Making a Splash | “Local Color” Artist Kate Nelligan

Kate Nelligan’s seaside designs take a bold dive into color.

By Annie Graves

May 02 2022

Photo Credit : Winky Lewis

In Kate Nelligan’s coastal world, sea urchins the size of dinner plates float over navy blue pillows. Buoys bright as confetti jostle on a rug. Bolts of fabric teem with rainbow fish, and boat silhouettes are awash in tones she calls “Hot Lobster” red and “Granny Smith” green. What could be more satisfying than growing up by the ocean, seeing it through your own color lens, and capturing it?

“Life’s too short for beige,” reads a scrap of paper tacked to a wall in Nelligan’s vibrant Kennebunkport, Maine, studio, a 350-square-foot space tucked into her home, two miles down a dirt road “with the owls, birds, pine, and birch,” she says, but still just a seven-minute drive to the sea. If life is a color wheel, with conventional beige-y seaside decor on one side, this little studio is its defiant counterpart.

Kate Nelligan at her studio in Kennebunkport, Maine, the town where she grew up and an inspiration for her eye-catching coastal designs.
Photo Credit : Winky Lewis

Nelligan grew up in Kennebunkport, with a “creative hippie mom” who was also the head of an alternative school and a cutting-edge teacher in the ’70s. “There were art projects on the table all the time,” Nelligan recalls. “We weren’t allowed to watch television. My mother would say, ‘Only boring people get bored.’ So I was always making something.”

At Christmastime, the creativity would crank up, with handmade presents for everyone in their extended family. “It was like a factory,” she says. “Because you didn’t make just four presents—you were making 20. My sister got off easy, because she always made something from the kitchen, but I was making stained glass or Ukrainian Easter eggs….” Nelligan flashes a smile. “I really haven’t changed since I was 5.”

Art was her “default button.” But it was a twisty road. She got a degree in communications, had a brief fling with an ad agency, then settled into the University of New England as a media producer for 10 years. She shot videos, learned digital editing, and gained skills that would lead to designing and developing products for other companies.

All the while, she was creating in her basement, making decoupage barrettes, learning to use a heat press to sear her own lobster designs into ceramic tiles; she was selling at trade shows, too. One day she began tinkering with bold graphic designs that would eventually translate into startlingly fresh fabrics.

“Digital fabric printing was happening, and I was getting a whiff of that,” she remembers. “And at the same time I was falling in love with block printing again, making a pattern, and scanning it into the computer. I was having so much fun.” That first pattern, a medallion made from a block print she carved, is still in the repertoire.

From the start, her themes leaned coastal. “I was always drawn to the graphic nature of Marimekko, and wanted to do a new take on the sea motifs,” she recalls. “My husband’s a fisherman, so I sort of fell in love with fish and shells. And I grew up as a barefoot kid on the beach—we were always in the ocean, on the ocean, climbing the rocks. It’s the background to my life.”

Snapshots of Nelligan’s creative process and, at the Portland outpost of her two Local Color shops, pillows block-printed with her icons of seaside living.
Photo Credit : Winky Lewis

Before she knew it, around 2011, she was in production mode again, this time making pillows, deep into designing. “I love making something from nothing. It’s my favorite thing in life,” she says. When she’s working on a new design, “I can see what I want to create; I just have to get it out the right way. I can feel when it takes off. And when it’s coming together, it’s talking back to me. Like, move me over here, that line’s too thick, this color’s not working with that color. All designs need to cook. But when the chatter dies down, when it’s quiet, I know it’s done.”

Snapshots of Nelligan’s creative process and, at the Portland outpost of her two Local Color shops, pillows block-printed with her icons of seaside living.
Photo Credit : Winky Lewis

And the next year, when Nelligan stepped away from the corporate world, she was ready. At that point, as she recounts, “I have all these mad skills: I know how to make, I know how to pitch, I know how to do a trade show, I know how to make a catalog. I apply for the New England Product trade show in Portland, and I make all my samples, and it takes off.”

Today, Nelligan’s two Local Color shops overflow with pillows, rugs, and home accessories, brightening their respective stretches of sidewalk in Kennebunkport and Portland. “Playful,” she calls the designs, “because they’re playing together.” It turns out, one of her superpowers is putting together a collection based on one perfect color palette, a palette that is her lens on Maine’s coastal beauty.

Snapshots of Nelligan’s creative process and, at the Portland outpost of her two Local Color shops, pillows block-printed with her icons of seaside living.
Photo Credit : Winky Lewis

“I can’t stay away from this place,” she says. “It’s hard for me to put into words. It’s part of me. Boats, swimming, fishing, the rocks, the beaches. It’s endless discovery, like the tide pools.” She points to a beautiful bolt of fabric, her current favorite, dense with blue mussels. “I love these shapes. I mean, every time I go to the beach, I’m still collecting mussel shells. Why? I don’t need any more. Because they’re beautiful. And I’ll notice there’s a stripe on this one. And I’ll think, I’ve never seen a stripe like that.”