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Late artist’s ‘Special Gifts’ on display in the community he loved

Artwork by the late William “Billy” Mills is on display through Feb. 26 at the Bellefonte Art Museum.
Artwork by the late William “Billy” Mills is on display through Feb. 26 at the Bellefonte Art Museum. Photo provided

Bellefonte resident William “Billy” Mills used art to communicate what he was not able to express through speech or the written word.

Mills was deaf and could not speak or use sign language. He did, however, share reflections on his life through hundreds of paintings. The paintings, along with photos from Mills’ life, comprise the “Special Gifts and Special Needs” exhibit that opens this weekend at the Bellefonte Art Museum.

Mills was born in 1916 and spent his early years in an orphanage. He briefly attended the Philadelphia School for the Deaf, but never learned to effectively communicate using sign language. He lived and worked at Centre Crest and sold his work to local galleries. Mills was married to Sara Lee, who acted as his interpreter until her death in 1986.

Painting provided an outlet for Mills to express his feelings and communicate what he was not able to do with words. People in his paintings are shown to be different sizes according to their importance in Mills’ life and are dressed according to the role he saw them play.

Jim Dunne, who owned the Adam and Art gallery in Bellefonte, is guest curator of the exhibit. Dunne got to know Mills over years of visits to the gallery.

Dunne acquired about 125 of Mills’ paintings after he passed away in 2002. He characterized them as having an impressionistic, almost photographic style.

“He was really quite a great painter,” Dunne said. “His most interesting paintings reflect back on his early life.”

Another highlight, Dunne said, is a set of paintings that depict what he called a remarkably accurate aerial view of Bellefonte and show that Mills cared deeply about the community in which he lived.

In addition to the paintings, Dunne collected photos of Mills from his guardians in Boalsburg following his death and will display them along with the paintings.

Bellefonte Art Museum Executive Director Pat House said she was hesitant about the exhibit initially because Mills is not an active local artist, nor is he an outside artist whose works have been juried. She made an exception when she considered the impact Mills had on the local community and the opportunity for the exhibit to spark a larger discussion.

“It will be a great forum to discuss how artists communicate through art and recognize someone in our own community,” House said.

The “Special Gifts and Special Needs” exhibit runs through Feb. 26 at the Bellefonte Art Museum. An opening reception will be held Sunday.

IF YOU GO

  • What: “Special Gifts and Special Needs”
  • When: opening reception 1-4 p.m. Sunday; show runs through Feb. 26
  • Where: Bellefonte Art Museum, 133 N. Allegheny St., Bellefonte
  • Info: www.bellefontemuseum.org
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