The Old Mill is the artistan village Whistler has dreamed of
By Bob Barnett
Step into Robert Proulx’s studio and there is an immediate sense of potential. All the raw materials are here to create something special "of the earth."
Stacked, freshly cut cedar planks carry the scent of optimism that goes with building. Along the back wall are sedimentary stones, naturally sculpted by the waters of a Vancouver Island stream. And there are the glue-lams, massive laminated beams Proulx rescued from a North Vancouver shipyard that was torn down three years ago. He has turned some of the smaller glue-lams into tables, utilizing ironwork and hardware from the same shipyard.
One 10-foot x 6-foot piece of glue-lam is nearly 2 feet thick. Proulx calculates it weighs about 1,750 pounds. He intends to make a door out of part of it, supported by ball bearing hinges and hardware which will be created by Maurice Lavoie, whose metal-working studio is just a couple of doors away.
"There’s all kinds of creative people with hand-skills out here," says Proulx. People just don’t know about the Old Mill."
Proulx and Lavoie are just two of the craftsmen who have studios in the Old Mill in Pemberton. Others include Ron Berkner, who builds cedar strip canoes and wooden boats, cabinet maker Bernd Carolsfeld and Keith Simpson specializes in log and timber frame construction. Bill Bagnall, who started working for his father, a saddle maker in Australia, now makes the finest inlaid wooden desks, cabinets and "just about anything you can dream of in wood."
Ian Boyd, who has a couple of portable saw mills and manufactures custom cut lumber, and Cam McIvor, whose specialty is bent wood furniture and structures, are co-owners of the Old Mill. McIvor’s studio, like his "millennium project," a 2,000 year old stump he plans to turn into a table, is still unfinished. He’s finished other studios in the Old Mill but given them up as people like Proulx and Bagnall have moved in.
If you were to build a dream house, this is where you’d come for inspiration and the skilled people needed to make the dream come true. Many people who can afford to build dream homes in Whistler have done just that, but the general public hardly knows the Old Mill exists.
"What we really need is a gallery, where people can come and see the work we do," McIvor says as he puts away a chainsaw.
The Old Mill may be a metaphor for Pemberton’s history and its future. Built by Evans Forest Products, the mill used to churn out lumber by the truck load. When Evans could no longer make a go of it the mill operated briefly as the Potvin Mill before the machinery was removed.
About six years ago the crew filming the movie Alaska used the structure to house a set in the Charlton Heston movie. The film crew installed Styrofoam under most of the metal roof of the mill to prevent condensation from dripping on the set. That Styrofoam is now insulation, keeping the studios Boyd, McIvor and others have built warm and dry. The concrete floor Boyd and McIvor installed provides radiant heat for the studios. It’s fuelled by scrap wood that’s burned to fire a boiler.
The Old Mill doesn’t have the reputation or the marketing dollars that a place like Granville Island has — there isn’t even a sign on the highway. Yet in many ways it has become the artisan village of studios Whistler has dreamed of building. It has grown from no-nonsense, working-class industrial roots, but there is no question it is a centre for artists. Lavoie, the senior tenant having opened his studio in 1992, is an example.
A recent visit found, among other works in progress: a titanium bike frame being custom built for a cyclist in Florida; a system of jacks for a local helicopter company to help them service their machines; and intricate decorative metal grape vines for Zube’s Mushroom House. Lavoie also built the titanium "foot and ankle" that Whistler’s Mark Ludbrook wore on his way to a bronze medal in skiing at the 1998 Winter Olympics for the Disabled in Nagano. He’s currently working on intricate lace metal railings for a $4 million Whistler house.
Proulx, like Lavoie, Bagnall, Simpson and others, derives much of his current income from projects in Whistler, where people building million dollar houses and businesses seeking a unique focal point have sought his stonework.
"Carpentry is not bad, but stonework is my forté, my love," says Proulx.
In fact, it was the demand for stonemasons capable of working on high-end houses that first brought the Qualicum native to Whistler in 1986. As he has built a reputation over the years, he’s been given more creative licence. One of his best works is the jukebox fireplace, including a rock guitar, in the Whistler Hard Rock Cafe.
Proulx’s creative juices weren’t really stoked by his first job. He left home at 15, with a Grade 9 education, and went to work as a longshoreman. That lasted a few years, until he was injured. He returned to school to get his Grade 12 and then took a journalism course at Malaspina College. But his skills with stone, wood and steel were "all basically self-taught, from people who know better."
After some unfulfilling working with cultured stone and building cookie-cutter fireplaces in multi-unit condo projects in Calgary, Proulx developed a love for the unique shapes and textures of real stone. He is as excited by the wave-cut scallops in Gulf Island rock as he is by the natural sedimentary formations he finds in the rock claim he has staked on Vancouver Island.
"Nature does the best work, I just put it up," Proulx says.
His love of rock has, over the years, led him to create several special effects sets or dioramas — Star Trek-like sets using stones, rock formations and lights. But they haven’t made him much money.
"I just work on spec.," he says of the sets.
In 1990 Proulx decided to dedicate himself to the environment and to youths. Some of his works — such as a glass table top which sits on two steel rods, supported by anthracite stones at either end — are based on an environmental theme or concept. The glass-steel-anthracite table symbolizes industry going into the mountains to extract resources in order to feed society. The glass table top represents a grey area in between society and nature.
"I’m working mostly in wood right now, so they don’t usually follow environmental concepts, but I have concepts I’d like to work with if I have the time and the money," Proulx says.
His immediate concept may be his grandest yet: to build a gallery, a theatre and four artists’ studios on land next to the Old Mill. Proulx owns the land, he has the glue-lams, brackets and columns salvaged from the shipyard, all wrapped in tarps and sitting on the property. He’s just waiting to hear from Howe Sound Community Futures about his business plan and a loan to put it all together.
"I’d like to create a gallery, a common space for local artists," Proulx says. "And I miss the theatre. I want to see a play even if I have to build the theatre myself."
Proulx believes the gallery and studios can be of huge benefit to the community, not just as a showcase for local talent and a tourism draw, but as a vehicle for local youth.
"I believe that seeing and understanding skilled hand-work can be educational for kids. We can show them a skill.
"And I want to have a wall in the gallery just for kids’ stuff, where they could hang their paintings and art work."
Proulx, like his studio in the Old Mill, is filled with optimism, filled with the raw materials to make dreams happen.
There is huge potential in this corner of the Pemberton Valley, in the studios of the Old Mill and in the field next to it where the pieces of Proulx’s dismantled shipyard are waiting to be reassembled. All the elements just have to be brought together.