By Liz Hardaway
If there was space, there was art.
Eileen Millan, an artist with a tenure of 40-plus years in Chelsea, spread out her work in The Vermeer co-op’s boardroom. The table, rolling chairs, bins and carts were filled with greeting cards, collages, watercolors and flowers galore.
One character in particular was painted dozens of times with a different color palette for each face, all with differing personalities, yet the same round head, protruding ears and a penetrating gaze. Meet Mr. Big Ears.
It all started in 1998, when Millan and her friends decided to take a watercolor class offered at a local high school. On the fourth lesson, the teacher asked for their students to paint a mask.
“I remembered when I was growing up ... my brother and I would take cardboard and cutout a mask,” Millan said. “And in order for it to stay on our face, we would put a rubber band behind these big ears we would make so our ears would always stick out.”
Millan’s work was showcased at multiple Starbucks in Chelsea in the past, and even supposedly bought by the likes of David Geffen of DreamWorks, according to one of Millan’s art dealers, Steve Young. Mr. Big Ears has been a pivotal icon of Millan’s artistic career.
“There’s really nobody doing it. Each one has their own personality; I name them,” Millan said.
Millan also creates floral and abstract watercolor paintings. Right now, though, she is focusing on her cards.
“I don’t need Hallmark any more,” said Helen Jacobs, a friend of Millan’s for about 12 years. “I have Eileen.”
In the boardroom, where Millan sometimes works on her cards and paintings, Millan brought down multiple bins filled with hundreds of cards. One bin, labeled “animals,” included French bulldogs wishing one a happy birthday while sitting on a slice of cheesecake and a cartoon mouse rummaging through the subway with his very own MetroCard.
“Some of them are very clever,” said Fran Nesi, 70, a neighbor and friend. “She’s got a fertile mind. She can come up with all kinds of interesting ways of putting things together.”
Millan doesn’t sell her cards online or in a store, however. She gets all her sales from word-of-mouth, whether from the multiple clubs she participates in at the Y, or how active she is at The Vermeer.
“[Millan’s] pieces are happy,” said Oliver Rish, 68. “She seems to be perpetually inspired, she’s always getting new ideas.”
And she has an intricate network of supporters.
“[Her cards are] imaginative, creative, stream-of-consciousness, from the depths of her soul,” Nesi said. “As much as you can a whole range of light and airy, flowery cards, you also get the collages. Some of them are playful, some are dark, even gruesome in a way that gets you thinking ... pictures that can haunt you. I find them to be very compelling.”
Growing up in Brooklyn, Millan embraced her rebellious nature as a teenager with a love for motorcycles. Now Millan resides in The Vermeer with her boyfriend Barry, 69. The two mutually take care of each other through the losses in their families and their medical troubles over the years.
“I have a dark side too ... but I try to focus on the positive,” Millan said. “Somehow I found solace in my art.”
Aside from her eclectic and whimsical artwork, Millan captivates fans with her bright personality. Before meeting in the boardroom, Millan greeted all The Vermeer doormen by name, as they teased each other in good fun. In the boardroom, she lit up when seeing her mailwoman and friend, Kim Brown, and described her as her long-lost sister. When speaking with her friends, each had nothing but rave reviews about Millan’s artwork and personality, all describing her as a good friend who will be there for one in a blink of an eye.
It seems Millan doesn’t just put her soul into her art, but also into the people she meets and the relationships she makes.
To contact Millan about her artwork: firstname.lastname@example.org.