Mitchell J. Billis, nationally known artist, 84, died unexpectedly from a brief illness on Sept. 20, 2021.
He was an only child to Alice (Wiley) and Mitch Billis in Frankfort in upstate New York, a mostly Sicilian Italian small town of immigrants who had come to take the jobs building the railroads making a good life for their children. His Irish mother represented one of the other small groups of people who came to Frankfort in the early years before prohibition and the Great Depression. His Lithuanian grandmother had the curious idea that building a hotel would attract a large number of more Lithuanians. Well, it was a success, but it was the immigrant Italian railroad workers needed housing. No Lithuanians showed up. This allowed Mitch’s father to graduate from college, a rare accomplishment for this working-class town; however, the Great Depression limited his father’s choices for any careers he might have imagined. “Little Mitch” grew up through the war years learning the value of work, and responsibility to the family and respect for his community. Mitch’s background in Frankfurt was the biggest influence for the rest of his life. He never took his eventual success in his chosen life of art to be above or more important than anybody else. And to the day he died was in contact with dozens of friends from all the many walks of life he took.
Mitch graduated valedictorian from high school, and with a full ride basketball scholarship, went on to Clarkson College (then all male) to get his degree in engineering. He was always happy to say he never had to use his degree in engineering as this was anathema to Mitch’s soul. Because of the influence of growing up in Frankfort and the family history of having made it through hard times; Mitch’s early interest and obvious talent for art had not been encouraged. After earning an engineering degree, he very quickly took a job teaching high school math. He had married his college sweetheart Carolyn Stewart, and although the marriage was not to last, they had four great children in close succession. Even counting all the beauty Mitch left behind in his paintings, he took this quote from Jackson Browne seriously: “the only thing that survives is the way you live your life,” and considered his children to be the most valuable contribution he would leave behind. Each one uniquely talented, compassionate, generous spirit of whom he was very proud, as well as his grandchildren.
Chris Billis Bryan of Vermont, is a well-known portrait artist, among other art she creates, and now teaches. There are many homes in VT with portraits of children that were painted by Chris. Mitch Billis Jr. of Montana is a very successful sculptor with collectors across the country; one of his large pieces sits on the Boothbay Harbor Memorial Library lawn, donated by Mitch Jr Scott Billis, also of Montana, owns and manages Northwest Casting Bronze Works, and Kara Billis Synwolt is an artist and mother of Chicago, Illinois.
For the next few years Mitch moved his young family from Dartmouth University for his master's degree to University of Utah earning his Ph.D. in math. With his education complete and family growing, he settled in Bozeman, Montana built a home on 40 acres during a time when 40 acres was a long way from the lights of town. He earned a tenured professorship in math ,and most people would consider themselves pretty well settled. But that was not to be Mitch’s destiny.
Mitch was invited to a watercolor demonstration given by a well-known artist Val Thalin who was visiting from the east. As Mitch watched the colors flow taking form on the paper he was literally “soul thunder struck” as the Sicilians back in Frankfort would have said. He knew what he had to do: change his life no matter what. This took some, but not a lot of time to achieve. His marriage had ended. In the early 70s, he left his diplomas on his office wall, gave up tenure (a much-revered position), settled his family financially, and then took off leaving his secure life to follow the passion his heart had held long before.
He moved to Rockport, Massachusetts with his two, now teenage boys, who needed a fathers’ presence at that juncture. He continued studying painting - plein air with Val Thalin and other notable mentors such as Don Stone. Like everything else Mitch pursued; he threw his whole heart, and considerably brilliant mind, into his paintings and soon was selling his art. Now he wanted a place that would be a good influence for his boys and have a beautiful area to paint. That would be Boothbay Harbor, which was all that and more. They bought a house the same day they arrived, which has been home for all his children at times. Mitch Jr. and Scott both graduated from Boothbay Region High School.
By the time he met Kathleen Mahoney, Mitch was already a well-established and successful plein air painter on both coasts. A lot has been written, and a wonderful documentary done by Maine filmmaker Lee Arnott, about their almost storybook love story. Mitch, on a painting trip traveling down the famous west coast Highway 101 through the majestic redwoods turned off at a sign for “Ferndale Victorian Village,” a small town in remote Northern California. He crossed a long bridge leading through beautiful countryside dotted with 100-year-old dairy farms. Steeples could be seen above the foggy mist hiding the small village of 800 souls. Mitch always remembered it like “Brigadoon” in the movie. He stopped to paint a large white farmhouse in a distant green meadow. This would turn out to be the large B&B owned by Kathleen who had left her very “ San Francisco” lifestyle to bring her life back into balance. Mitch showing up at the door of the first house he had painted earlier seemed more than just a coincidence to both of them. This meeting would change both of their destinies again - forever.
