KST Cover
Our Renaissance Man in Weare

For Kevin Cahill '79, there's no imitation – life is art.

Kevin Cahill photo by Mark Corliss
Kevin's studio, near the house, is like a gallery of his work. Paintings are propped everywhere and fill the space with color.
Kevin Cahill came to New England from New Jersey to study art after high school. He had always been a kid that everyone pegged as an artist. He studied first with a sculptor in Vermont, then went to the Portland School of Art (now Maine College of Art), where he learned about art, but he knew he wanted a more well-rounded liberal arts education. He hoped to study economics and earth sciences without losing his grounding in art. A professor at Portland steered him to Keene State.

KSC, with its small-town setting and liberal arts program, was a good fit for Cahill. "You're much better off sticking an artist amongst an eclectic group of people," he says, remembering Portland as a much looser, grittier environment. Keene State, he says, had smaller classes, giving him opportunities to refine his skills. He found inspiring art teachers and ample studio time.

And then there were those economics classes.

He took every course he could and learned about budgeting and financial discipline. He developed enough of an interest in money to spend his summers working for the New Jersey Pari Mutuel Union – and working odd hours in construction on the side.

"I can't sing or dance, but give me an object and I can put a twist on it."

When he graduated from Keene State, Cahill initially went home to New Jersey to learn more about the construction business, but came back to New Hampshire while his wife, Jill Colburn '80, finished her Keene State education. In New Hampshire, both during and after college, Cahill also tried farming, determined to focus on making a living. He started out chicken farming with his father-in-law on the family farm in Weare. Through farming, he met Dave Titcomb, a Henniker-area farmer, who asked Cahill to lend a hand with a new construction company.

Of course, he says, he was always an artist. "I can't sing or dance, but give me an object and I can put a twist on it." He certainly can. The beautiful home he and his wife live in today was part of a country barter that started when Cahill traded some chicken manure to Titcomb in return for hand-hewn timbers. Titcomb in turn introduced Cahill to a man in Washington, N.H., who had a barn that was slated for demolition. He told Cahill to take anything he wanted. Cahill numbered and stacked every board, stored them for three years, and then put them back together in the last public barn raising seen in Weare.

If he built their home today, Cahill says, it would be LEED Platinum certifiable, as it's made entirely of recycled materials. Most of those materials have stories, too – soapstone countertops from one construction job, a marble counter from another, windows and doors from others. "Every piece of lumber has a story," says Cahill.

Eventually, Cahill hopes to open another door, to teaching. He wants to share his experiences with young artists, to encourage them to work from their own unique perspectives.

During his 20 years with North Branch, Cahill says, he was consumed by work, applying his artist's eye and his business sense to the building trade. But he and Colburn lived frugally and set goals, so they'd know when they could afford to step back into a less complicated life. And at 44, Cahill was ready to leave, though he spent another nine to 10 months wrapping up projects that were already underway. By then North Branch had grown into the third-largest construction firm in New Hampshire. Cahill quietly turned to making art. Colburn began farming – she's the fifth generation of her family to farm on their land, and the first woman.

"I painted for five years before I told anyone" after leaving North Branch, says Cahill. His oil paintings are large, colorful, and abstract, filled with organic shapes and representations of the natural world. An enormous tree branch poses as a model and dominates the small studio Kevin built for himself. When the canvases started piling up, Cahill thought he might be able to enter a painting in the New England College holiday show in 2008. He invited curator Darryl Furtkamp to his studio. Furtcamp was impressed enough to discourage Cahill from the holiday show – and nab this new artist on the spot for a solo show the following summer. Cahill's works now sell for between $4,000 and $8,000.

Cahill is clearly happy with his life the way it is now: painting, farming (he and Jill raise grass-fed beef and about 100 chickens), traveling, skiing, and hiking in the woods. The two spend a month each year in Galway, Ireland. Eventually, Cahill hopes to open another door, to teaching. He wants to share his experiences with young artists, to encourage them to work from their own unique perspectives. "You need to create your own model, the model that works for you," he says. He'd know.