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Susquehanna Life

The Life & Work of Billy Mills

Jun 06, 2017 11:01AM ● By Melanie Heisinger

Billy & Father at Home by Roopersburg Mill - From the Collection of James and Gay Dunne

By Jennifer Pencek

All photos credited to James Dunne.
Born in Bellefonte in 1918, Mills, who lacked formal education in visual art, used painting as a primary means of self-expression. Mills never learned to speak and there is no recorded or pictorial evidence of his mother’s presence in the family. He lived with his father and, at the age of 14, attended the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. He spent time in an orphanage before relocating to Centre Crest, a residential facility providing medical care and other services.
Despite numerous hardships, Mills found solace in painting. His Early Life works feature deeply personal scenes rendered from memory, depicting himself, with his father or other relatives, or during times of change and emotional distress, such as departing for or arriving at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf or entering the orphanage.

Real-life art

First Day at the Orphanage – From the collection of James and Gay Dunne

James and Gay Dunne of Bellefonte, who own 125 of Mills’ artworks, said Mills also painted from sketches, photographs, postcards, and newspapers, often embellishing the depicted scenes.
“He was well-known in town for creating paintings of people’s homes, so in 1982 we commissioned a painting of our house,” James Dunne said. “In 1993, we decided to open an art gallery and stored his works there, where they remained until 2002. He would do interesting things like walk in [the gallery] and take a piece down and walk out. After his death we purchased his remaining work from his guardians.”
The Dunnes no longer have their art gallery but still have the large collection of Mills’ work. Communication with Mills was very difficult, the couple said, and they relied mainly on communication between their gallery manager and Mills.
An opportunity to view a portion of Mills’ work earlier this year when the Bellefonte Art Museum of Centre County hosted an exhibit of 36 of Mills’ pieces. Exhibiting Mills’ work was not an obvious decision for Patricia House, executive director of the art museum.
“I was reluctant because I was surprised no one had produced a show of Mills work before,” she said. “I was not familiar with his work and had seen only a few pieces, but the story was compelling and after I saw [the Dunnes’] large collection, I could see his development as an artist and get a better understanding of his work. The exhibit was very popular and we were pleased with the community support.”

Fond recollections

DunneBush House/Train Station - From the collection of James and Gay Dunne

A large part of Mills’ story involves his beloved wife, Sara, who he met while living at Centre Crest. Sara, who died in 1986, often served as Mills’ spokesperson and marketed his artwork. In 1966, the couple lived across the hall from Vicki Wedler in Bellefonte, who remembers the couple fondly.
“Billy and Sara were a match made in Heaven,” Wedler said. “Billy was not able to hear or speak but it was amazing how he could understand what Sara, myself or both of us together could have him understand. Together they kept their apartment and the hallway immaculate. Sara was a good cook and would often share her cooking with me. They loved to fuss over my baby at the time.”
Wedler also recalled seeing Mills paint and the pleasure he seemed to take in creating his art.
“Billy always had his easel set up in their living room and I would always admire and encourage him with whatever he was painting at the time,” she said. “Sara was a very good agent for him and would get him a lot of jobs through her persuasive nature.”
While he was a loving husband to Sara and worked to reach out to his community, Wedler said she also hopes people think of Mills as a serious artist.
“He was very accomplished, self-taught, very precise, and very proud of his work,” she said.

The big picture

Bellefonte Aerial View 1950 - From the Collection of James and Gay Dunne

While some may feel sadness that Mills faced so many hardships in his life, Gay Dunne said the events Mills faced in his life afforded him the opportunity to create beautiful pieces of art.
“If you just talk about the work and say nothing about the artist, it’s really only one dimension,” she said. “When you put the persona of the artist in the work, that is important. You can’t have one without the other.”
Something that strikes Gay Dunne as remarkable about Mills, among many things, was his pursuit of creative expression despite adversity. She wonders what path Mills’ life would have taken had he benefited from present day approaches to deafness and achieved better communication skills.
“At another time he could have been another person and artist,” she said.
Jennifer Pencek is a freelance writer based in State College and programming coordinator of the Center for Women Students at Pennsylvania State University.
Visit to learn more about the Bellefonte Art Museum of Centre County.

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