Mitch remained as a “guest” long enough for them to fall in love. He built a temporary studio and traveled the area painting the beautiful coast and countryside surrounding the small town. Kathleen began accompanying Mitch while he worked. One day, sitting on the tailgate of his truck, watching the blank canvas come alive from the brushstrokes with beautiful colors becoming form, Kathleen was struck with a joy she had not known since her first love, ballet. Mitch encouraged her to begin painting without a hint of patronizing the 42-year-old almost beginner, with the understanding she was serious and would work long and hard. She took Mitch’s admonition “you don’t have a day to waste” to heart. Kathleen left her B&B and all the rest behind to move with Mitch to Boothbay Harbor, and as they say, the rest is history.
Kathleen began painting having the best teacher/mentor in Mitch. They had married (Mitch had already assured the small town of his intentions) and began their life together of adventure, painting all over the country, and places in Europe, mostly Italy. But their base and heart was firmly in Boothbay Harbor where they hosted many friends, collectors, and most importantly, where the family came together every year. His four extraordinary children had welcomed Kathleen into their close-knit family with acceptance and love, one of the biggest blessings of her life. Having no children of her own she shared the years of the family growing to include 10 grandchildren and six great grandchildren - to date. Mitch’s favorite toast at large family dinners was “a la Familia” as all clicked glasses.
Mitch continued gaining more notice and success nationally and by the early 90s began the long partnership with the Gleason Fine Art gallery, which was a big part of that success in New England. They had many, many successful shows of Mitch’s work over the years. He painted from life in the realistic impressionistic style. People were drawn into his emotions of places and people through the loose luscious thick brushstrokes of jewel like or atmospheric color.
He showed his paintings in other galleries: Candace Martin’s The Martin Gallery in Charleston South Carolina, which became another of his most successful partnerships that allowed painting the beautiful low country of the south. Candace also became a close friend and supporter of both Mitch and Kathleen’s work. The Mast Cove Gallery in Kennebunkport, Maine was owned by Jean Briggs, whose support had been so important in his early career. Again, Jean becoming a lifelong friend.
Unfortunately, Mitch was diagnosed with dementia about three years ago. Like every other challenge we had to meet; we did it together and as a family. Kathleen could not give up on, or help, Mitch’s painting again. Together they began to study and navigate their way through the best treatments to slow down what was happening to him. It could be heart wrenching; but Mitch, who had instilled his love of nature into his children, threw his creativity into enlarging and creating more beautiful gardens —flowers and vegetable. The earth become his palette. Chris would come in the spring to help put in the vegetable beds and Mitch Jr. built more rock walls for the growing gardens. All of the children and grandchildren were there to help.
Another passion Mitch shared with Chris was mushroom hunting and he proudly displayed the delicious harvests they brought home. The family devoted all their energy to having the best life every day, but they could not keep up with all the rest. They needed help. Then a miracle named Mariel Bascom, a caregiver from the Above And Beyond agency, came into their home, making the last year of their lives together so much more meaningful and wonderful. Only Mariel could get Mitch out with one of his grandsons to the Boothbay Railway Village or to play miniature golf. Mitch also really enjoyed time with Mariel. She cared for both Mitch and Kathleen and became part of the family and still is.
Mariel was there to help last summer when all the children, and some grandchildren, came to visit - staggered over the summer months. Mitch Jr came the last week of August with nine of his family. Grandpa Mitch was at his best, alert for dinners, a margarita party at which he could interact with his grandkids asking questions past and in the present. The summer had to have been heaven planned as Mitch was to die unexpectedly from a bowel aneurysm in the hospital while he was there to have pacemaker surgery, a surgery that would have enhanced his quality of life. He died less than a month from what Kathleen will always remember as “The Golden Summer” - and maybe of their whole life.
All four of his children were there with their so loved father. Mariel, who had a special bond with Mitch, was with the children and Kathleen. They had a chance to say their goodbyes, share music, and Mitch’s favorite poetry. Poetry was a big personal love he and Kathleen shared from the first week they met; and both had the same dog-eared paperback copy of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poems. But Mitch and Kathleen’s favorite was the Irish poet Yeats. Mitch recited the lines of his favorite poem while the family was by his bedside at the end. Kathleen is so grateful for the 36 years she shared with the most brilliant, extraordinary, beautiful man who saw the “ pilgrim soul in her.”
Mitch Billis was not a traditional religious man, but rather his spiritual connection to God and nature allowed him to stand in the middle of the forest with the animals unaware of us as we became one with the what we believed to be the vibration of that God energy. Once, while painting outside in Arizona, a mountain lion passed between Chris and Mitch’s easels not recognizing their presence until they, and Kathleen, all startled.
Kathleen likes to imagine Mitch’s spirit in the place of his favorite poem: “Innisfree”: “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, And build a small cabin there of clay and wattles made. Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee, And live alone in the bee loud glade ... And I will have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow.”