15 Sep 2014
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Patch Instagram photo by zyla417
Patch Instagram photo by zyla417

Keith Stillwagon: A Journey Filled With 'Great Mistakes'

Keith Stillwagon's murals can be seen in Gulfport and as far away as South France. The well-known artist says several "great mistakes" always led him back to art and eventually to Gulfport.

Keith Stillwagon: A Journey Filled With 'Great Mistakes' Keith Stillwagon: A Journey Filled With 'Great Mistakes' Keith Stillwagon: A Journey Filled With 'Great Mistakes' Keith Stillwagon: A Journey Filled With 'Great Mistakes' Keith Stillwagon: A Journey Filled With 'Great Mistakes' Keith Stillwagon: A Journey Filled With 'Great Mistakes' Keith Stillwagon: A Journey Filled With 'Great Mistakes' Keith Stillwagon: A Journey Filled With 'Great Mistakes' Keith Stillwagon: A Journey Filled With 'Great Mistakes' Keith Stillwagon: A Journey Filled With 'Great Mistakes'

Local artist Keith Stillwagon dipped his brush in a pan filled with mixed colors, leaned in and began adding "feathers" on two pink flamingos on his mural.

"It's faded over the years," Stillwagon said.

Stillwagon painted a tropical theme mural with flamingos, Bird of Paradise flowers, butterflies, frogs and more outside the Small Adventures Book Shop on Beach Boulevard about eight years ago. He's spent the past few days adding color and making the mural look new again.

Stillwagon estimates he's created 500 murals in his lifetime with 100 for local businesses and residents in Gulfport. His first mural was completed in December 1995 on the wall behind The Peninsula Inn. He's painted murals at Habana Cafe, The Longhouse and O'Maddy's. Some are still present, others have faded or been painted over.

One of the highlights of his career unfolded when he was commissioned by Earth Aid Society, Inc to create an image to be used as art for the United Nations Special Session on Disarmament in the early 1980's in New York.

Stillwagon didn't realize the scope of his success until he saw the posters hanging up outside the session.

He was a taxi driver, making enough to get by, when he spotted the posters.

"I was driving 12 hour shifts and I looked up . . . here I designed the poster for it," he said.

Looking back at his life, Stillwagon held many titles; Army infantryman, police officer, private investigator, factory worker, bartender and taxi driver.

The title he's most proud of is artist.

A Series of "Great Mistakes"

Born and raised in Flint, MI, Stillwagon says several "great mistakes" led him to Gulfport about 15 years ago.

Stillwagon called his younger self a "juvenile delinquent." He was kicked out of high school in the 10th grade and convinced his father to allow him to join the Army when he was 17 years old.

"My mother didn't approve. She was afraid I'd get hurt I guess," he said.

The Army sent him to Korea to patrol the Demilitarized Zone in 1961. To this day the DMZ is the world's most heavily fortified border.

Stillwagon says he was a trained killer and specialized in night patrols.

He spent three years in the 7th Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division. Then in 1964 he got out and returned to Flint. Then, he concluded he made the biggest mistake of his life.

"I never should have come home. To this day, I carry a guilt complex for not re-enlisting."

Stillwagon felt he had left his comrades behind. The Vietnam war begin in 1959 and didn't end until 1975. In that time, some of Stillwagon's fellow soldiers never made it home.

"That's one of the biggest regrets of my life, not staying in the Army."

When he returned to Flint, he had a job in the factory, a wife and a child. Before leaving for the Army, Stillwagon had a teenage girlfriend and on leave one year, they became pregnant. She had the child while Stillwagon was at the DMZ.

"Coming home to a wife, a baby, a job in the factory . . and I wasn't 21 years old yet," he said. "I just wasn't ready for all that."

Stillwagon knew the road he was on wasn't right for him. He tried to do the right thing, marry his girlfriend, raise his son and work in the General Motors factory, like his father, in Flint.

Until about a year later, he packed up and left, headed west to California.

"No good was gonna come of me staying in Flint. I wanted more, I was too creative."

Stillwagon's father didn't approve of his passion to draw and paint. He said his move to California save him from Flint.

He became a hippie. "I had the long hair and lived the life except I was a veteran."

After a few years in California, Stillwagon moved to Arizona for eight years and then New York.

In the late 80's he made his way to Sebring, FL and found a job that could hold his attention.

Stillwagon became a police officer and continued his art on the side. Without describing details, he simply said it was hard to do both.

"I found out you can't be a cop and an artist at the same time," he said.

He transitioned to part time hours and focused more on art. He painted a mural that would propel him into the niche he occupies today.

His first mural was 20 feet high by 40 feet wide. It was a mystical visionary castle in the sky for the play "Camelot" for the Highlands Little Theater in Sebring, FL. Stillwagon said he won an award for that mural and soon after he was asked by the city to produce more murals in redevelopment areas in the city. It was during this series of events that Stillwagon realized he may be able to make a living.

Stillwagon began to receive recognition and word spread about his talents. However, it was another "great mistake" that led him to Gulfport. He met a girl who lived in Largo. He followed her to Pinellas County and settled in Gulfport.

Stillwagon squinted his eyebrows and continued to paint, he said, "I don't know how I found Gulfport. I have no idea."

That was about 15 years ago. For at least the last decade, Stillwagon says he's been able to "make a living" off of his artwork.

Four years ago Stillwagon was commissioned to create two murals at a resort in South France. He says the owners saw his work here in Florida.

Despite his long list of artistic accomplishments, he fears his growth spurt has come to an end. He hasn't received commissioned work recently. And since his desire to paint never weakens, he's been re-tracing his steps and updating murals in Gulfport.

In an effort to earn a steady paycheck Stillwagon is looking into becoming an armed security guard, saying his experience in the Army and Sebring Police Department would help.

For more information:

Contact Keith Stillwagon at (727) 415-4935 or email kgstillwagon@hotmail.com. You can view and order artwork on Keith Stillwagon's Online Studio.

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