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Renfrew artist Patrick John Mills assisting area's vulnerable population while racing time

Patrick John Mills challenges himself to make a difference in his community while coming to grips with a diagnosis that may not allow him to complete the renovation of one of Renfrew's great landmarks.

As Patrick John Mills looks 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.

Today is a good day for Mills. His mind and body are kept busy with the goal of properly setting the very large and very expensive window into the frame he cut himself.

He is too focused to think about his upcoming monthly trip to Ottawa from Renfrew. Today, he refuses to anticipate what his medical specialist will report in regards to the devastating and life-altering diagnosis he received less than a year ago.

Instead, he smiles and reflects on his vision of The Art Factory as a modern, post-industrial, multi-purpose set of buildings that has taken shape since he began transforming the former outdated 19th century factory on Bridges Street, to what he describes as a living and evolving centre of artistic creativity.

Mills has been on a journey since attending Laurentian University in Montreal, which led to a life in Vancouver, where he purposely lived in some of Canada’s most notorious neighborhoods, and eventually the Town of Renfrew.

“If, as an artist, I told you I had reached the peak of my creative success, then you should put away your pad of paper because you would be wasting your time,” he said. “If I told you that and you believed me, then I am not sure who here is the bigger fool.”

Art therapy for the forgotten

Although determined to complete this studio, so he can begin using it to help those fighting addiction or mental illness, Mills still finds time to talk about the unusual route he took to reach this destination.

More importantly, he allows a rare glimpse into why he is so determined to help vulnerable people.

“You go around and some will tell you they are just a bunch of junkies or drunks, or just plain crazy, and unfortunately their inner struggles are not seen as a priority,” Mills said. “They are a priority and they are the ones you see huddled in a corner on a cold winter day. Many of them are literally down and out with nowhere, or no one to turn to."

“They are the nameless people most of us pass by with nary a thought. Well, I think about it and that is when I came up with the idea of private art classes and create a safe place where they can let down their guards and speak from the heart.”

When Mills approached some local Renfrew businesses about sponsoring his private art lessons for vulnerable populations, some told him they were too busy and "it is not their problem."

Thirty years ago, a much younger Mills would likely have gone up a few decibels when confronted with such ignorance and contempt for his fellow residents. But today he is not going to let a few nay-sayers stop him from doing what he loves.

Making art affordable

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 which helped shape the community, The Art Factory is carrying on that tradition. It not only promotes art, but it is shaping an art community built on Mills’ core principle of helping others far beyond art.

He has steadily gained a reputation as the owner of one of the as 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 consumers from as far away as Brockville, Kingston and the Greater Toronto Area.

“I want to make art accessible and affordable,” Mills said. “If I can save an art teacher $1,000 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 Lmbleau 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. Lmbleau & Sons Ltd. until the forces of globalization and the rise of other companies producing cheaper 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 manhole covers, soon became an eyesore and many thought it would eventually be demolished.

That was until early 2016 when 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-story building and the endless removal of dirt and residue that covered every inch both inside and out of the 8,700 sq. ft. 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.

Mills says he had no idea about government regulations or the costs involved when trying to bring a 19th century factory up to 21st century standards. He now 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

As an internationally recognized artist, Mills 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 blank canvases. 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 Toronto, Vancouver, 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 as a vagabond,” he said. “I can hear the rude comments or they offer me money thinking I am homeless,” he said. “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-19 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-19 regulations 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 (and continue to be) struggling for donations. Fellow artist Jeff Wallace approached Mills 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.

Mills 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.”

Mills 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, Mills was basking in joy when he married a woman he describes as "a shining light in a world that is sometimes dark."

His new wife, Tanja, 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.

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, Mills was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphatic Leukemia (CLL). 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.

Mills 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 that 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 chikadees. 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 a big smile, 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 laborious task, 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, ON.

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