Focus

By: 
Camille Dubois Crôteau

Feature Interview - Mitch Mitchell, Artist (Part 2)

A new solo exhibition, Mitch Mitchell: I Will Meet You in the Sun has opened at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia's Halifax location. Curated by Sarah Fillmore, Chief Curator at the Gallery, the exhibition will surprise and move viewers through its unique story and masterful use of print media.

Mitch Mitchell's works are based on his grandfather's time in World War II as a radar technician, exploring the aftermath of his service and the war’s ripple effect globally and intimately within his own family.

Montreal-based Mitchell spoke with us during his time in Halifax for the installation of the exhibition. Part 1 of our interview was posted on April 18. Part 2 uncovers the artist’s inspirations; the impact his students at Concordia University have on his own process; why he feels that visiting an art Gallery is a unique experience; and what’s next for the prolific artist. 


Mitch Mitchell, Constitutional, 2016, copper, soot, ink, 30.48 x 5.08 x 6.35 cm. Photo: Steve Farmer


One of the works in I Will Meet You in the Sun includes a bucket made of repurposed copper plates. Why was it important to forge your own bucket? Can you tell us a bit about the process?

When my grandmother passed away, one of the things I received was their old coal bucket. I didn’t think anything of it at first, but it kept sitting on the inside of the room, and I kept on playing with it. The bucket originally came from a larger piece in mind for the exhibition, and I wanted to forge a one-to-one scale boiler that was in my grandparent’s basement. They lived in a coal mining town, and the house was run by coal back then. But because of money, time and production, it was impossible. Copper is expensive. So I started thinking that I wanted something that was very much the idea of fire, of this very elemental construct that would sit idle but also have this potential of energy. This thing is a strange shape as it is; it’s not like a typical bucket as we think of it, since its flute is different and it has this very figural silhouette. It became this really charged object in regards to energy, this old historical object that you kind of reference but you don’t know what era it’s from because you don’t see a lot of it. And then shifting its materiality into copper – copper is a very conductive material and it has a very glow-ful soul to it.

In repurposing plates that have a history to them—by buffing them down, trying to make them as mirrored and shiny as possible—they become this gorgeous, beautiful thing. And by working with a blacksmith in Montreal, that generated all kinds of new conversations and stories because I learned that much more about the content within it. So literally for me, using the coal bucket becomes a symbol for future energy as well as extended and dispelled energy from the past, because not only was it used for coal, it was also used for ashes.


Mitch Mitchell, The Alchemist, 2015 Copper, Glass, Wood, Fire 27.94 x 27.94 x 22.86 cm. Photo: Steve Farmer.  

After canceling an image it becomes a new image. There’s a term in printmaking where we “cancel plates”: it means that plates can no longer be reprinted. When we cancel, we typically scrape an ‘X’ in it or we chop it in half with the guillotine. So by doing that, then reforming it—taking all that scrap and excess material--you’re basically taking what was once an image and repurposing it into a brand new image, a new form, new structure. It gives it a brand new life, a new future, a new soul and physical alchemy. But at the same time, it’s copper: it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, and you might not want to touch it. Again it’s that beauty versus the dichotomy of personalities and how you see things. Some people who have seen it just want to touch it like crazy, and other people don’t want to at all. So it has this weirdly charged sort of energy again.

Copper is also a material that has been used historically to make etching plates to print money, to surface images, to build houses, for roofs—all sorts of things. It’s got a really beautiful soul to it, historically and democratically. And it’s a very valuable source too. It is used as a democratic material to conduct energy in houses and cities uniting cities and countries. It is this strange alchemaic material that is both raw and eventually processed to look like gold, but utilitarian and forgotten. It is both tragically beautiful and sits within the tragic sublime.


Does teaching inform or influence your own practice?

Very much. I am always profoundly excited when the class is going to see what and how students are working and thinking about their works and productions. Teaching is a very curious thing because the dynamics are always shifting and changing depending on the day, the group psyche in the class and the overall attitude of the room.  Whenever I leave a class that goes very well, be it a great critique, a one-on-one with a student, or everyone just working diligently in class on problem-solving a project or concluding an image, I leave with a great need to find time in my own studio to make work and be present for my own practice. 


In the artist's Montreal studio. 


Because teaching is a very fluid thing, I try to bring that energy into my studio practice. I am very uncomfortable with teaching the same project the same way every semester forever. It becomes stale, boring and the students can see that immediately. To bring the energy of change and shift, looking at a project in new ways, and finding ways of shifting or moving in something as simple as sanding a metal plate is a very exciting mental task. For the students it is new to them, and I want to have it new to me as well. Taking this same energy into my own studio practice allows for the energy of making work to be renewable and fresh. I hate it when work becomes stale and I push against that as much as possible. 


Are you inspired by some artists in particular right now?

