Above: "If We All Hold Hands Chair" by Sam "The Dot Man" McMillan. Located in Kentuck's Permanent Collection, donated by the artist.
Sam McMillan, better known as Sam "The Dot Man," was born in 1926. The youngest of ten children, he grew up in Depression era North Carolina doing a variety of jobs. He wore many hats, among them farmer, bartender, groundskeeper, and handyman, but the one that fit him best was the one he painted himself: artist.
Sam didn't begin painting until well into his sixties, but once he started he didn't stop, often working on two or three projects at a time. By the time of his death in 2018, McMillan had amassed an enormous body of work. At a memorial exhibition of his art held by the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, Wendy Earle, curator for SECCA, told a reporter for Triad City Beat, "Sam was so prolific that we could have filled all 10,000 square feet of our gallery spaces."
And a colorful space that would have been. McMillan's moniker of "Dot Man" stems from his trademark use of polka dots to depict and enhance the images he created. Sam took up art when his then employer, Mrs. Dewitt Hanes, asked him to try painting some bed frames she had been paying another local artist to do. Explaining his choice to use dots, he said, "I had never painted a picture before, so (painting dots) was all I knew how to do."
Though "The Dot Man" himself remained modest about his quintessential style, others close to him recognized the magic he imbued them with. One of these admirers is Bob Moyer, who knew the artist well and has collected many of his works. "Some people put dots on things — Sam put dots on things to bring them alive. They just don't sit there or look nice. They have a life of their own," Moyer said.
The dots in McMillan's work bring to life everyday scenes — children playing, farm animals, log cabins — all depicted in vivid colors. The energy and hope his pictures convey is part of what makes his art so beloved. Kentuck's founder, Georgine Clarke, met him in Winston-Salem many years ago. “I look for honesty in the work of these guest artists, and Sam provided that. He also provided bright color, a sense of whimsy,” said Georgine. “I was in Winston-Salem 20 some years ago for an exhibition of self-taught art at SECCA. At a reception, I met Sam McMillan. Sam seemed a great addition to the artists at Kentuck, so I invited him… from his first year on, his booth space has been right in front of the main gate and he has become something of an icon for the festival.”⠀
Above: "No One Lives on the Moon 'Cause There Isn't a Kentuck" by Sam "The Dot Man" McMillan. Located in Kentuck's Permanent Collection, donated by the artist.
Many of McMillan's paintings include what one of his sons, Larry, identified as his life motto: "If we hold hands, we can't fight." It's an optimistic phrase, but not an unconsidered one. McMillan felt that there was a lot of darkness in the world and a lot of work that needed to be done. He did his best to do that work, whether it was through his art or his involvement in his community.
“See, what it is, somebody has got to get up and speak. And it might kill me, it might not do anything to me… but if somebody doesn’t do something, we’re gone.”
Above: "If We All Hold Hands Writing Desk" by Sam "The Dot Man" McMillan. Located in Kentuck's Permanent Collection, donated by the artist.
Above: Photos of Sam "The Dot Man" McMillan at the Kentuck Festival of the Arts; various years.
You may notice a few of his sculptures in our Courtyard of Wonders! Giraffe and Alligator, donated by the Artist.
Inspired by recent programming at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, beginning June 5th Kentuck Art Center is dedicating ten days of online content to the Black artists in our Permanent Collection. While Kentuck Art Center cannot address the full complexity of systemic racism on our own, we can gain perspective and a sense of purpose by listening to the voices of artists we are proud to have in our collection.
Kentuck's Permanent Collection holds artworks of significance to Kentuck's history, as well as the American Folk Art movement. The objects collected by Kentuck physically document the narrative of American Folk Art, as well as Kentuck's Festival, Studio, and Exhibiting artists. The objects in Kentuck's Permanent Collection form a history that is the basis for research, exhibition, interpretation, and community engagement.