Michael Milota’s take on Panamanian molas | AspenTimes.com

Michael Milota’s take on Panamanian molas

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
"Lil' MolAriel" is among the pieces in an exhibition by Aspenite Michael Milota, showing at Vectra Bank. An opening reception, with a demonstration by Milota, is set for today at 5 p.m.
Courtesy of the artist |

Michael Milota

Showing through Nov. 25, with an opening reception and demonstration at 5 p.m. Thursday

Vectra Bank

Michael Milota is 37, with two kids. Yet he says he feels “like a toddler” when he picks up his art-making supplies these days. His primary material — colored paper — is often associated with kindergarten art classes, but he has other reasons for that youthful feeling. The art-form he is working in — a take-off on the traditional Panamanian form known as mola — is his own invention. And while he has been developing his approach for several years, and has an exhibition of his work opening today at Vectra Bank, he is still much in the experimental stage, continually exploring new techniques and designs.

“Each one I cut makes me think of something totally new to do,” he said. “Maybe five years from now I’ll feel like middle-school. Maybe five years after that, I’ll feel collegiate.”

A variety of Milota’s approaches — including one large-scale acrylic painting on canvas, whose design was inspired by a smaller piece in paper — are on display at the bank. Probably the most advanced technique is represented in the two pieces Milota calls “quantummolas,” which involve seven or nine layers of stapled paper, a thin piece of Plexiglas between each layer, and numerous cuts of the materials.

Another technique, which uses thicker paper board, requires the kind of tools and patience beyond that of an elementary school student. For one such piece in the exhibition, “Neuro Network,” Milota went through approximately 200 X-Acto knives. “Because I have to have that tip of a blade to make those precise cuts,” he said. “I like the paper board, but I’ll never do that again. Too hard to cut.”

Milota was not all that much older than a toddler when he got on the track that has led to his current art. In seventh grade, in his hometown of Omaha, Neb., the art teacher introduced the class to art practices from around the world. Among these was mola, a technique of the Kuna tribe of Panama, made from layered fabric. Not only did the teacher expose Milota to mola; she also gave her own twist to the form, using paper instead of fabric and going inward instead of building outward, thus demonstrating that a particular process could be played with and expanded on. Milota worked steadily on his own molas, while also doing drafting and wood carvings. A walking stick he made earned a ribbon at the Douglas County Fair in Nebraska.

Milota’s art making, and the rest of his world, had a brutal interruption when he was a junior in high school and a friend was murdered.

“I just put it down,” he said of his art. “I put everything down. That’s a lot to digest when you’re 16.”

Milota dropped visual arts entirely and moved into sonic arts. After doing sound for a handful of theaters in Boulder, Milota got a job at Belly Up and moved to Aspen seven years ago. On a trip to the Great Sand Dunes in southern Colorado a few years ago, he visited a coffee shop and saw a piece of art that looked like a mola. A friend he was traveling with asked what had captured Milota’s imagination.

“I said, ‘You’ve never seen one? I’m going to make you one,’” Milota recalled. “I got crazy about making them and haven’t stopped. It was like muscle memory. But they were very basic, easy shapes.”

In 2009, Milota was on the gondola and noticed the pattern of ski tracks on the snow below. “That sparked the thought to do that with the art, to intersect lines,” he said. Those basic easy shapes became far more complex. “It’s just been folding since then, like a Samurai’s blade — they fold it, pound it out to make it stronger, fold it again maybe 6,000 times.”

One of Milota’s pieces in the bank is titled “Molakra,” a combination of molas and the Indian concept of chakras, referring to energy channels in the body. (Milota is certified as a yoga instructor and has a commissioned mural in the Arjuna Hot Yoga studio, just behind Vectra Bank.) The piece is mounted on translucent Plexiglas and has a ribbon of LED tape and reflective tape, which cause the color to constantly change. The most recent work introduces figurative elements into what has been almost exclusively abstract designs. “Lil’ MolAriel” has images of World War I fighter planes, inspired by an uncle of Milota’s who was a pilot. He is working on another yoga-inspired piece, centered around the image of a tree.

Milota’s mind is already jumping ahead. He is planning pieces that will use lasers and acrylic that will make the paint look suspended and will allow people to interact with the design.

“I haven’t made it happen yet, but I’m pretty sure it will work,” he said. “It’s been like that — the plot’s thickening. Each one makes me think, ‘What can I do? What trippier ways?’”

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