Arts preview: "Head Games" dives head-first into fear

  • "Welcome Home Party," by Andrew McCauley
  • "Lil' Scrunch Face and the Wheelchair Man," by Andrew McCauley
  • "Shark Girl Brick Wall," by Casey Riordan Millard
  • "Shark Girl on Landscape," by Casey Riordan Millard
  • "Shark Girl in Pink," by Casey Riordan Millard
By Columbus Alive
From the November 7, 2013 edition

Sharks in the swimming pool is a pretty common fear for a child, artist Casey Riordan Millard admits. It's also irrational.

But what about when fear is justified, plausible? When fear is one manicured doorstep away from your own?

"I got married in 2001 and started having panic attacks about my husband dying," Riordan Millard said. "It occurred to me after we got married that we would be together until we died. Thinking about going through that process with him really scared me. At the time I was not one to seek help. I thought I could solve all my problems through my work."

That's when she created Shark Girl. In part a nod to her childhood fear about the fierce killer in an innocent child's plaything, Shark Girl the character is a "powerless little girl in a party dress" that has the head of a shark.

"A shark is a creature that runs on pure instinct," Riordan Millard said. "The shark head is also a way of seeking power she can't have, a way of gaining control."

Shark Girl doesn't really help herself, though. Riordan Millard's sculptures place Shark Girl in scenes where she is never looking inward, never finding a solution inside herself or addressing why she wears a shark head in the first place.

"She's always looking for relief in physical things," the artist said. "She fills her life with temporary distractions but as soon as everybody and everything goes away, it gets dark again."

During her genesis, Riordan Millard drew Shark Girl over and over again. It was time-consuming on purpose, she said. Shark Girl was her distraction from her own panic. Since then, Shark Girl "has taken on a life of her own," the Cincinnati-based artist said. Indeed, the beloved character is now a part of the Cincinnati Art Museum's permanent collection and visitors to Cincinnati's Sawyer Point riverfront can pose for a photo alongside a seated life-size Shark Girl sculpture. A children's book filled with tales of Shark Girl is currently in the works. 

Perhaps as a reaction to the large-scale Shark Girls Riordan Millard has been working on lately, her new takes on the character have drastically reduced in scale. On view at Downtown's Angela Meleca Gallery through December, the new Shark Girl sculptures — made of porcelain, fiberglass, foam, resin, string, paint, wood, paper and more — are small, precious things full of new toys for Shark Girl like miniature Gods' eyes, a popular girlhood craft. Also evident in the new works is Riordan Millard's newish interest in studying maps, city infrastructure systems and small models of planets and solar systems.

Complementing Riordan Millard at the "Head Games" exhibit is work by Columbus artist and CCAD adjunct professor Andrew McCauley, an abstract painter whose figurative paintings explore the mind, body and, if you pay attention, soul.