Jean Pilk, a renowned artist who lived in Cape Elizabeth and Yarmouth at the end of a distinguished career painting portraits of high-ranking government officials, died Wednesday. She was 96.

Jean Pilk in her Cape Elizabeth studio, March 2006. Portland Press Herald photo

Pilk painted hundreds of portraits throughout her career, and some of her best-known subjects include Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, astronaut Michael Collins, Rep. John Dingell, and past governors from Virginia, South Carolina and Maine. She is the only artist to have a wing of her work hanging in the Pentagon, where she painted eight former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including Gen. Colin Powell. Her portraits also hang in the halls of Congress, in statehouses, in museums and in private collections around the world.

Candace Pilk Karu of Portland, the middle of her five children, said Thursday that her mother was really good at her craft.

“She often said, ‘I paint for the sheer love of money,’” Karu recalled. “She loved being a star. She loved the recognition. She loved the money. We had five kids. We had to go to college. We needed shoes and clothes. She loved making money. She loved hobnobbing with these extraordinary people that she might not have met otherwise.”

According to Pilk’s obituary, she was born in Kansas City and declared herself an artist at the age of 5, capturing images of anyone who would sit for her. By 12, she was taking painting classes in Kansas City. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Marymount College in Tarrytown, New York, and continued at the Art Students League, where she studied portraiture with her mentor, Herbert Abrams.

Following art school, she married Jack Pilk, an Army colonel, and they went on to raise five children. In her early years, she taught drafting to high school students and had a thriving career doing illustrations for retail advertising. Her daughter said her mother often used her initials when she worked on these jobs to hide the fact she was a woman.

“She started out not revealing her gender. She was just J.B. Pilk and hoped for the best,” her daughter said.

In her early years while living in Washington, D.C., Pilk set up a studio in her kitchen and turned out portraits of children and mothers with their children, developing a reputation that eventually led to her portraits of prominent government officials.

Jean Pilk with former Gov. John Baldacci at the unveiling of his portrait in the Maine State House in 2010. Portland Press Herald photo

In a 2006 interview in the Maine Sunday Telegram, Pilk shared her experience of meeting the O’Connor, the first woman nominated and confirmed to the  Supreme Court.

“Oh, she was wonderful,” Pilk said in the story. “I sent her a letter. I said, ‘It’s almost as hard being a woman portrait painter as it is being a woman Supreme Court justice.’ She answered right away. She was wonderful. All the people I have met through this – and I have met so many – they are all straight arrows. There is no pretense about them.”

Karu said one of the reasons her mother’s portraits in Washington were so popular was because she made them personal. She said her mother made people come to her studio and sit for her. After the first sitting, she often took photographs of her subjects and then requested a follow-up visit for the final touches.

“Her studio was always a disaster,” her daughter said. “There was paint everywhere and a sloppy mess. The minute people went in there, it felt real and very authentic. It smelled of turpentine. I think people kind of relaxed around her.”

Jean Pilk Family photo

Another daughter, Stephanie Pilk of Yarmouth, said her mother’s portraits were unique because she incorporated personal items in the portraits. For example, the background of Powell’s portrait includes a painting of buffalo soldiers, the African Americans who primarily served in the West following the Civil War.

“Some people put symbolic things in the background that were almost as interesting as their faces,” Stephanie Pilk said.

Jean Pilk was remembered by her children this week as a tiny woman who had a huge presence in people’s lives. According to her obituary, she read the Wall Street Journal and Vogue Magazine with equal interest. She had a great fashion sense, liked plain food and juicy gossip.

“She was quite opinionated,” Karu said. “She was very well read. She was very worldly. She had an incredible sense of style and she was hilariously funny.”

Pilk moved to Cape Elizabeth in 2005 to be closer to her children. Her husband died a year later. She loved shopping at the IGA, golfing at Purpoodock Club and attending St. Bartholomew Church.

“It was a really happy time in her life,” Karu said.

More recently, Pilk lived at an assisted-living community in Yarmouth. There, she had a small studio to continue painting. She painted up until 95, stopping only when her eyesight began to fail.

At the start of the pandemic, Pilk moved to Palmyra, Virginia, to live with her son. At the time of her death, she was surrounded by her children. Karu reflected on her mother’s life and legacy, noting she raised independent and creative children.

“I’ll miss her humor and her ability to rally the troops,” Karu said. “We had a common goal which was to keep her going. As siblings, we made a promise to each other that we won’t let her passing stop this intrepid band of merrymakers that we have become.”

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