Search the Collections

Margaret Kilgallen
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Washington, D.C.
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
San Francisco
Painter, printmaker, graffiti artist, surfer and banjo player Margaret Kilgallen was noted for her use of randomly-mixed, recycled house paint to create paintings featuring female figures and typography drawn from study of centuries of type fonts in a flat, graphic, folk art style on scrap wood, pages of discarded books, metal pieces and other found objects. Hand-painted shop signs in San Francisco were one source of inspiration. She painted hundreds of murals in San Francisco’s South-of-Market and Mission districts and in Boston, New York and São Paulo, now painted over, and often created large installations for her gallery shows. She was identified with the group of young artists living in San Francisco’s Mission district, later called the “Mission School,” that included her husband Barry McGee (aka the graffiti artist “Twist,” b. 1966), Alicia McCarthy (b. 1969), Ruby Neri (b. 1970) and Chris Johanson (b. 1968). Born in Washington, D.C. in 1967, Kilgallen grew up in Kensington, a Maryland suburb of Washington, where she was exposed to Amish quilting and learned to play the banjo. She went to college at Colorado Collage in Colorado Springs, graduating in 1989 with a B.A. degree in printmaking and studio art. After graduation she went to San Francisco, apparently intrigued by the long tradition of letterpress printing in the city. After briefly working for Peter Koch, a typographer, Kilgallen worked as a book conservator and bookbinder at the San Francisco Public Library. In her spare time she studied typography and letterpress printing from materials in the Library ranging from Medieval manuscripts to Victorian typography, audited classes and otherwise “hung out” at the San Francisco Art Institute (although she was never a registered student there) and took up surfing. She met McGee, then a student at SFAI, in 1990 (they married in 1999). By 1994 she began working on murals, and received commissions for murals in 1995 and 1996. Kilgallen was awarded a Fleishaker Foundation Eureka Fellowship in 1995. She exhibited in several group shows at San Francisco galleries, including the San Francisco Art Commission Gallery, in 1996. 1997 was a breakthrough year for Kilgallen: she exhibited with sculptor Phil Ross at San Francisco’s Gallery 16, was included in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts exhibition “Bay Area Now,” exhibited with other Eureka Award winners in the San Jose Museum of Art and filled the “Drawing Room” gallery of the Drawing Center in New York City with her work. Her success allowed her to quit her Library job. The following years brought solo exhibitions of her work at the John Berggruen Gallery in San Francisco (1998), Deitch Projects in New York City (1999) and the Hammer Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles (2000). Kilgallen experimented with printmaking at Berkeley’s Paulson Press (now Paulson Fontaine Press) in 1998, where she created four aquatint etchings published the following year. Pregnant and suffering a recurrence of breast cancer, in 2001 Kilgallen installed her works (including very large works painted in the gallery) in the “East Meets West” exhibition of the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art and in her Master of Fine Arts exhibition at Stanford University. Kilgallen gave birth to her daughter on June 7, received her M.F.A. degree on June 17, and died on June 26, 2001. Her work was included in the 2002 Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial, the 2004 traveling exhibition “Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art and Street Culture” organized by Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center, and the solo show “Margaret Kilgallen: In the Sweet Bye & Bye,” at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (“REDCAT”) gallery of the California Institute of the Arts, Los Angeles. More recently, Kilgallen’s works were part of the 2014 retrospective exhibition of Mission School artists at the San Francisco Arts Institute, “Energy that is all around: Mission School: Chris Johanson, Margaret Kilgallen, Alicia McCarthy, Barry McGee, Ruby Neri.” (TNB 6/2017) Selected bibliography: Baker, Alex, Eungie Joo and Susan Sollins. Margaret Kilgallen: In the Sweet Bye & Bye. Exhibition catalog. Los Angeles: California Institute of the Arts/REDCAT, 2005. Boas, Natasha. Energy that is all around: Mission School: Chris Johanson, Margaret Kilgallen, Alicia McCarthy, Barry McGee, Ruby Neri. Exhibition catalog. San Francisco: San Francisco Art Institute and Chronicle Books, 2014.