Remembering Idaho Visual Artist Surel Mitchell

Oct 13, 2011


Idaho visual artist Surel Mitchell passed away Monday at her home in Garden City.  She was 67 years old. “She was always exploring something different.  I mean the quality was always there but the style would change,” said Barbara Robinson with the Idaho Arts Commission.  She’s worked closely with Mitchell for the past 19 years.  Robinson says Mitchell leaves her signature on Idaho’s art community.

“I would suspect that she literally was a mentor and an inspiration for hundreds and hundreds of people. She went to every event. Surel was always there. She was with Boise Art Museum. She was on committees for public art. She liked to have artists in her house.  She liked to be around artists. Art defined her.”

That passion for art started more than 30 years ago. That’s when Surel Mitchell took her art from the kitchen table into an actual studio. The self-taught artist spent most of her years creating in Idaho even though challenges with her health sometimes got in the way.  Last year Sadie Babits interviewed Surel Mitchell as part of our Art and Soul series.  Here’s that original story that aired last October.

Surel Mitchell gets some odd looks and questions when she walks into the sun twirling an umbrella.

Surel Mitchell: “I have lupus and I find for me there is shelter in shadows. I can’t be in the sun – sun is poison for me.”

Lupus is an auto immune disease. That means the very system that’s meant to ward of things like viruses and bacteria, actually attacks the skin, organs, joints… you name it. So Mitchell is prepared… She keeps a basket of umbrellas by the door in her Garden City home. She even has them in her art.

Surel Mitchell: “I’d gone to my mail box and it was august. I was wearing shorts, had my red umbrella and on the way back I realized my legs were totally exposed to the sun and this umbrella is not sheltering me.”

That trip to the mailbox inspired a series of paintings.

Surel Mitchell: “Oh here they are.”

The umbrella has a long skinny handle. And there’s a tear in the shade.

Surel Mitchell: “This umbrella wouldn’t shelter anything or anybody.”

The red umbrella series became an unofficial commentary about living with lupus. But Mitchell says the work really dealt with the illusion of protection.

Surel Mitchell:  “We assume the government is shelter. Our parents are shelter. Our house is shelter and if you take it far enough there is no shelter for humans.”

This is how Mitchell works. Something in her life triggers an idea like the umbrella or lupus. She ponders on it for a while. Then she’ll figure out what medium to use. Sometimes it’s acrylic paint. Other times its more mixed media … things like paper, and shellac —- That often honey colored liquid that’s made from beetles.

Surel Mitchell: “It’s not that I use it for therapy but it is therapy. Like when Bush was president I had a lot of negative feelings and I did quite a number of pieces that are no longer in existence. They’re just things I did to let it out.”

The same thing happened in the 1980s. Mitchell was going through a divorce and she had just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.   Everything she painted was black. She also used duck tape in her work – a way, she says of trying to hold herself together.

Surel Mitchell: “And I was up working through whatever grief I was grieving and it came out in the black paintings.”

Most of those black canvases have been recycled… painted over with bright blues, greens and shades of pink… like the one hanging above her sofa. She calls it “dreaming of the sea at twilight descending.” It’s largely autobiographical about a woman in bed, dreaming….

Surel Mitchell: “And twilight’s descending. I think it’s because I’ve gotten older [chuckles ] twilight’s coming. It’s on its way. So… And I really like the way the piece turned out. I love the textures in it.”

The canvas takes up most of the wall. Mitchell says these large pieces have become hard to do because of the MS.  She’ll paint for 15 minutes… sometimes only five before she has to take a break.

Surel Mitchell: “’Cause it’s hard for me to stand and really hard for me to stand and its really hard to sit and paint these larger canvases. I can’t really sit and do it because I’m all over the canvas at the same time. If you put a stroke in the right hand corner… One little stroke will change the whole canvas… I move around a lot.”

So she’s scaled down her canvases, determined to keep making art that she finds pleasing.  About two years ago, Mitchell became so ill she couldn’t work at all. The doctors didn’t know what was wrong. She had to stay in her room… no lights… no sound.

Surel Mitchell: “When I would think about the studio I would think I would never get back in it and then when I realized there was a glimmer of hope I’m going to do portraits of friends cause people were so important.”

She recently gave the first portrait to one of her friends who helped her during that time. And she’s working on another.

Surel Mitchell: “I’ve been really fortunate to be self-indulgent for all of these years. I tell you what very fortunate.”

Mitchell is determined not to let the MS or the lupus keep her from the studio. She always has multiple projects going at the same time. Right now, Mitchell’s returned to the basics… circles done in graphite and shellac that represent trees giving off oxygen… She’s not sure where this work will end up … maybe on someone’s wall. That doesn’t matter Mitchell says because she’s creating for an audience of one… herself.