Sean Hillgrove and Robert Indiana. Photo courtesy of Alexandria Aiken

When Robert Indiana needed protection on the streets of New York, he relied on a kid from the streets of Rockland to provide it. Sean Hillgrove, a longtime studio assistant and bodyguard for the late Vinalhaven artist, died April 7 from cancer in Rockland at age 51.

He was born in Rockland on Dec. 7, 1968, and spent most of his life in the midcoast community. Because of his skills in the martial arts, he began working for Indiana in 1988 and stayed with him until just before the artist died in May 2018, said his daughter Alexandria Aiken of Warren. Her father accompanied Indiana whenever the artist traveled, serving as his bodyguard and protector and later his studio assistant and caretaker over a 28-year association.

“Bob got mugged in Times Square one time and it rattled him. He wanted protection,” she said.

Indiana had heard of her father’s karate skills through newspaper accounts, and invited him to an interview at his home on Vinalhaven. They became like father and son, Aiken said. “They went through multiple phases of life together. Bob and my dad became like wandering souls. … He would do anything for Bob. When I think back to my earliest memories, every morning before school he would wake up super early, give me a kiss and get on the first ferry to Vinalhaven and come back on the last boat. That was my childhood.”

Sean Hillgrove at the Star of Hope on Vinalhaven. Courtesy of Alexandria Aiken

Eventually, Hillgrove moved to Vinalhaven and lived in a home provided by Indiana right behind Indiana’s Star of Hope, but became shut out of Indiana’s life near the end. Hillgrove was among those who complained that Indiana was being abused by others who were close to the artist, and told his story to the Press Herald soon after Indiana died. Indiana’s legacy is clouded by a series of lawsuits alleging that he was manipulated late in life and fraudulent artwork was made under his name.

Aiken said her father was distraught, because he had promised Indiana he would take care of him until he died. “My father went into such a dark state of mind after Bob’s passing and how everything played out. I associate that with being responsible for my father’s passing. He entered this deep depression and it destroyed him. What gives me peace is knowing he and Bob are reunited and he gets to share the words he never got to say to him,” she said.

Kathleen Rogers, a former publicist for Indiana from Ellsworth, said Hillgrove served Indiana with dignity, kindness and competence since joining the artist’s studio in 1988. As a studio assistant, he stretched canvases, ordered art supplies, packed and shipped work for exhibitions, fielded calls from galleries and museums, and maintained the calendar. Hillgrove was Indiana’s chief photographer and organizer of archives, as well, and helped maintain the Star of Hope.

“For an important, albeit blue chip artist, the role of studio assistant is critical to an artist’s ability to function and thrive,” Rogers wrote in an email.

Sean Hillgrove was with Robert Indiana in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. Photo by Robert Indiana, courtesy of Alexandria Aiken

Hillgrove was also Indiana’s protector, a role that become more important as the artist aged. When they traveled, Hillgrove handled the driving, check-in at hotels and watched over Indiana in public. They were together in New York during 9/11, Rogers said, and headed to the World Trade Center for a meeting, but were running late. After the meeting, Indiana was supposed to catch a flight to Paris for an exhibition. “Instead, Bob and Sean witnessed the events of 9/11 in real time on their way to the meeting, with Sean documenting the debacle photographically,” Rogers said. “Had they not been running late, Bob and Sean might well have perished in the second tower, on the 84th floor.”

Hillgrove grew up playing Wiffle ball and basketball on the Purchase Street playground and tackle football on the North School field in Rockland, graduating from Rockland District High School in 1988. He liked to fish and play Scrabble, and had a fondness for animals, and especially dogs. He would often travel between the mainland and Vinalhaven with Indiana’s chihuahuas tucked in his coat.

He is survived by his father, David Hillgrove Sr. and wife Teresa; mother, Kathy Wallace and husband Essie Wallace, all of Rockland; three children, Alexandria Aiken and husband Logan of Warren, Tyler Hajas of New York, and Natalie Hillgrove of Rockland; four grandchildren, Colten, Finn, Beau and Aria Aiken; and siblings David Hillgrove Jr. and wife Kati, of Cushing, Jamie Hillgrove of Rockland; and many extended family members. He was predeceased by a brother, Richard Hillgrove.

His family requests donations be made to Pope Memorial Humane Society of Knox County, P.O. Box 1294, Rockland, ME 04841.


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