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A cabin filled with care

Posted 9:27 a.m. Friday, April 5, 2024

The winning sculpture at the All Student Juried Exhibition was Yia Vue’s The Cabin That Love Built: In Memorium of Milla Vue and UWL’s late Biology Professor Tom Volk. Vue says while most offerings in her culture don’t include such detail, she felt compelled to create something elaborate because of her love for Milla and the love many expressed for Volk. “As I was working on the cabin, so many stories came out about him. We were helping each other move through the process of grief.” 

Student’s award-winning art project honors beloved biology faculty member, Tom Volk, and beloved best friend, Milla Vue 

In Hmong culture, one of the last ways to show care and love for those who have died is to create offerings that you can burn for them, explains UWL student Yia Vue. Many ancient cultures believe that what is burned can be received on the other side.  

Vue has created a work of art that will be burned at the end of April in honor of the late Mycology Professor Tom Volk and Vue’s beloved dog, Milla. The sculpture, a miniature cabin constructed of cardboard and covered in joss paper, won the All-Student Juried Award at the annual exhibition on Friday, March 29.  

“This was a last act of love and care for Milla and Tom,” says Vue, noting various faculty members from the UWL Biology Department who contributed miniature mementos to place inside of the cabin for Volk, in addition to her contributions for Milla.  

Biology Professor Tom Volk

Barrett Klein, who contributed miniature handmade items including a tiny microscope, calls the project “a beautiful synergistic expression of love and respect.” It was also technically exquisite, he notes, as Vue expresses her emotions not only creatively, but also with prowess. 

 “It is so difficult to say goodbye to loved ones, and Yia has channeled the collective energy of many to help process profound loss in a productive way,” says Klein. 

Yia Vue is a Writing and Rhetoric and Cultural Anthropology double major with an international studies minor and French fluency certification. Two of Vue’s sculptures are on display at the All Student Juried Exhibition.  

Vue estimates that she spent about 140 hours across five months to construct the cabin, but its completion wouldn’t have been possible without dedicated hours from eight others that included students, faculty and community members who took part, adding details like mini books, paintings, and signage. Vue graphically designed eight mini books and UWL biology professors hand-designed five mini books for the cabin, with titles tailored to Volk’s scholarly interests and hobbies and fictional collaborations that Volk would have enjoyed.  

Each item in the cabin has a significance and a story. A little picnic table in the front of the cabin is reserved for friends to visit, which was always a priority for Volk. Porcelain plates are set out representing Volk’s belief that you don’t lock away fine China in a cabinet for another day. Additionally, there are over ten varieties of mushrooms represented because Volk was a mycologist. 

Yia Vue calls her dog Milla the best companion. When she knew her time with Milla was growing short, she created a bucket list for the two of them. They set out across the country from coast to coast, exploring the Rockies, California’s Redwoods, oceans, beaches and beyond. 

Vue added details inside the cabin for Milla as well, such as toys and a tennis ball to play fetch and dog beds created from her old T-shirts.   

“I wanted to give her a last hug,” says Vue. “Milla was my dog but so much more than that – she was a lifeline, a best friend and family. She was my constant. She never asked for much, just good companionship and quiet walks together. She gave me courage, and she taught me not to wait, but to go out there and live life.” 

In almost 14 years together, Vue and Milla would hike over 200 miles of the Appalachian Trail and visit 38 states. Vue wanted to make sure that Milla had a full life beyond a yard and their neighborhood. 

An image of the inside of the cabin shows some of the mini items.

Graduate Student Michael Malone says he thought of his contributions as more than creating an art project. “I thought: Beautiful souls will reside in this home. It must be as great as it can be,” says Malone. 

It also got him thinking about his own way of commemorating those who pass. "What will I do when I lose someone who means as much to me as Tom and Milla meant to their loved ones?” says Malone. “I do not know at all, but this project has me thinking more and more about the beauty and the tragedy of life.” 

Joshua Doster, UWL assistant professor of art, says Vue's work is exceptional in many ways, particularly the dedication and depth she gives to realizing her ideas, thoughts, and emotions.

"I encourage students to ask a lot from their art, not to see it as mere decorations or beautiful art commodities to be sold but something more profound and personally meaningful in its function," says Doster. "Yia asks a lot from her artmaking. In this work, she uses it as a therapeutic outlet to order her mind and emotions around a time of loss.  She asks that it may serve as a way to remember and celebrate what she loves in this world. And if that wasn't enough, Yia has used this artwork to help reinforce a sense of community among all of those who knew Tom Volk by inviting them to contribute to this work, reaffirming the significance he had in their experience at UWL, and offering a way to help them express and share this collectively. It is a truly remarkable work that demonstrates art's capacity as a vessel with boundless limits for holding the content of our life."

The idea for the sculpture started after Vue talked with Biology Professor Todd Osmundson and realized she was not alone in her journey of grief and loss. Volk and Milla died within months of each other about a year ago and of similar health conditions, explains Vue. They had both enjoyed similar things in life like long walks through the woods and the simple joy of stretching out beneath a large tree. She is certain the two would be good companions in the afterlife, so the joint project just made sense.  

“I would like to think that if there is an afterlife, that they've found each other like we've found each other here on this side,” says Vue. “While they take care of one another, we'll do the same here.” 

See the sculpture

Yia has two sculptures currently on display in the Annual All Student Juried Exhibition available to view through Friday, April 12 at the UWL Gallery in the Lowe Center for the Arts. Vue’s award-winning sculpture is titled, The Cabin That Love Built: In Memorium of Milla Vue and UWL’s Dr. Tom Volk.  

Cabin contributors:  

  • Graduate Students Michael Malone (40+ hours) and Cara Senn (20+ hours) - blueprinting, origami folding, gluing, other detailing and small craft additions
  • Art student Elle Kluck - Sunset painting in the bathroom and lamp shades
  • Faculty: Todd Osmundson (logistics and support); Barrett Klein (mini microscope, mantlepiece sketch, mini books); Greg Sandland (mini book); Margaret Maher (mini book)
  • Non-faculty: Karen Klein (Barrett's mom - mini book) 


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