Gulfport has lost an artistic legend.
After nearly three months battling health issues, including contracting COVID-19 in hospital care, Gulfport muralist Keith Stillwagon died on Saturday, October 30 at the age of 77.
The artist had just made it home from a rehabilitation facility when he was almost immediately transported back to the hospital with pneumonia.
Stillwagon – a cowboy with a paintbrush – left his mark with marvelously colored murals adorning many Gulfport locations, including Gulfport Garage, the Historic Peninsula Inn and SumitrA Espresso Lounge.
Born in Annapolis, Maryland in 1944, Stillwagon grew up in Flint, Michigan. He is survived by his wife, Michele Stillwagon, who remembers him as “an artist through and through.” Michele, who was not able to physically see Keith for much of his last months due to COVID protocols, says that it was love at first sight when the two met.
“I had a boyfriend at the time that I met Keith…and I broke up with him the next day,” Michele said. “I fell head over heels for him, and he fell head over heels for me….He would do anything for anybody and made sure everything was full of beauty.”
The two met in Gulfport circa 2000, but both coincidentally grew up in Flint without ever knowing each other.
It’s possible Michele may not have recognized Keith in his early life – a stark contrast to the free-loving man many will remember.
According to Michele, the muralist served as a police officer in Sebring, Florida and in the Army in the Vietnam War, and had stories from childhood that painted his early days as a state of constant “trouble.”
The young artist drew flyers for his friends in Catholic school, and was disciplined by the nuns for daydreaming. He lived with a father who didn’t approve of his tendency to favor the creative side of life, said Michele.
“He would sit up in the attic and study artists…Leonardo Di Vinci, and such,” Michele said. “His father wanted him to play football when he was younger.”
So, one day Keith left, moving around until he found a permanent home in Gulfport in the early 1990s.
“Once he heard Gulfport was an upcoming place for art and such, he quit everything to become an artist,” Michele said. “He started painting and he just never stopped.”
Painting a Town
Stillwagon’s work – characterized by warm colors, dreamlike Floridian creatures and whimsical goddesses – has appeared in galleries, books, poster prints, record covers and theater backdrops, according to his website, as well as many homes and business in Gulfport. While his work will live on in tribute to the artist, Keith will also be remembered as a gentle, motorcycle-loving friend to the community.
“Keith, he was a very gentle soul, and an extremely creative one,” fellow artist and friend, Gulfport photographer Larry Busby, said. “He liked to ride steel horses, and anything he did, he did it well.”
As a veteran himself, Busby is working with Michele to arrange a funeral for Keith at Bay Pines National Cemetery.
Stillwagon was known to play the guitar and the harmonica, and even occasionally jammed with Gulfport blues legend, the late Sterling “Mister Satan” Magee, said Busby.
Of course, Stillwagon’s greatest passion is the last thing he was doing before his hospitalization. The painter was working on a mural in blistering heat when he collapsed and was admitted this summer.
Stillwagon’s work decorates the inside and outside of many homes in Gulfport, including SIK Promotions owner Suzie King’s. The muralist agreed to paint her home for free, and only billed her the cost of the paint, which the late Larry Enlow volunteered to pay for before the mural was even completed.
“[Keith] was a multi-talented artist, a musician and had a great sense of humor,” said King. “I never charged him to paint live during the art walks, so I guess he thought he owed me a mural.”
Keith’s last work, the sunset mural outside Gulfport Nutrition, 5012 Gulfport Blvd. S., remains incomplete, but is still recognizable as a signature Stillwagon piece.
“I don’t know, I think it would be nice if they left it unfinished,” said Busby.
According to Jax Taylor, close friend of Stillwagon and owner of Jax In and Out, that’s the plan.
Instead of hiring another artist to complete the work, the landlord has decided to leave the mural untouched, as a tribute to Stillwagon. Taylor is working on getting a permanent memorial mounted to the wall above it.
“[We] lost a really good man and a really good artist,” Taylor said. “To me, it’s unbelievable…I’m going to miss him….”