A celebration of the life of Provincetown painter Frank Milby, who died on Aug. 12, 2023, will be held at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 8 at the Beachcombers, 465A Commercial St., Provincetown. There will be a DJ and a potluck dinner; bring a dish and a drink.
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.
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
An exhibition of works by Provincetown artists Frank Milby, Ada Raynor, and Ray Nolin is on display at Exuma Fine Art through August 15th. Also included in the exhibition are works by seven women artists, as well as exciting contemporary work by Richard Fishman. An opening reception will be held on Friday, July 23rd from 6 to 10 p.m. The gallery is located at 283 Commercial St. in Provincetown.