Renfrew — As Patrick John Mills takes a moment to wipe his brow and look through the 250-pound glass window he is installing into the exterior wall of what will soon be a modern art studio, he takes a moment to stop and appreciate the view of the historic Bonnechere River which flows less than 100 metres from The Art Factory.
His vision of The Art Factory as a modern, post-industrial, multi-purpose set of buildings has taken shape since he began transforming the former outdated 19th century factory to what he describes as a living and evolving centre of artistic creativity.
The Art Factory has come to be recognized as an artistic hub that not only encourages and inspires new and established artists of all genres, but the man behind the canvas has brought to Renfrew and the Ottawa Valley something that has not been seen on this site for more than 160 years. Just as the former foundry was a landmark of excellence and helped shape a community, the Art Factory is carrying on that tradition. It not only promotes art, but it is shaping an art community built on Mr. Mills’ core principle of helping others far beyond the art canvas.
He has steadily gained a reputation as the owner/operator of one of the most affordable art supply centres in Eastern Ontario.
It is not uncommon for him to sell more than 1,000 canvases a week and his insistence on carrying only the highest quality of paints, brushes and other supplies has attracted customers from as far away as North Bay, Kingston and the GTA.
“I want to make art accessible and affordable,” he said. “If I can save an art teacher thousands of dollars a year on supplies, then they can reduce the fees they charge their students and that may lead to more and more people embracing art. Am I a smart businessman? Probably not the greatest, but success is not always about money. To me, success is helping other artists thrive and to instill a passion for art in as many people as possible.”
From Foundry To Art Factory
Over the last five years, he has slowly transformed the former foundry into something completely unrecognizable from its previous state.
The foundry was built by French-born Luc Imbleau following his arrival in Renfrew in the early 1860s and it was a world leader in the production of manhole covers for over 140 years. Five generations of family members led H. Imbleau & Sons Ltd. until the forces of globalization and the rise of other companies producing cheaper and inferior manhole covers took over and forced the closure of the foundry in 2011.
For five years, the building, stained with black residue from the searing heat of the large fire furnaces that produced the covers, soon became an eyesore and many thought it would eventually be demolished.
That was until early 2016 when Mr. Mills came upon the site. After visiting more than 300 locations throughout Eastern Ontario and Quebec, he knew from the moment he saw it his long search was over.
“The building had nice bones,” he said with a big smile. “I said to myself I would like to make art in there. I wanted a place that I could build from the ground up and have room to expand and the old foundry offered that but I also knew this was going to be a long project.”
He wasted no time once he became the official owner. The interior cleanup was a monumental task that involved removing old fire furnaces, a large 30-foot interior steel chimney that sat upon contaminated soil, removing and replacing all the windows on the two-storey building and the endless removal of dirt and residue that covered every inch both inside and out of the 8,700 sq.uare foot building.
Like all renovations, there were unwanted surprises and he had to deal with several regulatory agencies every step of the way in order to get the simplest of tasks completed. His renovation crew has included his daughter, some close friends and some local contractors, but for the most part, it has been a solo labour of love.
He had no idea of just how many government regulations existed or the costs involved when trying to bring a 19th century factory up to 21st century standards. He has a stack of papers that represent the studies he has paid to have completed, the list of building codes and environmental regulations and the day-to-day challenges of applying for a host of permits.
“There have certainly been challenges I didn’t expect and some caused delays, but over the last five years we have achieved so much,” he said. “There have been days when I ask myself what am I doing and then I realize these are just immaterial roadblocks and I keep going forward.”
A Lifetime of Facing Adversity
Mr. Mills began his career in Vancouver and said the first few years were filled with rejection letters. Instead of becoming despondent, he moved to London, England and soon blossomed when his unconventional style was embraced by some influential investors and his slow path to success and financial stability began.
As an internationally recognized artist, he gained a reputation for challenging the status quo by reaching into the darkness of the human soul and brought those opposing emotions to life on a blank canvas. Whether it was the sadness and anger he felt over the end of his first marriage or the sheer joy and love of holding his daughter as a newborn, his finished paintings captured his feelings and they captured the eyes of art-lovers in Morocco, Spain, Vancouver and New York and prior to moving to Renfrew, they came to his Hintonburg Art Gallery in Ottawa.
He infuriated some Canadian art purists when his Ottawa gallery hosted the exhibit I Killed The Group of Seven.
“Automatically people assumed I hate the Group of Seven and nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “I have always been attracted to their work, but I wanted to challenge other artists to be unconventional.”
He speaks candidly of the frustration he has felt on several occasions while painting outdoors. For those unfamiliar with his technique, they may be taken aback when they see a man standing well over six feet tall wearing shabby and paint-stained clothing frantically squeezing several tubes of paint on to the canvas while doing his best to ignore those around him.
When he set up a series of large canvases near the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa in order to paint his series Foreign Policy, the interruptions were constant and intimidating.
