Groundwork Community Spotlight: Aaron McMillan

Groundwork Community Spotlight: Aaron McMillan

Aaron McMillan is an artist who's always trying to keep his inner child alive.

An accomplished illustrator now, Aaron knew since he was a kid in the Chicago suburbs that he wanted to work in the visual arts. He always had a knack for drawing and visual design and loved movies – so much so that at 16 he started working at movie theaters and continued to do so for a decade. 

Aaron holding his drawing of Winona Ryder

He studied film and video editing at Columbia College with the dream of being an editor for movie trailers. While in school, he got a job editing TV commercials.

“Mom was real proud. But it was always stuff I wouldn't be an audience for – like casinos and car commercials,” he says.  

He stayed in Chicago working at theaters and editing for a few years, but his heart wasn’t in it:

“Nothing was working out and I realized you can plan your life only to an extent," he says. “Art for me has been a pivot.” 

Feeling lost, he refocused on his passion for drawing. 

“I started drawing my favorite moments in movies just to try to re-fall in love with it, get re-inspired,” he says.  

He draws these characters super-realistically and then lets the emotion of the moment distort their expressions.

Since Aaron only took a few drawing courses in school, he didn’t expect that illustration could be a career. So, more for himself than anyone else, he began posting his drawings on Instagram.

“I probably had 10 followers, none of my family or friends even followed me,” he says.

When stars align

One day in 2014, actress Rose McGowan came across Aaron’s drawing of her and reposted it. Soon, one actor after another came across his illustrations online. 

Aaron and his partner, Cody, embarked on the archetypal L.A. storyline; they drove from Chicago to Venice fueled by the belief that Aaron could burgeon his career there.

“Everything kind of spider-webbed; one connection led me to another, to another, and I ended up getting to do some really cool stuff that I never thought I would,” Aaron says.  

Rose invited Aaron to an art show happening on the day he moved to L.A., and she became his mentor of sorts. 

“The first time I met her, I brought my drawing of her and slid it in front of her before introducing myself. As soon as she saw it she screamed "f***er!" (a term of endearment for her), jumped up and gave me a big hug,” Aaron says. They’ve stayed in touch and continue to support each other. 

Aaron and Rose wearing black posing against a black backdrop

Aaron and Rose McGowan


The support network that grew from Aaron’s drawings proved to be the most valuable aspect of his career – besides, he never intended to sell his art. Having actors he admired reaching out in admiration of his work not only felt validating but opened doors for him in the film industry. 

“I'm a really shy person, so I thought [drawing] might be a good way to connect with people,” he says. “I had paid my dues so long and it didn't go anywhere. So this was a fast-forward to talk to people that inspired me or I wanted to work with.”

Aaron is serendipitously offered commissioned projects – from drawing Salt & Straw’s chalkboard signs, to designing posters for drag shows, to editing for Dragula. But a consistent line-up of gigs is far from the norm for artists, and Aaron still has periods in which he’s “flying by the seat of his pants.”  

“A lot of times with art, I just feel like I'm in the jungle with a machete and I have no idea where I'm going,” he says. “I just keep doing it until I get that little win that carries me to the next little win.” 

By now, Aaron is all too familiar with the uncertainty of an artistic career and is practiced at staying on track with his dreams – vital factors to do so are routine and community. 

Aaron in front of Salt & Straw chalkboard signs

One of many chalkboards Aaron has drawn for Salt & Straw  

Rebecca Gayheart and Julie Benz in front of a poster Aaron drew for a Peaches Christ live show

Actresses Rebecca Gayheart and Julie Benz in front of a poster Aaron drew for a Peaches Christ live show


Finding routine, community, and a space to breathe at Groundwork 

Aaron was drawn to L.A. because of its “come as you are” culture. 

“You never have to explain yourself,” Aaron says. “You can just be – that's what I look for in a community.”

As a gay person, Aaron loves that in Venice he can escape the box he felt compelled to fit into in the Midwest. He can exhale and simply exist while expressing his unique style. However, since he draws at home, Aaron is a self-described “house cat” who needs a little push to socialize. 

“Sometimes being at Groundwork is the only human interaction I'm having outside the house every day.”

Even though he didn’t drink coffee before the COVID-19 pandemic, when most storefronts in Venice closed he found normalcy in going to Groundwork every day. 

“Groundwork was the only place open, so Cody and I would build our whole day around having a date here,” he says. 

Groundwork has been a pillar in Aaron’s Venice community ever since Cody got his first job in L.A. baking pastries at the cafe. Even after Cody left that gig, they both continued making friends with baristas through the years – all of whom always have their order ready before they reach the front of the line: a large nitro cold brew, light ice, and a splash of oat milk. Pumpkin bread, a blueberry muffin, or a cowboy cookie are the “holy trinity” of pastries for Aaron.

Since finding a routine is tricky as a creative, a daily stop (or two) at Groundwork helps Aaron ease into socializing, going to the gym, and leading his day with his passion.

Aaron handing off a commissioned engagement portrait in front of the Groundwork cafe

Aaron handing off a commissioned engagement portrait at Groundwork in Venice


Aaron captures emotionally-loaded moments that connect himself and the audience to their own experiences.

When Aaron sits down at his drawing desk, he’s led by whatever emotions in the moment inspired him to think of a particular movie scene. The drawing pours out of him quickly. 

“If I'm really happy or want to make people laugh, or if I'm feeling a deep emotion that I can't quite articulate, I can find it in a film and then release it out of me that way. It's a good way to launder feelings out of me.” 

His drawing method – mostly with markers – is to balance having fun with showcasing his skill. 

“I only will put so much ‘flex’ – I guess – into it. And then I'll let loose and have fun,” he says. Aaron’s talent comes through in the degree of nuanced expression he portrays. Looking at Tara Reid screaming into a telephone or Margo Robbie saying “Do you ever think about dying?” with a Barbie smile will inevitably strike a nerve for any onlooker. 

“I like art that’s accessible,” Aaron says. “It doesn't have to be existential.” Instead of fabricating deeper context in his art, he portrays straightforward human experiences that he hopes genuinely touch his audience. 

He aims to connect with people deeply across the entire spectrum of emotions, just as his favorite films do.

“Watching a piece of art, there's an intentional moment and I like to grab those moments,” he says. The movie moments he chooses aren’t usually glamorous or cliché, but rather high-octane and cathartic. 

“I like to take people back to a very specific moment or a feeling they had growing up,” he says. “I think a lot of people launder their feelings through art and movies.” 

Releasing feelings through art is really beneficial for mental health, Aaron says, and he hopes that drawings like his can be a shared outlet for all of our messy emotions. 

Written by
Melina Devoney
Barista Blogger