American Pickers puts unsung artist John Mills’ amazing automotive work into the spotlight
John Mills’ extensive automotive artwork didn’t get the attention it deserved when he was alive. That all began to change this week when American Pickers visited his son David’s home in Sedona, Arizona.
Mike Wolfe, who co-stars with Frank Fritz on the acclaimed History Channel television series, was joined on the pick by his younger brother, Robbie, and both were astounded by the late Detroit artist’s paintings and drawings, some of which were used in automotive sales catalogs and advertising in the 1950s and ’60s.
“Man, I’ll tell you what, when you see a car like this, it just lights you up. And he captured it perfectly,” Mike Wolfe says of John Mills’ painting of an Auburn Boattail Speedster. “This is the first piece of artwork that I’m seeing of [David’s] father, and I’m blown away by it.”
Oh, but there’s so much more to see, including David’s 1948 Ford pickup, which is powered by a 350 Chevy engine but was sidelined by a blown head gasket. Robbie negotiates a deal to acquire David’s high school transportation for $6750. Although the pickup is definitely a work of art, this pick is all about the masterpieces created by John Mills.
David says his dad grew up loving cars, music, and art. He had hoped to become a jazz musician, and he played trumpet in the Army 2nd Infantry Division band during the Korean War in the early 1950s. However, Mills was realistic about his chances of making a living as a musician, so after the war he enrolled in art school in Detroit. He attended only one semester before an advertising agency hired him as a “pencil boy,” an entry level position in which he would sketch cars and then hand over his work to an illustrator. Mills quickly moved up the ladder, and he went on to create hundreds of advertising pieces for the Big Three and other automotive brands.
David explains that automotive advertising art “peaked about 1970,” when photography became the primary medium. “The industry shifted, so he had to shift as well, and he started painting on the side …,” David says of his dad. “He was one of the lucky ones. He was able to shift from being a corporate or commercial artist into the fine art realm … That’s huge to be able to successfully do that and provide for his family.”
In addition to cars, Mills painted landscapes, cityscapes, and portraits of jazz musicians, family members, and even an amazing self-portrait. One eye-catching painting is a piece that Mills created from a photo he took when movie star Marilyn Monroe visited the troops during the Korean War in 1953. That one hung in a couple of galleries but, David says, “His fine art career was just starting to take off when, unfortunately, he got ill and died (in 1989).”
David shows the Wolfe brothers a room full of his father’s commercial artwork.
“I’m not an art guy, but I’m a car guy,” Mike says, “and this is sexy. This good stuff.”
Mike is immediately drawn to Chevrolet sales books from 1956, ’57, and ’58. He says they showed a prospective customer “anything and everything about the cars. If they didn’t have that car on the showroom floor, they would have to show you what it would look like and get you excited enough to want it without ever actually seeing it—and these books do that.” Mike wants to own all three, which feature plenty of John Mills’ work; David accepts $750.
Mike acknowledges that it must be difficult to let these things go, since there is such a strong personal connection, but David confesses, “He did so much [that] there just aren’t enough walls to display it all properly.”
Mike ultimately purchases four advertising pieces for $4000. He is especially thrilled to acquire, for $1100, an original sketch and its final iteration. The ad is called “Living Room,” and it features the detailed interior of a 1963 Chevrolet Impala.
“Even though this was commercial work, it is fine art now, and I’m honored to own any of it,” Mike says. “… David’s dad was one of the unsung heroes of the automotive industry. His artwork inspired us all today.”
“He never got the big show,” David says of his father. “That’s why I’m here today, is to fulfill his legacy and his dream to get his work out there.”