George Mitchell creates large, colorful paintings inspired by the achievements of African-American athletes. What inspires him about athletics is “the challenge, the struggle.”
That struggle is “very similar to life: Nothing is given to you easily,” Mitchell said. “You have to work very hard for it, and to accomplish a medal, for example, that takes a lifelong effort, and it’s very difficult. I find life to be the same way.”
Mitchell understands struggle. He was teaching art classes at Albany State University in Georgia in 2003 when an accident “brought everything to a halt.” He was visiting Durham, where he grew up, to take care of his elderly biological father. During the visit, Mitchell’s stepfather shot him in the back, and he has been paralyzed from the chest down since that date in May 2003.
His stepfather later turned the gun on himself, committing suicide.
Mitchell, now 68, had been working on a series of paintings inspired by the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta before the accident. With assistance from young artists, he continues to work on the series. The Carrack Modern Art and HappymessART (which is being renamed ARTPOST) will present an exhibit of some of the large pieces in the series at an opening reception Friday, Feb. 16.
Mitchell mentions gymnast Dominique Dawes, who won a gold medal as part of the American team at the Atlanta Olympics, and Muhammad Ali, who carried the torch that year and lit the Olympic flame, as athletes who inspired the series. Ali inspired a painting that sits in Mitchell’s living room, “Victory,” of a boxer, Mitchell said.
After the accident, “While I was lying here [in bed], I became interested in trying to renew and get the energy back to continue the project,” Mitchell said. “So I started calling around different places to try to see if I could get some help on this project.”
Someone put him in touch with Arts Access, a Raleigh nonprofit that helps artists with disabilities continue their work. Betsy Ludwig, director of Arts Access, called Holly Phelan Johnson, founder of HappymessART, about five years ago. “I was lucky enough to have some money in our outreach funds” to send artists to help Mitchell with the series, Phelan Johnson said.
With the help of those artists, Williams did two pieces for a show at Pleiades Gallery, Phelan Johnson said. The Feb. 16 opening will unveil a GoFundMe campaign for about $8,000, which, along with money Mitchell is providing, will help him finish the project.
“He’s got a really vast portfolio,” Phelan Johnson said. “I was taken with George and his story, and it helps that his art is so powerful and has a message,” she said.
Mitchell uses a special easel that Duke University students designed so that he can work on his paintings from his bed. With assistance, he also “can get up in my power chair and work.”
In his room, he has several smaller canvases that he calls practice pieces for the larger paintings. He points to a painting of two blue figures overlooking his room. “That particular work was one of the first pieces I did in undergraduate school that inspired my style that I’m using in association with the Olympic figures today,” Mitchell said. “It all started with this painting.”
A Renaissance painting of Adam and Eve being cast out from the Garden of Eden inspired the work, he said. He calls the painting “Lovers.”
“I use bright colors, bold lines, bold figures, and lately I’ve been incorporating dot-like patterns on my background,” he said of his style. “I think I’m beginning to grasp my own style, influenced of course by other artists,” Mitchell said.
He lists a long line of teachers and artists who inspired his work. His interest in visual art began in first grade in Durham. “I became interested in cartoons and comic books,” Mitchell said. “I was inspired by the drawings I saw in comic books, and I used to pattern my drawings after their superheroes, and that’s how I first learned to draw. So my love and passion for art began there.”
“Eleanor Holmes was one of my first art teachers who inspired me to continue pursuing art,” Mitchell said. “She saw that I had a gift, and she encouraged me to continue working.” In high school, he worked part time at the N.C. Museum of Life and Science, where director Richard Wescott encouraged him. At N.C. Central University, Nancy Gillespie and Robert Kennedy were important influences. He received a fellowship to UNC-Chapel Hill, where he earned a Master of Fine Arts in sculpture. Marvin Salzman and Robert Howard were influences at UNC.
After graduating from UNC, Mitchell taught art at Morris College in Sumter, South Carolina, and later at Albany State.
He lists Picasso and Matisse as influences, as well as late Durham artist Ernie Barnes, who graduated from NCCU about 10 years before Mitchell attended. Barnes was “an awesome example of an artist who inspired me,” Mitchell said.
He has completed about five paintings in his series inspired by athletes. He would like to do five or six more and, after The Carrack exhibit, hopes to have an exhibit at the NCCU Art Museum “since that’s where it all started,” he said. That series also will include a sculpture he did several years ago called “Freedom.” Mitchell plans to have the sculpture cast in bronze and to donate it to the NCCU Art Museum.
Money raised in the upcoming GoFundMe campaign will be used to pay artists to help complete the large canvases. “The skill of [painting large canvases] is much more challenging for me now because of my disability,” Mitchell said. Because of the subject matter, “I think it will have a greater impact on the viewer if it’s done on a larger scale.”
“George has things to teach,” Phelan Johnson said. The project is “just such a great community opportunity for local artists to help an artist who could have been any one of us, and for George to share as well,” she said.
Want to go?
WHAT: Exhibit of large paintings by George Mitchell, and launch of GoFundMe campaign
WHEN: Friday, Feb. 16, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
WHERE: The Carrack Modern Art, 947 E. Main St., Durham