As Richard Keen hurried to leave his painting studio at Fort Andross Mill in Brunswick on a late afternoon just before Christmas, he noticed two men brusquely loading large, painted canvases into a trailer. An artist with a deep respect for the painting process and finished work, Keen was struck by both the high quality and quantity of the paintings and how roughly the men were handling them.

“I had never seen this work before, and I know a lot of artists in the mill,” he said. “So I asked these guys, ‘Whose work are you moving out of the mill?’ And one of them said, ‘I don’t know. Some old dead guy from New York. You want to buy some?’ ”

Within days, Keen and gallery owner Elizabeth Moss bought the whole trailer full and many more, rescuing hundreds of paintings and works on paper by the late New York abstract expressionist artist Michael Mulhern, who lived and worked in a ninth-floor studio-loft one block south of the World Trade Center, on Cedar Street, in lower Manhattan. Mulhern, who died in Maine in 2012, watched through large windows as the first plane hit the north tower, then donned his safety goggles and respirator when the force of the first-falling south tower blew out those windows and filled his space with dust and debris, he told the New York Times and other journalists.

Lauren Donovan, of Moss Galleries, helps move “125 Cedar St.” a mixed-media on canvas painting by the late New York artist Michael Mulhern. Mulhern had a studio near the World Trade Centers and mixed ash from the fallen towers into his paint after the towers collapsed, blowing out his windows and filling his space with dust. Moss Galleries in Falmouth has acquired several paintings and is showing a variety of his work. Mulhern’s “Tralariat 4” is to the right. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

His paints and palettes thickly coated, Mulhern later incorporated the ash into his abstract paintings, which grew increasingly dark and gray. Some of those paintings ended up in Maine and will go on view beginning Friday when Elizabeth Moss Galleries in Falmouth opens the exhibition, “Michael Mulhern: A Phoenix Rising from the Ashes.”

“Tralatariat 4,” 84″ x 72″, 2006, mixed media with ash on canvas by the late New York artist Michael Mulhern. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

His work has been exhibited widely, and the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York owns two of his paintings. The Scottish-born artist spent most of his life and career in New York. He moved to Maine late in his life to be closer to two of his grown sons, and died Oct. 15, 2012, in Falmouth at age 72. After he died, his art went into storage in the mill in Brunswick. When the storage bill went unpaid and liens unsettled, the contents were purchased in a blind storage-unit auction by the two burly guys Keen encountered last December, by fate or circumstance.

In that moment of recognition, Keen’s innate sense as an artist told him this art was notable and probably valuable, and he knew he had to act quickly before it was damaged. His first phone call was to Steve Howe of Cumberland Self Storage, who helped track down information about Mulhern, as well as the men who bought the art at auction; they lived in Sidney, near Augusta. When his research revealed that Mulhern was an accomplished artist with a long exhibition history, a 40-year teaching career at Boston College and a tight connection to the tragedy of 9/11, Keen called Moss, his art dealer.


The next day, they drove to Sidney to look more closely at the artwork, and encountered stacks and rows of Mulhern’s paintings under a falling-down event tent in a muddy cow pasture. Though covered, the paintings were exposed to the winter elements and at immediate risk of damage and eventual deterioration. Distressed, Keen and Moss bought as many paintings as they could fit into their vehicle and went to their separate homes to look more closely at what they had purchased.

Keenan Hendricks, a gallery assistant at Moss Galleries in Falmouth, prepares a photograph of “Cedar St.” by late New York artist Michael Mulhern to promote an upcoming show. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

That night, both were restless. They knew they had to do more.

“I didn’t know this guy from Adam, but if this was what happened to my artwork when I passed away, it would be my worst nightmare,” Keen said. “I couldn’t let this guy’s work deteriorate in a cow pasture under a tent that would fall down in the next storm. This guy’s work should be in more museum collections, and it should be taken care of and not end up in a party tent in Sidney, Maine.”

Said Moss, “The work was too sophisticated to pass up. In good faith, I could not have walked away from it. There is no way. This is not just a business for me. This is where my heart resides – in art and especially in paintings like these. I love large, abstract expressionist paintings.”

The next day, they arranged to buy the rest of the artwork, and two days later, on New Year’s Day, they went back to Sidney with a rental truck and a small team of volunteers to pack up paintings, drawings, blank canvases, rolled works, stretchers and other materials and items. All are now stored in an undisclosed location while Keen and Moss research and document the work. Keen said he and Moss salvaged “truckloads” of paintings, all completed between 1998 and 2008, with many dating from 2002 to 2004, with names like “Red Air” and “Black Air.”

Moss plans to show 15 or so paintings in the exhibition that opens in Falmouth on Friday. Some of those paintings Mulhern made in the aftermath of 9/11.


Howe, from Cumberland Self Storage, said the 10-by-12-foot unit in Brunswick “was stuffed right full. You couldn’t put any more in there even if you tried. … The sons rented the unit after their father’s passing to try to save his legacy, but unfortunately they couldn’t get it worked out.”

The sons, who live in Maine, declined through Mulhern’s estate representative in New Hampshire to be interviewed for this story. Cynthia Reeves, who represents Mulhern in the art market, said the family “lost the works through hardship. At some point it became difficult to keep up with the payments for the storage. We stepped in to help and took some of the work, and then Elizabeth was able to bid on the remaining works there in Maine.”

She said the family would be pleased to know Mulhern’s art is being shown in Maine. Reeves knew Mulhern for 25 years, and arranged exhibitions for him mostly in New York, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The exhibition in Falmouth is believed to be his first in Maine.

“He was a monumentally good painter,” Reeves said. “He was a really fantastic painter in this very specific, very New York tradition of abstract minimalism. He was from the New York school of painting through and through, even though he was born in Scotland. But he adopted Manhattan because of the coterie of artists that he resonated with so deeply.”

Gallery owner Elizabeth Moss is preparing a show of works by the late New York artist Michael Mulhern, some of which were made with ash from the wreckage of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, a block from his studio. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The art that Moss and Keen acquired spans various phases of Mulhern’s career. In addition to the dark work associated with 9/11, Mulhern painted colorful “spaghetti confetti” style paintings. A year or more before 9/11, he began a series that he called Ash Road, made in black, white and gray and occasionally aluminum paint, with a swirling quality that alluded to dust or fog. According to Reeves, he called them his “color paintings” even through they were monochromatic.

After 9/11, the dust he was trying to achieve in his art became literal and his paintings became environmental and atmospheric. As he experimented with paints mixed with the ash from the World Trade Center collapse, the series took on profound weight and meaning.

“The previous work was very quiet,” Mulhern told the New York Times early in 2002. “This is almost severe. I can’t believe it is not a response.”

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