Katrina Walker first met Frank Milby in 1983 at Provincetown’s Café Edwige, now closed, where Milby’s wife, Karen, worked. “Frank came up to our table,” recalls Walker. “He looked at me a certain way, and I knew that he could see inside me.” That first impression, she says, was a “Wow!”
Walker, an aspiring artist, had just moved to town with her husband and two young children. Milby, an established artist, had lived here since 1959.
They became fast friends, as well as teacher and student. Thirty-eight years later, they are still inseparable. “A Town for All Seasons” is a retrospective of their art and friendship at the Provincetown Commons through Nov. 28.
Milby, now 88, stopped working about two years ago, but his studio is still a jumble of paintings in different stages of completion. He has had two strokes — the first and most severe in 2001 — compromising his speech, so his wife and Walker interpret for him.
Born in Queens, N.Y., Milby had a difficult childhood. His mother encouraged his interest in art, buying him supplies when she could. But his father was a gambler, and the family’s finances were precarious. Then, when Milby was 16, his mother died. His two oldest siblings went to work; he remembers dumpster diving for food.
Milby sometimes spent nights outdoors in the Palisades. The natural world was a reprieve, and its impression on him is reflected in his later landscapes, with the almost sentient presence of the trees.
After high school, Milby enlisted in the Army. Being stationed in Europe brought him close to art again — he made photo lithographs, painted murals, and visited the museums of Paris. When he came home, he began peddling caricatures on the streets of New York and ended up getting a full scholarship to the School of Visual Arts.
Walker, 71, was born in Scotland and emigrated to Toronto with her family when she was four. She moved to Provincetown with her American husband.
“Art rubs off through osmosis in this town,” Walker says of her beginnings here. “But before I met Frank, I wasn’t committed.”
Through Milby, and her other teachers, Tony Vevers and Salvatore Del Deo, Walker learned the fundamentals of composition and color mixing. She tagged along as Milby sketched and painted around Provincetown and in his studio. “He was a big shot to me,” she says, laughing.
Gallery jobs sustained her. She worked at Rising Tide Gallery in its final year, at Cherry Stone Gallery in Wellfleet, and at Julie Heller Gallery for 18 years, where she also showed her work.
“I’ve always been the kind of person who thought my art wasn’t enough,” says Walker. “But Frank encouraged me. I would do pastels of street scenes, and he would come and find me in his car. He’d look out the window and — I remember it so clearly — ‘Stop!’ he’d say. He’d insist the painting was done.”
A dozen years ago, while Walker was painting a rainy street scene, Milby took the painting off its easel, looked at her and said, “You’re a painter!”
“It was pivotal for me,” recalls Walker. “I thought, ‘I’m getting there.’ ”
At first, Walker imitated Milby’s realist and impressionist style. “I always wanted something else, something of my own. I started to sneak elements in,” she says, recalling one time when she was painting the Beech Forest covered with snow. She created something more psychological, expressing the insignificance of humanity when dwarfed by the tall, stark trees.
“I wanted to paint my feelings about it,” she says. “I left realism because I wanted to express something else.” At first, Walker was fearful Milby wouldn’t approve, but she was wrong about that.
“Be yourself,” wrote Milby in a statement from his 2008 retrospective at the Cahoon Museum of American Art. “Stare at an object until you can feel it. Really observe what you are painting from all angles. Have emotional involvement with the painting. Painting should be a constant romance with the ever-changing three-dimensional composition of life.”
Paint the Town
The event: “A Town for All Seasons,” works by Frank Milby and Katrina Walker
The time: Through Nov. 28; reception Friday, Nov. 19, 4 to 8 p.m.
The place: Provincetown Commons, 46 Bradford St.
The cost: Free