Popular civil servant’s creative therapy benefits us all

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One of many stunning digital art pieces by Michelle Milam.

By Mike Kinney

For the City of Richmond’s well-regarded, and seemingly always on-the-clock, Crime Prevention Manager Michelle Milam, art is one part therapy, one part expression and another part hobby.

But the pieces Milam has been producing reveal dimensions to artistic pursuit that can only be achieved by the passion and experience of a person with a highly challenging, emotionally taxing profession.

However to describe it, Milam’s entrancing digital art pieces are turning heads in the community. And for those who are concerned, don’t worry, the popular civil servant has not indicated an intention to quit her day job.

And anyway in this community, her artistic talents are not surprising. In 2017, Milam was profiled in a Richmond Confidential piece that recognized her creativity in identifying crime-reduction strategies in the city.

Due to the nature of their jobs, Milam says a lot of government workers double as artists.

“There is a strong connection I think between the way artists think and the way things are developed in government in terms of problem-solving and solutions,” she said.

Milam produces digital art and digital painting. She draws imprints from photography, typically things from nature, stories, or people she meets. While it remains products of a hobby, her artwork has an ambitious purpose. The work focuses on black women, as a way to tell their stories.

“I think we are not projected in a positive way and the full bigger picture of our stories is often hidden,” Milam said. “So this is the way for me to honor black women in my life I have known. To tell their stories.”

Milam is wonderfully open about her process. To create digital art, she uses a computer program to tap different tools to mimic, such as charcoal, pencil, smudge brushes, water colors, things of that nature.

Michelle Milam shares her artwork at the North & East Neighborhood picnic last month.

“For those who wonder about my process – or you’ve never heard of digital painting — it’s painting with a stylus and your finger using different tools,” Milam said. “It’s really not that much different than traditional painting in terms of technique but you can erase very easily and adjust your drawing in ways you can’t with traditional stuff. Sometimes I pick out a subject or theme from what is on my mind or something that visually inspires me.”

After working out the outlining and details for a piece, “I identify my lighting source and begin painting.”

To paint skin, she prefers using the spray brush tool as it “emulates the multi-tones of real skin,” Milam said. She uses color gradients to paint at different opacities, and particularly enjoys using browns, reds, yellows, peaches, blacks and dark blues or purples – and sometimes versions of pink. For creating hair in piece, she uses a spiral pen and different opacities and colors, because “hair is never monochrome.”

While Milam enjoys doing art, she may even more so enjoy spreading the message about its power to heal and improve health. At the end of our interview, she handed us a proverbial paintbrush.

“I hope that you do some therapeutic and healing artwork yourself,” she said.

Perhaps we should. But we are not at all confident they will look as good as these.