“When I am painting I am looked down at as a vagabond,” he said. “I can hear the rude comments or they offer me money thinking I am homeless. Even though I say no thank you, I cannot tell you how many times I was harassed by police demanding my ID and questioning me. All the while onlookers see this and some of them may be artists, or want-to-be artists, and they figure it’s not worth the hassle. That is just not right.”
Challenges of COVID
On top of all the challenges he has overcome to this point in his life he, like everyone else, has had to deal with living through a global pandemic. Never one to look back and dwell, he has met this newest adversity with the same passion that has defined him over his lifetime.
He has not let COVID get in the way of promoting art and giving back to his community.
Respecting social distancing and the health and safety protocols required by all levels of government, he has facilitated youth art competitions and encouraged children from all walks of life to pick up a paint brush.
Last summer he hosted two very successful art fairs that attracted more than 40 artisans from all parts of Ontario and the venue showcased not just artwork, but original literature, jewelry, pottery and more.
With COVID shutting down art galleries, artists who depended on showcasing their works were scrambling to replace that lost revenue. At the same time food banks were struggling for donations. That is when fellow artist Jeff Wallace approached him with the idea of artists donating original works for an online auction to raise money for food banks and allowing artists to receive a small commission on the sale.
He immediately jumped on board and not only convinced artists across Canada to sign up, but he donated his gallery to showcase local artwork for the auction.
However, it is his latest project that truly shows the measure of the man.
“COVID has created an epidemic of people isolated and battling mental illness and people with addictions are relapsing and they have no outlet or nowhere to turn,” he said. “I realized more and more unfamiliar faces were coming in to purchase art supplies and they really did not know a lot about painting, but they used painting as an outlet to help them deal with their struggles and I knew I had to help out in some way.”
He began to renovate one of the buildings attached to the Art Factory and it will be used for private group lessons for these people. He has already secured some local businesses for sponsorship and enlisted the help of some fellow artists to help lead the classes.
“It will be a closed group to protect their anonymity and it will be small to allow for social distancing,” he said. “It’s not just about art. They can talk openly and privately about their issues in a safe environment. People are really hurting and to knowingly turn my back on them is something I could never do.”
Questioning His Own Mortality
On October 10, 2020, Mr. Mills was basking in joy when married a woman he describes as a shining light in a world that is sometimes dark. His wife, Tanja Kisslinger, is also a generous person who works internationally to help eliminate poverty and social injustice. As the founder and director of Heart In Hand, her foundation works with artisans in developing nations by helping them receive fair compensation for their products in order to achieve long term sustainability.
Mr. Mills not only contributes to his own community, but he helps promote growth in developing countries through his wife’s foundation.
“Heart in Hand actually includes a world boutique of the artisan’s handmade and fair trade products from more than 20 different countries inside the Art Factory,” he said.
When she exchanged wedding vows with her new husband, she was fully aware her lifelong commitment may be shorter than most marriages.
In early 2020 Mr. Mills was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (LLC). It is a fatal disease with no known cure and the median survival rate is less than 10 years, but survival durations vary from months to decades.
In fact, shortly after his diagnosis with CLL, he was also diagnosed with a malignant melanoma in his shoulder. This required an invasive surgery just days after his marriage to Tanja, to combat the spread of the disease. With the melanoma currently under control, he is resigned to the fact that all he and his doctors can do is react to whatever ailments CLL may cause and deal with them head-on in the hopes one day a cure is found.
While undergoing treatment for his cancer, he was also diagnosed with Malignant Melanoma. As a result, he has already undergone several procedures, including invasive surgeries, to combat the spread of the disease. He is resigned to the fact that all he and his doctors can do is react to whatever ailments CCL may cause and deal with them head-on in the hopes one day a cure is found.
He travels to Ottawa once a month for various blood tests and so far, his disease appears to be under control, but that could change very quickly. He said the worst thing about his diagnosis is the unknown and admits there have been several sleepless nights wondering what his future may hold. However, he is determined to complete the project he started five years ago.
“This is not a dream, this is a project,” he said quietly. “A dream is waking up with Tanja and having breakfast or going to the park with Tanja and feeding the chickadees. The Art Factory is a project. I have embraced every project in my life with complete passion and I will work until I can get it done.
“Would it suck if I didn’t get it done? Hell yes it would but that was a problem I dealt with when I was diagnosed. I would feel really cheated and robbed if I couldn’t finish this project because of my cancer.”
With his signature cheek-to-cheek smile, Mr. Mills took a deep breath when the glass window he struggled with finally nestled into its proper place. It is located in the studio where he and other volunteers will lead the art classes for those dealing with mental health and addiction issues.
Although most people would likely call it the end of the day after such a labourious task, Mr. Mills is not most people. Picking up his tool belt, he heads back to the main Art Factory building to meet some customers who have travelled more than two hours to purchase some items.
When asked what keeps him going on days like this, his response is not unexpected.
“That’s two more people who are going to help promote art and if they tell a few people about what we do here, then it will have the ripple effect of making art that much more accessible. It might even encourage somebody out there to pick up a paint brush.”
The Art Factory is located at 11 Bridge Street, Renfrew.