It is that time of year again at the University of Wisconsin. Seniors are gearing up for graduation, looking for jobs and answering the age-old and eternally frustrating question: What are you doing after graduation? In an interview with The Badger Herald, Madison musician, artist and writer Emily Mills spoke of her own experience taking her life down a less-trodden path.
“I’m ultimately just a storyteller at heart. I really like telling stories about other people and what they’re doing and what’s going on in the world because I feel like that’s the talent I was given. That’s the passion I was given, so I should put that out there for the world,” Mills said.
Mills said she recognizes everyone has their own passions in life and are granted different opportunities, and there should not be one specific, uniform path to take.
She said within her generation, there is not always a life-long career that aligns with a college major. Mills said she embraces this change and takes it as an opportunity to change direction often. She emphasized that there is usually no way to predict what will happen in life, so it’s best to just “go with it.”
“I didn’t have money to do an … unpaid internship, and I couldn’t afford the semester abroad stuff, which is a shame because I love traveling and I’ve done it on a shoestring since then. If you have the ability to do it, do it, but not everybody does, and I don’t think it should be the end of you if you can’t. It shouldn’t be all ‘Do you have a college degree? Do you have a masters?’ That’s not the path everyone should be taking,” Mills said.
After living in many states throughout the Midwest, Mills found her place in Madison, which has allowed her to pursue her artistic passions and talents.
Even though Mills has found happiness and purpose in Madison, she said that being an artist in the city presents challenges and struggles. Mills explained that Madison does not offer the best financial support for the arts, which has forced many talented artists to move elsewhere to make ends meet.
“There’s a lot of people here that do get it, appreciate it and support it, but it’s not enough,” Mills said. “Their heart is in the right place, but they haven’t figured out how to make it work.”
In addition to being an artist, Mills said she finds joy in being a “Civil War nerd,” and she stays informed on current political issues. During the protests at the Capitol last year, Mills said she had a significant involvement and attended the events almost every day.
Mills’s camera came with her, and she captured the historical events in both film and video. Someday, Mills said she hopes to put her collection of historical art together as a big project to document the big – and small – events that unfolded.
In addition to writing her first novel (“The Fix Up,” finished in 2009), Mills has written blogs for Dane 101 and Isthmus. While writing opinion blogs, Mills presented her side of many current political issues. One of the challenges, she said, was dealing with all of the online comments from other people.
“You get people that aren’t there to have a discussion; they’re there because they want to feel better about themselves by insulting you personally or ranting about something,” Mills said. “There are times you have to suck it up or swallow your pride and just walk away. Do not feed the trolls.”
The protests at the Capitol and her opinion blogs were not the only place Mills’s artistic talents have intersected with her political interests.
Mills said she produces a lot of burlesque shows for the queer and artistic communities that are political as well.
“They’re just to be fun, to have a good time and to give people a place where they can go out, dress however they want and see some really amazing acts,” she said.
Mills said it is important to her to build community by putting on performances that would not be offered in a mainstream venue for those that don’t live traditional lives and enjoy art. She said that it is, by nature, a form of politics, and she feels “happy to embrace it.”
According to Mills, her family and friends have always encouraged and supported her artistic interests. She said her mother was in the church choir, played music in the house and got to express her crafty nature by being an elementary school teacher. Mills lost her mother when she was 15 years old but said she has been inspired by her throughout her life and has even thought about pursuing teaching.
“My parents were big influences, too, just in terms of how to treat other people and how to look at life,” Mills said. “It’s like this balance between having a decent personality and doing creative works in the world.”
Mills said her sister also played a big role in her life, as she introduced her to the world of burlesque and drag shows when she was in her mid-teens. She said she performed a couple of shows with her sister and her sister’s friends. She added once they produced a wildly popular event at the Majestic, brought in supporters, put on a great show and sold out the venue.
Mills said she has not planned anything in her life and has no “earthly clue” where she’ll be in 10 years. She said that she is happy with the way things have turned out so far, and in the future, she would love to continue what she’s doing but make more money doing it.
Mills described herself as “pretty damn happy, pretty damn lucky.” She said she has no regrets marching to the beat of her own drum and creating her own destiny each day.
In the original online version, the article said “Mills said she recognizes everyone has her own passions in life…” when it should have read “their own passions.” The article has been edited to reflect these changes. We regret the error.