Press "Enter" to skip to content

Leigh Mills: Jewelry, Mud and Whimsy

Article by Ed Quillen

Art – March 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

IT’S EASY TO CHARACTERIZE Leigh Mills as a “working artist,” although it might also be fair to say she sees herself as a “work of art.” Her definition of art is so expansive that there’s no visible line with “daily life” on one side and “art” on the other.

Mills is “going on 39, but I feel like I’m a perpetual 27.” She owns and operates the Off the Beaten Path gallery in downtown Salida. The gallery carries three other artists’ work, along with her own bead jewelry. She’s probably best known, though, for mud — as in the Mud People who materialize during Salida’s annual Artwalk in June.


It was mud, in fact, that got her into art, about a dozen years ago in Denver.

“I was an Army brat,” she says, “so I grew up everywhere.” She got to Denver in 1980, “and I knew I wanted to stay in Colorado.” She was an assistant chef then, “and I loved the job, working with food, managing a kitchen. I could see myself progressing to become the head chef somewhere.”

And then there was a personality conflict, and she was fired. “I felt devastated. I just moped around, and then my neighbor in the apartment above me told me that I should see this as an opportunity: ‘You can start living your life now, instead of working your life.'”

Back in the late ’80s, lower downtown Denver wasn’t an upscale entertainment district. It was still decaying warehouses with a dash of bohemia, including a few artists.

Some of them had become “The Mud Men.” They stripped to as few clothes as the law permitted, then coated themselves in mud, donned masks, and engaged in some street theater.

Leigh Mills 1

“I fell in with them,” Mills recalls, “and started to discover the joy that comes from freedom of expression. It’s performance art, it’s fun, you’re in a costume that in some paradoxical way frees you to be yourself, or whatever you want to be.”

That also connected her with the Rainbow Family and a broad network of peace activists, “just as I discovered that I didn’t need to be chained down somewhere then, I had the freedom if I wanted it.”

So in 1988, she sold or gave away just about everything she owned. The rest went into a Ford pickup with a camper, and for the next 18 months, “I traveled all over the country. I learned how to live a minimal life on my own, how to protect myself, how to connect with people wherever I was. It gave me a lot of confidence.”

She also went to a lot of anti-war and anti-nuclear demonstrations. “I met [former Salida Mayor] Ralph Taylor at a couple of demonstrations. Of course, I just knew him as ‘Dr. Doom’ — my nickname was ‘Ground Zero’ — so that isn’t what brought me to Salida.”

Instead, she came to visit a friend in 1990, “and I saw this valley and the town, and it just felt like I belonged here. Maybe I had a past life here as one of Laura Evans’s girls — a schoolmarm gone bad.”

[Necklace by Leigh Mills]

SHE HAD NO MONEY and $500 against her Visa card. “But the good thing about restaurant experience is that you can always find work, no matter where you are.” In the summer, she was the chef for Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center in Howard, responsible for feeding river guides and their passengers, and in the winter, she tended bar at Monarch. She also started “playing with beads,” resulting in earrings, bracelets, and necklaces.

“My work is in some ways very simple and repetitive,” she says, but it’s distinctive “because of my color arrangements. I’m not like Michael Boyd and Jerry Scavezze, who come up with new designs all the time. I really get off on working with the wire, making the loops and hooks precisely — it just gives me a good feeling, to take a simple mechanical act and do it well and in an attractive and interesting way.”

The resulting jewelry is attractive and interesting, and almost whimsical.

“Art isn’t necessarily made to be taken seriously,” Mills points out, and the work in her gallery carries through on that, provoking reactions that range from chuckles to guffaws.

Jill Bergmann uses a rather serious method — wood-block prints — to produce visual puns, like the “Man of Letters” who is made of letters. Other gallery art comes from a La Veta couple. Pat McMahon makes weavings, and her husband Random Factor (that is his legal name) makes mirrors with intriguing frames.

[Mud Person on Salida Street] <

“I like people to be able to come in off the street and enjoy themselves looking at our art. I want to have affordable art that produces laughter,” she says, and it’s a combination that seems to be working. The gallery opened last May, “and I just signed a three-year lease. Business has been pretty good. Some people say that Salida is a hard place to make a go of it, but it hasn’t been that way for me.”

Like other downtown merchants, she wonders how Salida’s commerce will change. “Salida is becoming more of an art destination,” she points out, “and that has its benefits. But there’s always the danger of getting too high-toned, too specialized, getting too much like Aspen and pricing out the creative people.”

Mills doesn’t quite fit the stereotype of the gypsy hippie artist who landed in Salida. She’s got an associate degree in accounting, and she’s active in the Heart of the Rockies Chamber of Commerce and the Chaffee County Visitors’ Bureau.

“We keep looking for ways to bolster the shoulder seasons,” she says, and she’s a co-chair of this year’s Artwalk Committee.

But when Artwalk comes in late June, she’ll be among the Mud People, engaging in some street theater and friendly confrontation, hoping to get people to see that “art is everywhere, and everything you do can be art.”

Ed Quillen resisted the invitation to join the Mud People in Salida last year, and confines his artistic expression to putting one word after the other.