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Millspaugh retrospective shows continuity, from representational to abstract works

By Constance E. Richards

Dan MillspaughDan Millspaugh's outdoor sculpture.

Dan Millspaugh’s name has been synonymous with UNC Asheville’s Art Department since 1981. His iron pours, casting, hand-built kilns and hands-on classes have inspired scores of students to enter the world of sculpture. His installations and large-scale creations dot the country from public spaces and museums to private homes, schools and churches. Although January marked his retirement from teaching, Millspaugh will reacquaint the university and the community with four decades of his work in a February 2009 retrospective at the S. Tucker Cooke Gallery in Owen Hall.

The exhibition revisits Millspaugh’s inspirational processes, beginning with early works in his native Florida during the 1960s when he used brilliant fiberglass figures, to his mountain era in which he uses found objects for massive compositions. The image of a concrete cat, sculpted when Millspaugh was 10 while helping his photographer father build a stone wall, is probably the earliest piece in the exhibition. Larger public art installations, presented in photographs, reflect an early influence when he was in the Coast Guard. As a buoy tender, between undergraduate and graduate school at the University of Miami, Millspaugh cleaned and painted floats and apparatuses at sea. “I was exposed to all sorts of things,” a jovial Millspaugh recalls. “That was when my personal style began to take shape and when I understood the scale of things.”

In his mountains phase, Millspaugh steered toward other distinctive forms and materials such as steel, aluminum, wood and bronze. “Materials and techniques are important to his works,” says Cynthia Canejo, assistant professor of art history and author of the exhibit catalog. “While Dan often works with found items, he is willing to use new materials if the piece demands it. Surfaces can vary from shiny and smooth to rough and rusty.”

It is the continuity of his work on which Canejo focuses. “One of the aspects that I find intriguing is the manner in which Dan is able to shift fluidly between representational and abstract art forms,” she reflects.

Possibly the hardest-working sculptor whose name isn’t often lauded in lights, Millspaugh has maintained a work ethic that has impressed students and challenged peers. He participates in at least six exhibitions a year (12 this year alone), teaches numerous classes, oversees iron pours and casting, sits on the board of the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design, and enters public sculpture competitions. It’s a point not lost on Ben Elliott ’05, now a Kent State graduate student. “Whatever you were working on, he encouraged you to push it a little further,” says Elliott. “He influenced how I think about materials and work with them, through texture and surface. To see his own passion in his work was always inspiring.”   

Recycled materials—a theme of the retrospective—became a large part of Millspaugh’s teaching. He and his students once famously removed 300 pounds of brass toilet valves from an old residence hall to be used for casting. “Dan not only contributed his vast technical knowledge, but he made things happen by just rolling up his sleeves and getting things done,” notes Robert Tynes, art professor and S. Tucker Cooke Gallery director. Such ingenuity, technical expertise and diversity are par for the course in the artist and instructor Dan Millspaugh.