PROFILE: Patrick John Mills is an artist outside the frame

A prolific artist in his own right, Patrick John Mills brings a new edge to the local arts scene by packing his gallery with bold artwork and taking it back to the beaver pelt

By Allison Smith

Photography by Graham Law.

Tucked away on a residential street in Hintonburg, the gallery at 286 Hinchey Avenue might seem at first glance to be a simple detached home — albeit a well-landscaped one peppered with metalwork and other eclectic art. But pop into the space on a “first Thursday,” when the Patrick John Mills Gallery hosts its monthly exhibition openings, and it’s an entirely different scene. These vernissages, which regularly reach capacity, offer art lovers something a little different — not to mention a great party.

Tall and broad, Patrick John Mills is easy to pick out among the other art aficionados. His fiery red hair and wild blue eyes project an intensity that anyone who has met Mills can attest to. Often clad in paint-stained denim, Mills eats, breathes, and sleeps art. He also has strong views on the direction art (and artists) should be going. “I don’t think that in today’s society, an artist needs to go up to Algonquin Park and paint a landscape,” he says. “Life’s more complicated than that. That kind of art seems lost in our society.”

Mills is openly critical of the commercialism that he says proliferates in contemporary Canadian art, which is why he shows artists whose work is outside the mainstream. A trip to his gallery will bring you face to face with more than one version of sodomy — but with recent exhibitions entitled Porn Is Not Art and Slave to Art, it’s not as if gallery-goers are expecting flower paintings.

The artist-turned-gallery-owner is passionate about fostering new talent and building an artistic community in Ottawa — one that may not quite fit in with the juried art exhibitions held at city hall. Attendees at special events have to be on Mills’ Facebook guest list, but other than that, the party is free. “For me, it’s always been more important to show the art that artists are most passionate about. Although it might not sell, it should be experienced.”

And while the artists he shows are unknown now, the gallery owner is optimistic that they won’t be for long. “In a year’s time, they will be known, because thousands and thousands of people will have seen their art in Ottawa.”

Born in Saint-Jérôme, Quebec, Mills first fell in love with painting while studying engineering at Concordia University in Montreal. After graduating in 1996, he lived in a communal work-space in Vancouver’s notorious East Hastings, a place he refers to as “skid row.” “I was broke as hell and was getting rejected from galleries left, right, and centre all the time,” he remembers, adding that this was also one of the most liberating times of his life. “Our country doesn’t have great artists because we don’t do anything to help them in Canada. It’s the land of being artistically handicapped in your career.”

In 1998, Mills moved to London, England, where he found almost instant success. He began showing in galleries and public spaces and, in his words, “selling paintings like crazy,” including one to the Prince of Morocco. In 2000, he was one of 40 people accepted in Sotheby’s ArtLink contest for young artists, beating out more than 80,000 applicants, and sold a number of works through the esteemed auction house. But it wasn’t easy — rent in London was expensive, and he describes his time there as a roller coaster of feast and famine. (Mills continues to sell work through Modern Artists Gallery in the U.K.)

By 2004, Mills, along with his wife and newborn daughter, had returned to Ottawa to be near family. Four years later he opened the Patrick John Mills Gallery as a place to show and sell his own work. “You get tired of being rejected. You want to do it on your own,” he explains. “The stuff that sells for me, other galleries won’t show it with confidence.”

Despite the popularity of his gallery and his success as an artist (he also sells paintings through Carmel Art Gallery on Bank Street), Mills has had trouble garnering attention from the media. He did appear once in the Ottawa Citizen — or, rather his backyard sculpture garden did, in the paper’s Homes section. “How many people are there in Ottawa making a living as an artist who have had success overseas, who own their own gallery, showing dozens of artists and throwing free parties for everybody?” Mills questions. “But I’ve never had an image in the Citizen unless I’m holding a power tool.”

Mills’ response has been to steer away from traditional advertising, sticking to postering, social media, and word of mouth to pack his gallery. “Most openings for unknown artists get friends and family and a few stragglers off the street. I get 500 to 1,000 people here at every one of my openings,” Mills says, smiling widely. “It gets packed. Rather than compete with the other galleries out there, you have to create something different. Then people are happy. They have a great time and they tell everyone and everyone comes.”

Mills bartered a couple of his paintings with a local catering company in exchange for their service at his events — he got the idea from the owner of a printing business, with whom he traded $6,000 worth of his art for thousands of posters and the opportunity to self-publish a book of his poetry. “We’ve lost track of how to work as a community,” Mills explains. “It goes back to the beaver pelt.”

Another of Mills’ attempts at community building, the Hintonburg Arts Festival, was recently quashed by bylaw officers and neighbourhood politics. For the past two summers, he hosted the festival in his backyard, complete with live music and beer tents. After receiving one too many anonymous complaints and finding one too many posters torn up on his lawn, Mills has called the festival quits. “The idea of the [Hintonburg] Arts Festival was to give artists a way to show their work and to have something for the community,” he says. “But I’m not doing that anymore.”

But Mills has no plans to halt his current schedule of exhibitions, with new art on view every month. He hopes that his approach will ultimately encourage artists to create and get people talking about art. “People who buy art and are addicted to art come to the gallery every month because they want to see something new. I don’t have art for the masses, but people come.”