Wes Mills wants to open up a whole new world for visitors to the Ravalli County Museum.
In a newly transformed exhibit room on the second floor of the old courthouse, people will get a glimpse into the lives of the Neolithic cultures of China and Tibet.
Since the late 1900s, the world-renowned artist from Hamilton has been carefully collecting artifacts from those two countries that date back thousands of years.
For the first time, Mills is sharing his collection with the public in an exhibit called “Touching the Surface: An Artist Collects” that opens Friday with a reception starting at 7 p.m.
Ravalli County Museum Director Tamar Stanley said the exhibit is unlike anything the museum has had before.
“It is just a one-of-a-kind collection,” Stanley said. “Wes has been very mindful in his selection. The pieces spoke to him.’’
Mills worked closely with museum curator N. Pepos to create an exhibit that will provide both an education and an experience for visitors, Stanley said.
To make that happen, Mills volunteered his time to refurbish the room by fixing the walls and adding a new coat of paint that will serve as the perfect backdrop for future exhibits of art.
“We know that art speaks to everyone,” Stanley said. “We really want to continue to do exhibits of art at least once a year. To have this exhibit that captures a culture at its earliest beginnings is a wonderful way to begin that.”
Many in Hamilton would recognize Mills as the owner of the old Bibler building on Hamilton’s 3rd Street. But beyond the Bitterroot, he’s a well-known artist whose pieces are displayed in many famous collections.
It was during his travels to galleries in New York City and beyond that he developed his interest in Neolithic Chinese artifacts. In the late 1990s, he acquired his first treasure from that ancient time.
“It’s still one of my favorite pieces,” Mills said, as he held a tiny pot with three little legs. “It’s called a tripod vessel. The Chinese would use it to cook or heat water. They could put it right on the coals and it wouldn’t crack.”
Mills liked its form and its function. Most of all, his decision to buy it was based on the fact that he knew it was real.
“I didn’t have a lot of money to spend,” he remembered. “I knew that someone wasn’t going to make something like this as a fake when they could make something else that would be much more expensive.”
Throughout the following years, his artist’s eye for detail helped him build on a collection filled with pieces that had the fingerprint of ancient artisans who knew their crafts well.
Mills’ exhibit includes a collection of ancient circular Chinese jade artifacts called a bi. Each one includes a hole carved out of its middle by a patient craftsman using bamboo and sand.
The bi represented the cosmos or heaven. They were often found stacked on top of ancient remains at burial sites unearthed over the years.
Mills was drawn to the beauty of the jade, the craftsmanship of their creators and, most of all, their antiquity.
“To be able to hold an object that dates back thousands of years,” he said. “It opens a whole new world. To be able to touch something like that gives it a whole new meaning.
“Objects have their own presence,” Mills said. “It’s just like when two people stand close together, you can sense that energy. Objects have that kind of presence, too.”
History unfolded for Mills each time he obtained a new piece and held it in his hands. It made him want to learn more about its history and the people who lived then.
“Each one of these pieces has the artist’s fingerprint or the signature of the tool that they used,” he said. “To be able to see that and touch it was fascinating for me.”
That’s what he hopes that people will experience when they stop by the exhibit featured at the museum from Nov. 18 through April 13.
“There are so many wonderful artifacts that have been found in China and Tibet,” he said. “This exhibit is titled ‘Touching the Surface’ because it just barely scratches the surface.”
This was the first time that Mills has shared his collection with the public. It’s also the first time that he’s had it all in one place.
He hopes that it can open eyes that the world is a big place.
“I love Hamilton and the Bitterroot Valley,” he said. “It’s a great little town, but it’s easy to get a little bit narrow here, especially with all the crazy stuff going on the television.
“I hope this exhibit will help people remember that the world is a much bigger place than what we often realize,” Mills said. “Who knows, maybe some kids might come through and it will open up a new door for them. It might become a bridge to something new.”