Franklin James Milby, the prolific and versatile Provincetown artist whose work spanned a wide range of styles, died peacefully at home on Aug. 12, 2023. His wife and three of his children were by his side. The cause was cancer, his family said. He was 90.
The fourth of Harold and Louise (Farley) Milby’s six children, Frank was born in Queens, N.Y. on April 24, 1933. His mother was a teacher who worked hard to hold the family together during the Great Depression, a time made harder for the family by his father’s love of gambling.
When his mother died in 1949, his three older siblings went to work while Frank took on cooking for the family. With his father often at the racetrack and money short, he learned to be creative in the kitchen — a skill that stayed with him throughout his life.
Frank started to paint in elementary school and was encouraged by John Hare, the watercolorist of seascapes and harbor scenes, who visited his school as part of an enrichment program.
In high school, Frank’s teachers asked him to draw and paint maps and murals on their blackboards to illustrate lessons. One art teacher, who spent summers in Provincetown, invited Frank to join him here, but Frank’s father refused to let him go.
Frank would in time raise his children in Provincetown and became an integral part of the community where he lived for 60 years.
Following high school, Frank enlisted in the Army and served as a photo lithographer in Germany, where he spent hours in the woods drawing and painting. That nascent love of nature could be seen in his paintings. While overseas, he visited the museums of Paris and painted murals for the Veterans’ Club.
After his release from the service and his return to New York, Frank entered an art contest and received a full scholarship to the School of Visual Arts in New York City. To support himself, he worked as a street artist, painting portraits and street scenes.
In 1959, Frank finally visited Provincetown with Greenwich Village artist Mal Newman, who had inspired the Starving Artist Studio where Frank worked. In Provincetown he found his artistic home.
In addition to landscapes, especially trees rendered in various intensities of light and mist, Frank painted still lifes. He was known for his paintings of pears and lilacs; he also painted animals, notably his cat Dimitri set against a still life of oranges.
Classic Provincetown themes, such as fishing boats, also attracted Frank’s attention. At first, he would name the boats he painted, but he once explained that each time he named a boat in a painting it would sink at sea or burn or somehow court disaster, so he stopped naming the boats, to spare them, he said, “the curse of the artist’s hand.” He also painted the town, the Universalist Church, and the East End Cottages.
Frank was known for encouraging younger artists. He and Katrina Walker showed their work together in “A Town for All Seasons” at the Provincetown Commons in 2021. Walker’s account of Frank’s mentorship was reported that year in the Independent by André van der Wende: “I’ve always been the kind of person who thought my art wasn’t enough,” Walker told van der Wende. But Frank had encouraged her, declaring, “You’re a painter.”
“Frank Milby was recognized by many to be a master in whatever medium he chose,” said his friend Dennis Minsky. “He excelled in everything but self-promotion. Most people in the know believe his work will be recognized for generations to come as representative of Provincetown’s best art. On top of all that, he was a sweet, gentle man.”
Frank is survived by his wife, Karen Leighton, of Provincetown. They had been together for 57 years but were just married in 2022. He is also survived by his son, Brandon, of Dorchester and three daughters, Anne of Danbury, Conn., Kathryn of Hygiene, Colo., and Shaila of Lake Geneva, Wisc., as well as by his only living sibling, Vivian. He leaves 12 grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, and many friends.
He was preceded in death by four brothers and two grandchildren.
Frank will be remembered during services on Sunday, Aug. 27 at St. Mary of the Harbor Church, 517 Commercial St., beginning at 10 a.m. and afterward at 11:15 with coffee and conversation in the church’s parish hall. A celebration of his life will take place at the Beachcombers Club on Sunday, Oct. 8.
Donations in Frank’s memory may go to the PAAM Youth Education Fund or the VNA Hospice, 25 Common Way, Hyannis 02601.