I am looking more and more now at music and sound than visual work. For the past 3 years, I have been listening to textures and audio experiences by artists who are exploring sound as not only an audio format but as a “matter” that becomes physical and visual. I have been in love with composers for a great amount of the creation of this body of work. Composers such as the amazing Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Hildur Gudnadottir. Also Andrew Norman, Richard Skelton and John Luther Adams. Adams’ composition Become Ocean is stunning. I found myself with that on repeat for a good month while fabricating the piece History of a First Failed Industry blaring as loud as I could at night. 

Also more experimental artists delving into “noise” or “drone”, or the more 90s umbrella term “ambient”: Tim Hecker, Steve Bates, Gary James Joynes, Ben Frost and more. 


Mitch Mitchell working on A History of a First Failed Industry (2014-present) during the installation of I Will Meet You in the Sun at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.


Can you share one of your most powerful or memorable art-related experiences?

There are too many to say, as I am always being pushed and pulled by new experiences. It may not be a singular artwork, even though there are many, such as seeing artists like Kerry James Marshall, Jana Sterbak, Kiki Smith, and the Guerrilla Girls for the first time in Chicago growing up.

If anything, it was my parents taking me to the art galleries and museums as a kid. Looking back, having the experience at the age of 12 of going to the science museum one weekend, then the art museum the following, and to just look at anything and be allowed to ask questions of why, what, how and again why, was profound. To see paintings, films, sculptures, craft, performance and music of every age and culture and have it be in one melting pot became very influential in how I look at everything today. It gave me a great tool of curation in my studio and life practice. It has been a very giving opportunity that I very much owe to parents that did not segregate culture and creation. They just lumped it all together and expected me to ask a lot of questions and form my own opinions.  


Mitch Mitchell, Remains, 2016, copper, soot, graphite, shellac, 2.54 x 2.54 x 1.27 cm. Photo: Steve Farmer


Why should people make time to visit an art gallery?

I feel personally that it is an experiential moment for a person or persons. Much like a film that moves you, it’s a place that provides a directed and focused point of time to visit and wander with your mind and body in a manner that cannot happen elsewhere. There is so much going on in everyone’s lives that a gallery is a perfect place of departure from whatever is consuming a person’s psyche.  It provides a unique opportunity to independently challenge oneself with multiple views of visual, literal, mental and spatial complexity that is different than, say, a jazz club, library, university or an intense conversation with friends at a bar. I personally have always been interested in a gallery’s critical space because it forces me to look at what is presently in front of my mind and body, and nothing else. Because of this focused time, it becomes a moment of clarity and “awayness” from the trivial aspects of life that frankly we tend to overindulge in.


When you’re not working on your own art, what inspires you?

I still have a lot of work– I’m already planning the next phase. But when I do get some extra time, I’m looking forward to getting back to bike riding. I used to be a competitive bike rider; I can’t do downhill anymore because my body’s physically wrecked from all the years of racing. But I’m looking forward to getting back on the bike and getting back on the road.

And reading. I’m really looking forward to getting back into reading. My Amazon wish list is, the last time I checked, valued at over three grand. I’m also looking forward to learning French by being in public rather than in the classroom. This summer I can’t wait to sit down and parler français avec mes amis [speak French with my friends]! I just haven’t had the opportunity to do that.


What’s next for you?

I’ve already started mentally generating the next body of work that’s in conjunction with this show. My brain cannot turn off. I’m not done with this work. I’m still in love with it, it still scares the hell out of me. I think these are sculptural works, but I think of them more as characters. What will happen in the next stage of this body of work will be a long-format film where these sculptural works are actually characters in the film. They will be interacting in really intriguing and interesting ways throughout the timeline of the presentation.


Mitch Mitchell, Trinity Cantos: Segue 1, 2015-16, still of a video projection. 

The film presented in this exhibition [Trinity Cantos: Segue 1, video projection,2015-16] will be the segue for all of this. When I conceive of a body of work or of a sculpture, I always think of it cinematically. I’ve always been very attracted to film. When I’m teaching print – I’m always given film references. It’s ingrained in my blood, I love it. In conjunction with this show, I would reference a lot of old post-war industrial how-to films. The National Film Board has a lot of them, and then also YouTube has a lot of them. Basically they are designed for industry, and all you see is the objects being produced, and maybe a couple of hands coming in once and a while. The film that’s actually here in this exhibition is actually a response to growing up and looking at those.


Mitch Mitchell: I Will Meet You in the Sun is on view at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia until June 5, 2016.

A catalogue of the same title will be published by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in the summer of 2016 and available for purchase online and at the Gallery Shop.

Image Credit: 

Mitch Mitchell, Berth, 2013-2016, 35,000 Handmade Boxes (Ink, Paper, Glue, Labour, Wood), dimensions variable.
Photo: Steve Farmer