmmaker Asante Amin appreciated the space and immersion in nature. Walking each morning in the forest and listening to the music of the stream set the tone for the day and the kind of music he created. With the withering flowers of autumn, he became focused on the transitions and transformation of plant life. Amin said, “The messages were clear, the essence of life persists but transformation and change is inevitable. This is what inspired the music I created here.”

His short film will include visuals and four songs he completed including, “The Seed”, a piece that chronicles the journey of a seed from its mother branch, to journeying on the wind to find its place in the soil; “Flow’rs Wil Gro” which uses the growth of flowers as a metaphor for the development of black life in the face of oppression and humanity in general in the face of the concrete of depression and social constriction.” Amin was joined by his creative partner, musician Chen Lo on two songs,

“Witherin’ Flowers”, which refers to the inevitable process of decay that comes with life, hope of spring, and the cycle of life;

“Free Ya Mind”, a spiritual and mental medicine, conceived originally as a meditation and affirmation.

Environmental installation artist Jeff Schofield demonstrated casting of abandoned objects in concrete, soil, and resin during an open studio. His piece entitled “Toys and Trinkets” with over 300 sculptures, mainly from discarded or found objects collected during his residency, shows a “nasty, seedy side of over-production.” The colorful, diverse items from household objects, tools, toys are beautiful and thought provoking. His art invokes playfulness, yet creates tension and conviction.

In the prairie behind the Mill, Schofield’s ephemeral artwork titled, “99 Planks”, a ring of wood 30 feet in diameter on the inside and 50 feet in the outside, evokes life cycles of growth, decay, and rebirth. As a sculptor and architect, using site-specific and event-based artworks in nature is a way to create art that invokes an emotional response while it exists. It is designed to be temporal, a unique experience in time.

For duo Gracie and Rachel (Gracie Coates and Rachel Ruggles), having an unstructured environment was initially a bit uncomfortable, but ultimately pushed the pair artistically. Exploring the Mill and recording the rough, smooth, raw sounds led to visceral musical moments, unexpected audio captures, and a curiosity around what exists sonically in the present moment of the space.

“We wanted the sounds to speak for themselves, the drills, hammers, water dripping. The workers are the true musicians of the Mill, they’re really the ensemble,” said Gracie. “Creativity flourishes when you get to have a conversation with the environment in motion, instead of simply plopping yourself into a space and expecting to have answers.”

From their recordings, the duo created 30 minutes of new music and sonic poems, interwoven with raw sounds from the Mill, and printed a cassette tape of this music that contains 15 minutes on each side. The duo also performed a set of original music downtown on Main Street, bringing together an evening of ethereal sounds, textures and community.

Lastly, they brought sounds to life through a video performance piece of them walking through the Mill, playing violin and singing to the construction site in a large one-shot loop. The piece ends with a loop of The Mill without Gracie and Rachel, simply capturing the live sounds of the space in all its noisy nature, allowing us to hear that the Mill is making music already, each and every day.

We just have to listen for it.

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