She works in an improvised, paint-flecked studio in her assisted living community in Yarmouth.
When nationally known portrait artist Jean Pilk—who turned 95 in July—moved into an assisted living community in Yarmouth last year, she thought her painting days were behind her. After she had been there for a few months, though, the management offered her a little sitting room to use as her studio, and soon she was back to painting the days away.
In the studio, only a few steps down the hall from Pilk’s apartment, a large easel holds an in-progress painting of Pilk’s granddaughter, other portraits lean up against the walls and furniture, and two taborets (art supply organizers) hold a large inventory of brushes and paints. Few surfaces have escaped being flecked with paint.
Residents and staff frequently drop by. “The women who work here are my biggest fans,” said Pilk. “They come in when I’m not here to see how it’s going.” Although the studio has a chair (“in case I faint,” says Pilk), she always stands when painting. Her daughter, Candace Karu, jokes that she has long wanted to put a pedometer on her constantly moving mother.
Back in Pilk’s apartment, the walls are covered with portraits of her family. Paintings “aren’t allowed in if they’re not mine,” she says, laughing. A former military wife and mother to five, Pilk painted since she was a young girl, but got her more public start in the late 1960s when commissioned to do the official portrait of an admiral. By the time she left Washington, D.C., in 1999, she had painted the official portraits of Gen. Colin Powell, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Maine Congressman and Gov. John Baldacci and others. There’s an entire wing in the Pentagon devoted to her portraits of past Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times have written about her work, but Pilk is humble, saying “there were hundreds of women who could have taken my place.” At the time, says Pilk, most female portrait artists simply weren’t considered as an option. “They weren’t valued.”
Pilk, who moved to Maine in 2004 to be closer to family (another daughter, Stephanie, lives in Yarmouth and a son, Jack, lives in Cape Elizabeth), admits that painting doesn’t come as easily to her as it used to. “I thought I had quit,” she says. “Some days I’d just as soon get beaten up than paint.”
Nevertheless, she persists.
“I think this is my clean one,” joked Pilk, who then reminisces about the time she moved out of an earlier home and in the process discovered paint splotches on every possible surface—including the dog.
Pilk’s favorite portrait in her apartment is of her daughter Candace in her prom dress. It was a dressing gown they embellished with embroidery tape. Her daughter, who was taking mandolin lessons at the time, posed in the dress with her instrument. The mandolin, however, did not get to go to the prom.
The cigarette in this painting of Pilk’s daughter Candace at their former home in D.C. wasn’t just a prop—both mother and daughter smoked then. “It wasn’t a real Jean Pilk portrait if there weren’t ashes in the paint,” her daughter says, laughing.
Pilk has a special fondness for the paintings of Van Dyck, Van Gogh, Singer Sargent and Andrew Wyeth. Not a fan of most modern art, she doesn’t have any female painters she particularly likes. When it comes to lack of notoriety for female painters, “I’m part of the problem,” she admits.
Pilk paints exclusively in oil, favoring Winsor & Newton permanent pigment paints. “I just find oils more satisfying.” Her most frequently used colors are in the crimson/cadmium/sienna family, but she occasionally does more monochromatic paintings, usually only for her family.
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, the table of contents and Editor’s Note in the print edition of Maine Women Magazine’s August issue referred to the wrong Pilk as the subject of this profile. Stephanie Pilk is one of Jean Pilk’s daughters and a designer, but not a portrait painter.
Angie Bryan moved to Portland in 2018 when she retired from the diplomatic service. Her writing has also appeared in The Foreign Service Journal and she contributes regularly to MaineToday.com.