When Kevin Milligan first saw Mendocino in June of 1997, he was taken by surprise. He had never been farther north in California than San Francisco and had no idea a place as quaint and beautiful could be found there. A working landscape painter, he was engaged in producing a collection of lithographs on the California Coast, but he was most familiar with Big Sur and Carmel. It became immediately apparent to Milligan that Mendocino offered numerous subjects suited to his art. The day he arrived, he set up his easel in Evergreen Cemetery and looked toward the bay. “Headstones in the foreground and the ocean in the back, it was a timeless scene, and captured the essence of the town,” he wrote.

Painting of historical buildings

“Main Street” by Kevin Milligan

To celebrate his discovery, the Kelley House Museum is devoting its summer exhibit to his evocative paintings. Paint the Town: The Art of Kevin Milligan opens on May 30th and runs to September 30th. Milligan came back to Mendocino again in August to paint other iconic views and structures, and the following June he moved to Mendocino and opened the Coastside Gallery in a water tower on the corner of Lansing and Calpella Streets. Over the next few years he painted many of the town’s structures and vistas, and became interested in their histories. He spent countless hours in the Kelley House Museum archives, and in 2002 he published Mendocino: A Painted Pictorial, a lovely coffee table book with 87 color plates and associated stories.

Milligan was born into an artistic family in St. Louis, Missouri. When he was seven years old, his family moved to the country, where his father Guy Milligan, a professional illustrator and designer, began to work outdoors on paintings of the area. He invited Kevin to come along and try his hand with a brush. Between 1975 and 77, Milligan studied with acclaimed figurative painter Wilbur Niewald at the Kansas City Art Institute. After earning his MFA at the University of North Carolina, he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1981 in order to pursue his art.

During his time in Mendocino, Milligan walked every street and wandered the nearby hillsides. The following paragraph from his book captures his connection to the town:

“For years, I observed the town from an easel while painting in fields, back streets, and balconies and looking down from hills. Details of the town’s sights and sounds embedded themselves in my memory. I became so familiar with my surrounding that I could recognize the sound of a particular gate closing behind me, or how the ravens made their click-clock call as they flew out of the cypress trees beside Crown Hall, over the west-end fields, and circled the leaning Carlson water tower. In the summer months, this field is a favorite location. From my easel, I can look across yellow, dried grass to the rosebushes and pine trees next to west-end houses set against the ocean and sky—all forming a perfect harmony.”

The exhibit showcases eight of Milligan’s original paintings, as well as three of his father’s, alongside black and white photos of the historic buildings and landscapes that inspired them. Milligan’s histories of the buildings accompany the artwork. Thank you to the collectors who loaned their artwork for the exhibit: Genie Christoff, Steve Worthen, Barry Cusick, Meredith Smith, and Loretta McCoard. Milligan’s book, Mendocino: A Painted Pictorial, will be for sale at the Kelley House, as will a notecard set with six of his stunning Mendocino images.

Please join the Kelley House Museum on June 8th, from 5:00-7:00 pm for the Second Saturday art walk in Mendocino to celebrate the opening of Paint the Town: The Art of Kevin Milligan. Kelley House members are welcome to come at 4:00 pm for a private preview. Regrettably, the artist is not able to be in attendance.