Surf City Resident Ray Mills Gives ‘Yard Work’ New, Quirky Meaning

Aug 22, 2018
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

When it comes to holiday yard décor, Surf City resident Ray Mills does things a bit differently at his beach bungalow on 19th Street. Let’s start with what he doesn’t do. He doesn’t string Christmas lights from the roof. He doesn’t inflate life-size snowmen or line up plastic reindeer before a big red sleigh. Rather, he gravitates toward the absurd, peculiar and creative. Think mannequins adorned in wigs and tarp; ship replicas; models of castles, movie characters and monuments. Each display is a strange yet beautifully unique interpretation of an obscure holiday.

Mills has dubbed his house “Elsinore” after the castle in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” The grandiose title is written out in red brick over white stones. “I’ve always loved Shakespeare. Everybody names their house ‘Sandy’s Castle’ or something, and that’s not Ray Mills,” he said laughingly. “So it was either Twelve Oaks from Gone with the Wind or Elsinore. It’s definitely Elsinore.”

After retiring last fall, Mills found he finally had the time to bedeck his yard the way he’d always wanted to. “I always wanted to decorate for different holidays. Everybody does Christmas, Valentine’s Day, St. Pat’s, Memorial Day, Halloween. I was like, I want to do some of the obscure ones, the ones people don’t even think about. Like VE Day. You know? We’ve got to celebrate that.”

He uses recycled materials, gathering trashed plywood, construction scraps and tarp for his crafts. “The majority of what I’m spending is on paint and screws,” said Mills, who, since beginning his yard art, has done around 30 displays and spent only $150 on supplementary materials.

He has decorated for Jaws Day, Bastille Day, Woodstock, the moon landing, Harry Potter’s Birthday, the 4th of July, Groundhog Day, Star Wars Day, the Ides of March and more. He even decorated for Hawaiian Statehood Day just last week, adorning his yard with a hula dancer, tiki statue, colorful leis, an ocean wave and a sign that read, “K’mon I Wanna Layya.”

“You can’t forget these holidays. You can’t overlook these things,” he said.

When asked if he had an art background, Mills laughed and said, “No. That’s not evident?”

Indeed, the mini sculptures are crude, raw constructions. However, one might mistake them for contemporary art pieces, what with their hodgepodge, repurposed looks. In an NYC exhibit, spaced out in a vast white room surrounded by millennials in big glasses assuming the stances of critics, they’d be received with open arms. Mills’ pieces are beautiful and thought-provoking in their homemade, raw assembly. First and foremost, they’re fun, which is his sincere and heartfelt intent.

“Looking good, Ray!” a neighbor yelled from his bike on his way past the little white house, while Mills meticulously adjusted his most recent setup.

For this week’s project, Mills has decided to commemorate Labor Day by replicating American works. He’s built and assembled miniature versions of the Golden Gate Bridge, St. Louis Arch, Hoover Dam, Empire State Building and the Guggenheim. The bridge is made from orange and black plywood, electrical wire and string. The adjacent arch is made from wood and tin foil. The Empire State Building and the Guggenheim are unmistakable in their accuracy, while the Hoover Dam might require some pondering. But for Mills, that’s part of the fun. “It’s like a puzzle. I want people to think.

“I’ve got three friends that I depend on,” Mills said, naming an Erinn, Dave and Joe among his co-collaborators. Erinn will give him the ideas, while Dave and Joe assist with the mechanics. “I couldn’t do this without them.”

“Mother’s Day I was out here wracking my brain. I texted Erinn, and in, like, 15 minutes she texted me back: La Pietà.” To re-create the Michelangelo sculpture of Mary and Jesus, Mills painted a mannequin white and draped her in a shroud made from pink tarp.

Though Mills tends to lean toward the forgotten holidays, Christmas is his favorite, so much so that an entire room in his house is dedicated to the day. Snowflakes dangle from the ceiling on clear string. Garland trims the walls, and a fully decorated, faux Christmas tree sits in the corner of the room by a television. Christmas cards from years of celebrating are taped to the door and walls. A nutcracker here, an artificial poinsettia there.

“This has been this way since Memorial Day 2007,” he laughingly declared, delighted. “I can’t stand the heat. I come in here, I put a Christmas movie on, I crank down the A/C, I get hot chocolate. I’m like ‘Fine, go sweat it at the beach; I don’t care.’”

He already has his Christmas lawn display planned and at the ready. “I’m going to do the scene from Charlie Brown where they’re in the artificial Christmas tree lot and he picks up the little one.”

One of his most impressive lawn exhibits was an elaborate Harry Potter-themed spectacle. A mannequin dressed like ‘the boy who lived’ soared above the ground, wand at the ready. Nearby was a model of Hogwarts and homemade versions of the sorting hat and Potter’s owl, Hedwig. Mills has begun to read the J.K. Rowling series and said to expect an even grander display for Potter’s birthday next year, “now I’m reading the books. I told Joe, wait till Potter next year. I’m going to have all kinds of sh** going on.”

Mills hopes his yard art will inspire and encourage others to ornament their own lawns. “If I can just make somebody happy or make somebody say, ‘Hey you know what, maybe we should do something for this.’ The ripple never stops.” If anyone can spread the decorating bug, it’s Mr. Mills.

“Not to be hubris, but Halloween is going to be huge,” he said, a mischievous glint in his eye. He’s decided to go with the “Nightmare Before Christmas.” “I’ve already got Jack and Sally made. I’ve got Lock, Shock and Barrel made. I’ve got the mountain and I’ve got the moonscape.

“It makes me so happy.”

To see the displays for yourself, swing by 19th Street in Surf City. You might even catch Mills himself, passionately laboring over his next creation.

— Sarah Hodgson

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