When Plein Air and Urban Exploration Meet

One of my favourite days at the Helson Gallery happened recently when John (someone I’d never met before) popped in to enjoy the art.  He asked astute questions that made me think we was a painter himself, but no.  He’s a guy with an eye though – an urban explorer and a photographer with a gallery full of pics of abandoned and gorgeously decrepit buildings around the province.

As John walked me through some of his amazing work, my head swam with new ideas for plein air painting.  The melancholic, dusty rooms.  Light filtering through windows.  I have wanted to go paint exactly that at Camp 30 in Whitby for years and we hatched a plan to go together, but recent developments (and added security) took that location out of the question.  Besides, John said, we have amazing spots to paint right here in Halton Hills!

Exploring the Barber Mill

We hatched a plan to go to the nearby Barber Mill – an abandoned private property with an astounding history in our town.  It’s slated to be rebuilt into a beautiful and prosperous spot, although when this is going to happen seems to be a mystery.  For now it’s left up to us artists and urban explorers to capture.

We had it all to ourselves this afternoon, in the cold “graffiti off-season”.

As we explored, John could point out the work of famous graffiti artists and tell me some of their back-stories.  One young man has since passed away, and this place is one of his few remaining legacies.  Another came over frequently from Mississauga and managed to claim seemingly impossible spaces, 20 feet off the ground in this difficult to access building. “RAKA the Untouchable” rings out loud and proud and won’t be painted over for years (although RAKA seems to enjoy painting over everyone else’s work!).

As much as I love art, this is a culture I’ve never really been exposed to before.  Thanks to our tour I can appreciate it now (I can also appreciate the amount of effort it will take to remove one day…..but that would be for another blog!).  I’ll be back to try to capture this incredible space with my oils.

A Plein Air Moment

I got about fifteen minutes in at the easel before the cold got into our bones.  It’s a rough block-in but I think it already captures something of the atmosphere (can you feel the wind and snow blowing in through that hole in the ceiling?).

Barber Mill Work in Progress Oil Painting by Christy Michalak
Barber Mill (Work Barely Started!)


John, thanks for a great adventure today, and for introducing me to a new art-form and the hidden, underground amazing-ness of our town!




    • Hi Eric! It was a paper mill starting in 1854, and operating up until 1948. Now it’s tragically abandoned and left to fall apart…but treasured by local and visiting “artists”. I’m one of few pioneers to paint it on a canvas, not paint on it. Although I admire both forms of expression!

      If you’re also into urbex, I’ll look forward to checking out your site! Thanks for dropping by!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Interesting. It should be preserved and made into an urbex park or museum, unfortunately not too many of those are around. The only one I can think of is Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham, Alabama. My guess is liability plays a big role. Always had an interest for abandoned buildings but never really started urbexing until last year – since then I’ve checked out a semi-abandoned mall, a hospital, and a few other places. This is my post talking about my venture into this mall that sits close to one of the busiest highways in the Dallas area – https://ericexplorestheworld.net/2018/06/10/planos-forgotten-mall/


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