In the core of Durham artist George Mitchell’s psyche lives a lifelong belief: Art is for everyone.
“I taught art appreciation to all incoming freshmen at Morris College in Sumter, S.C., in the mid-’80s,” he said. “The majority of them hated art, and I had to win them over.”
He did, by showing each one of them how art speaks a universal language.
It was a language that reached his ears as a first-grader when Mitchell began drawing with colored crayons.
“Soon I discovered that I had an unusual talent,” said Mitchell, who was fortunate that family and educators recognized his abilities. “I wanted to be a great painter and sculptor.” Judging from his works in “Continuing the Dream,” now at Durham’s Mercury Studio through June 14, Mitchell has achieved his goal. His six paintings, sculpture and photo collage demand attention.
Consider “The Dreamer.” This 6-foot by 8-foot oil painting grew out of Mitchell’s keen admiration of the athleticism he witnessed during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
A massive man, portrayed in blue hues, sits bent over in what is probably a playing field but could also be a field of flowers.
The man, whose lines recall the comic-book superheroes that a young Mitchell copied to hone his art skills, still appears fragile. The background is impressionistic in its portrayal of the spectators, shoulder to shoulder in the stands. The stunning piece is part of Mitchell’s Olympic Series that honors his mother, Lola Bass, who died in 1991.
“This was the last piece I did before I could not work anymore,” he said. “It shows despair and hopelessness and sort of reflects my own life experiences that came after I painted it.”
Mitchell’s ability to make art came to an abrupt stop 10 years ago this month when, having returned home to care for his elderly father, he was shot in the back by a family member, who then turned the gun around and killed himself.
The shooting paralyzed Mitchell from the chest down.
“This has turned my life inside out and upside down,” he said. “For the last 10 years, I have been isolated in this house. I lack mobility, freedom and independence.”
He also has lacked the right tools to paint, to create. If he sits up for more than a few moments, he passes out.
Mitchell decided years ago that if he could not create, he wanted to share his past work with the community. For years, he has been calling Triangle galleries to get a show.
This past December, Mitchell contacted Carrboro’s ArtsCenter and though he did not find success there either, the staff made a suggestion that has reopened his world.
“They said to call Arts Access,” Mitchell said. “I had never heard of them.”
Breaking down barriers
Arts Access, which serves the greater Triangle, works to break down the barriers that keep people with disabilities from participating in the arts, said Betsy Ludwig, the nonprofit’s leader.
It offers training in audio description, an interpretive service for people who are blind or visually impaired, as well as training for art venues’ personnel so they know how to serve patrons with disabilities.
“For example, how to help a person you are escorting who has a walker,” Ludwig said.
Arts Access also teaches educators how to include children with disabilities in their classes. “Probably the most essential thing I realized is to regard and respect each person as a person first, not the disability,” said Durham mosaic artist Jeannette Brossart.
Ludwig had never been asked to help an artist find a gallery venue, but she was undaunted.
“George needed an advocate. He is poor, has serious health issues, no computer, no email, and no transportation,” she said. “I didn’t know who else would help him if we didn’t.”
Ludwig turned to First In Families of North Carolina ( fifnc.org). The agency supports people with a developmental disability or traumatic brain injuries “to meet the self-defined needs of families at the lowest possible cost,” said chapter director Krysta Gougler.
“For instance, we’ve assisted families with summer camp, wheelchair repairs, ramps, or access to technology.”
Gougler considered Mitchell’s request important. “We also wanted to bring awareness to barriers that people with disabilities face as well as the skills and talents they have to share; and the FIFNC Time Bank was a natural fit.”
The Time Bank connects community members through sharing skills and services in which no money is exchanged – only time and talents – from Spanish lessons to pet sitting. All services are valued equally, and Time Bank members include people with and without disabilities, Gougler said.
The May 3 opening for Mitchell was phenomenal with many of his friends in attendance, including Eugene Victor Maafo, who said, “I want folks to know that George‘s disability is not restraining him.’”
Mitchell gave a talk to reception-goers. “It was a big weight lifted off my shoulders,” he said. “Being able to speak to the public brought back old memories.”
These old memories will soon be competing with fresher experiences. Aimee Raleigh, Jake Sganga, Carolyn Scoggins, and Evan Seidel, students in the Duke University Department of Biomedical Engineering, designed and built an easel that Mitchell can use in bed or in his wheelchair. He will be able to start painting again once he saves money to buy art materials.
“I plan to put out as much work as possible before I leave this Earth,” he said.