Chanthu Millay: Expressing an exceptional life through art
Chanthu Millay’s art is raw and intimate: a technicolor self-portrait in painstaking detail, a metal sculpture comprised of pieces of her old prosthetic leg, a ceramic sculpture depicting the emotions she experienced as her family’s lone survivor of the violent Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.
Millay’s art wasn’t always so personal. Her education at the University of Maine has allowed her to open up and tell her exceptional life story through her art — and she hopes to do the same as an art educator once she graduates.
Millay came to Maine by way of adoption. When she was a child “between 3 and 5” — the lack of official records make it difficult to pinpoint her exact age — it is believed her entire family was killed during infighting that took place in her village. She survived, but her left leg was severely damaged in what American doctor’s believe was both a fire and a landmine according to burn patterns. Taken by her story, the American doctor who treated her facilitated an emergency adoption with a couple in Surry. Millay was one of 12 children from seven different countries in her household.
“It was kind of like the United Nations in our house,” she laughs. “I was one of the older ones, so I learned to be a caretaker and a role model. I am very close to many of my siblings.”
Millay was an ambitious student in all subjects, but even at a young age, she had a standout talent for art. She had an innate sense of proportion, and her sense of creativity was “very different from the children around [her].” As a preteen, she started selling her first acrylics and iconography pieces.
After graduating from high school, Millay thought she might parlay her art skills into an architecture degree at the University of Maine at Augusta, but soon left college after realizing that she “wasn’t ready to be a serious student again yet.” Over the next decade or so, she worked a variety of jobs: a seafood clerk at Shaw’s, cashier at Walmart, tutor, babysitter and disability services agent at a variety of organizations, including the Addison Point Agency, Downeast Horizons and SequelCare of Maine, just to name a few. All the while, she continued freelancing as a professional artist on the side.
Beginning in 2016, her residual limb started to break down — besides that, she had a permanent limp that caused other underlying problems to the hips and spine because of its severe deformity. A visit to the doctor revealed that the tissue was dying, and the leg needed to be amputated. The procedure, which took place in 2017, was complicated, and she had to adjust to using a prosthetic while struggling with phantom limb pain and sensation (which, she said, she still deals with today).
Throughout her recovery, Millay realized that she wanted a job that wouldn’t require her to be on her feet all day, and would allow her to work in art full time.
“It was a turning point,” Millay says. “Even before the surgery I really struggled to keep a job because of the physical demands on my feet. My leg was just breaking down. I couldn’t do the eight or nine hours of standing that most jobs required. I knew I was going to need something that would allow me flexibility to sit.”
With her art skills and her experience as a mentor to her younger siblings, Millay felt that becoming an art educator would allow her to make an impact while allowing flexibility for her physical needs.
In 2019, Millay enrolled at the University of Maine to study art education. She was nervous about starting school again. She saw the advantages of being a mature student: she was clear in what she wanted to get out of her college experience, and confident enough to advocate for herself in order to achieve it. Still, she was older than her peers and worried about connecting with them, not to mention that she was still learning how to navigate with her prosthetic leg.
Millay said UMaine Student Accessibility Services was helpful and accommodating to her physical needs. As for her classmates, she soon realized that, much like with her siblings, she could serve as a mentor to her peers.
Constant Albertson is an associate professor of art and art education, as well as Millay’s adviser. She says that Millay has not only demonstrated that she is an excellent teacher of children through her art education classes, but her college-aged classmates look up to her as well, as she generously contributes to both collaborative projects and peer critiques.
“She’s community-minded,” Albertson says. “She’s very aware of the effect that she has on her peers and is always very, very helpful and caring. She’s a remarkable student and she’s going to be a remarkable teacher very soon.”
Millay came to the UMaine art program with more experience than the average student, having worked professionally for years as an artist before coming to school. Still, the UMaine art curriculum has allowed Millay to explore types of art that she hadn’t been exposed to before, like ceramics and sculpture, which she thinks makes her a better artist.
“I think artists can get really comfortable with their one skill or their two skills, and that’s great because you know the ins and the outs of it but also problematic because it boxes you and limits you because you can only express yourself in this medium,” Millay says. “With ceramics, I expressed freedom in clay that I never had with drawing or painting. It’s essential that artists dip their hands into other mediums they’re not comfortable with because I definitely have grown.”
Even more profoundly, Millay says that her professors at UMaine have helped her to open up personally and use art to tell her powerful life story. She says that Ed Nadeau, associate adjunct professor of art, was especially influential in this awakening. Nadeau says that in drawing class, he always encourages students to explore their sense of self through their work. When Millay decided to draw her prosthetic leg for an assignment, the attention to detail and the intimacy of the subject matter ”blew everyone’s mind.”
“She was always a little hesitant to bring that out and let it really show,” Nadeau says. “I think that she needed just a little bit of encouragement in order to know that when an artist goes deep that’s where their best stuff comes from.”
Millay and Nadeau both laugh as they recall an assignment for a drawing class using India ink — a difficult medium to control precisely, known for free-flowing forms — that Millay says “had [her] breaking down and crying” because she “didn’t know how to draw freely.” Eventually, she was able to fill a 30-by-30-inch paper with an abstract, screaming mouth that helped channel her frustration — about the project, sure, but also about the other challenges she had experienced in the past few years.
“It was foundational to help me open the spiritual me in my art,” Millay says. “I think that support is life changing to how you are as a student.”
UMaine has also allowed Millay to explore deeper social themes in her work, too. Some of Millay’s favorite classes have been history and social studies classes that have allowed her to explore her identity as an artist and beyond.
“I was already a developed artist, but what really helped me grow as an artist was not my technique so much as what I was representing,” Millay says. “I took a class about students with disabilities, Native American history, social justice with the gay and transgender community, feminism — I think learning about all these minorities and realizing I myself encompassed a lot of these descriptions allowed me to look at myself which reflected into my work.”
Millay says that her experience at UMaine has been “foundational and life-changing,” thanks to the professors, faculty and SAS staff who have helped support her along the way (as well as her husband, friends and family, of course). She says that all aspiring artists — at UMaine and beyond — should listen to their support group throughout the creative process because “they may see something you don’t.” She also recommends that anyone going into art dedicate equal amounts of effort to subjects and media that they struggle with.
“If you spend 20 hours doing something you are good at, then you should spend double that on something you don’t know and hate,” Millay says. “This is the only way to learn and to grow. It is okay to struggle, it is okay to cry and it is okay to fail, that is how we grow as artists.”
Millay plans to graduate in December 2023. After her experience with her professors and her peers, she thinks she may want to go on and pursue her master’s in order to become a professor of art at the university level. She hopes to someday help students find themselves through art the way that she has.
Contact: Sam Schipani, firstname.lastname@example.org