As a form of creative expression, putting brush to canvas can be, and very often is, deeply personal — a reflection of not only the artist’s mood at the time of creation, but also a window into the dreams and hopes of the creator as well as emotions, including frustration and, yes, anger.
On the cusp of marking his 94th birthday, Bill McMillan has done more than his fair share of dreaming and hoping, and it’s a safe bet that any frustration and anger he has experienced is well in his rear view mirror. He now paints for the pure joy of doing so, interacting with the world as a creative person who still has much more to give.
At the Art School of Peterborough in Charlotte Mews, that will be fully evident when McMillan’s first-ever art exhibition calls the school’s Launch Gallery home. Titled ‘Together, We Paint’, the exhibition will also feature paintings by art school instructor Jose Miguel Hernandez Autorino, McMillan’s mentor and friend.
‘Together, We Paint’ opens this Friday (March 3) — timed to coincide with McMillan’s 94th birthday — as part of the First Friday Peterborough art crawl at the Launch Gallery at the Art School of Peterborough (174A Charlotte St.). Opening night runs from 6 to 9 p.m., with the exhibit continuing through Thursday, March 9th.
“It’s really important that people realize that art doesn’t always have to be about making a masterpiece,” says Jenni Johnston, the executive director of the Art School of Peterborough, noting the man most all refer to as ‘Uncle Bill’ provides full evidence of that.
“Art can be just about the experience and connecting with people and skill building,” Johnston explains, referring to McMillan and Autorino’s relationship. “It doesn’t always have to be an end product of its own. I really think that’s what this whole kind of partnership they have is all about. Miguel has learned as much from Uncle Bill as Uncle Bill has learned from Miguel.”
McMillan’s niece Elizabeth Hutchinson notes he isn’t exactly a novice when it comes to creating art. She says there was a time, many years ago, when he had an opportunity to serve as an apprentice to a stone carver. He balked, thinking he wasn’t ready for such a step and questioning how he could earn a living as a carver.
After moving to Peterborough from Trenton and attaining employment at General Electric as a draftsman, he joined a painting group. Fast forward to last year when McMillan’s wife Georgina — they married late in life when both where in their 40s — suffered a fall. She has been at the Peterborough Regional Health ever since, with her husband living at a local retirement home where they resided together after selling their Bridgenorth home a few years back.
“That’s when he really got sad … he missed her so much,” says Hutchinson. “I got thinking ‘What are the threads in his life that have made him happy?’ I remembered when I cleaned out their house, I found an easel and the paints, and some musical instruments too. I bought him an electric piano and had it delivered during the lockdown. As soon as I could, I arranged for some people to come in and teach him piano. Now he loves it.”
Hutchinson notes when she suggested the idea of painting again, her uncle said he was “too old and too tired.” Undaunted, Hutchinson made inquiries to the Art School of Peterborough, the ultimate response being “We know who to send.” Enter Autorino.
“He’s wonderful,” says Hutchinson of the Venezuelan native who came to Canada in 2014, bringing with him huge talent as an oil painter, illustrator, and mural creator. “He’s such a lovely, kind person. I could tell he would make it work — that he would spend time with him and be really flexible and see how it goes. They hit it off right away.”
As Autorino recalls things, McMillan “wasn’t too keen on painting” at first but “slowly we moved from sketching to some watercolour and, finally, oil painting.”
“At first I was focused on spending not only quality time with Uncle Bill, but also on the idea of creating interesting work,” Autorino explains. “With time, I finally understood that this opportunity was about the power of creation — keeping the brain sharp and giving him the opportunity of making something new every week.”
“Now we sit down every week and dedicate two hours to exploring ideas, colours, textures, life experiences and, usually, end up with a painting. For me, Tuesday morning is my favourite time of the week. It’s a life-changing experience. I hope this story helps people understand the power of art.”
For her part, while very happy her uncle is deriving such pleasure from his revived interest in painting, Hutchinson isn’t surprised.
“He’s really old and has big long naps but he’s pretty spry,” Hutchinson says, noting Autorino will often text her after a session and send her images of her uncle’s work.
“I feel like his world is getting bigger and more interesting at a time when most people’s lives seem to get smaller. He’s got more people in his life; more things to look forward to that are creative and life affirming.”
Mostly, however, she’s impressed by her uncle’s “will to create something and will to participate; to be curious and pick up a brush or sit down at the piano. It’s not how much you can do or how well you can do it or how long you can do it. None of those things matter. The main thing is interacting with the world as a creative person.”
An artist who teaches painting herself, Hutchinson is impressed by her uncle’s work.
“He’s not a beginner. He’s been doing it for quite awhile. He has a pretty good handle on how to create form but that’s really not the point. The point is he’s doing it.”
Asked if she has a Bill McMillan painting in her home, Hutchinson says not yet, adding “I’ll have to see if he wants to give me one.”
“I’m happy for him — it was pretty glum for awhile when Aunt Georgina went into the hospital,” says Hutchinson, noting her uncle visits with her aunt at PRHC three afternoons each week. “Maybe this is just the beginning for Uncle Bill. Maybe he’ll have another exhibition next year. He’ll just do what’s he doing. I think it’s really sweet that he’s doing it with his friend Miguel.”
‘Together, We Paint’, notes Johnson, will see the art of Autorino and McMillan displayed side by side.
“I hope when I’m 94 someone will come paint with me,” she says. “His reconnecting with art is wonderful. I give kudos to Elizabeth for putting two and two together and thinking this would be beneficial for him, which it certainly has been.”
For more information about programming and classes offered by the Art School of Peterborough, visit artschoolptbo.org.