Oxford's Mitchell sees through
rock at pictures underneath
When Oxford replaced Seney Hall's slate roof, most people looked at the
piles of discarded rock and saw a scrap heap destined for a landfill. Al
Mitchell saw images of faces, landscapes, animals, anything but plain old
rock. When people ask him how he sees them, he just shrugs. "It's all
in the slate."
Mitchell, who's worked in facilities management at Oxford for almost
20 years, turns the slate into art. He looks at a shard of slate and sees
an image buried in the stratum; he uses paint to bring those images out.
And hanging in his house-everywhere in his house-are the finished pieces,
hundreds in all.
"Each piece is individual," Mitchell said. "I call the
slate 'mineralized wood' because it has a grain to it. A lot of times you'll
look, and it'll have a picture in it-you can see it down to the eyebrows.
It's just there, but getting it out and putting paint on it to where the
average joe can see it, that's where the trick comes in."
But Mitchell has been developing his talents at that "trick"
since he was in grade school, beginning in third grade when his teacher
noticed his doodlings in class and asked him to sketch a mural of the Mayflower
for Thanksgiving. He did the outline, and the rest of the class colored
it in. "I was scared to death," Mitchell remembered, "but
it looked good."
He kept honing his artistic skills through high school, making his own
canvases in odd shapes and doing pencil or ink drawings on paper. Once he
graduated, he tried to make a living with his art but found he often couldn't
bring himself to put the big price-tags on his pieces that they warranted.
"I had the starving [artist] part down," he joked. "I
wound up putting too much time into pieces, and I couldn't say, 'Here, I
did a painting of your mother. It's $500.' So you wind up giving your stuff
away, pretty much. But that didn't bother me; if I know somebody enjoys
it, that's fine with me. It's just as good as money to me."
So for years he stayed in touch with art by doing hand lettering for
signs, figuring one day after he'd "settled down" he'd build a
studio and get back to more creative work. Then in 1994 lightning struck.
"We were down below the house-there's a creek down there-and I had
lightning run through me," Mitchell said. "It was what they call
'ball lightning.' I was in the creek bed, and it went through my head. It
made my hair feel like it stood straight up and then came right back down,
and there was a hum. It had that hum like electrical wires when electricity
runs through them. A storm was coming up off in the distance, like 20 miles
away, and I think it was an energy mass in that creek bottom going toward
A high-voltage brush with death is enough to make anyone do some soul-searching,
and Mitchell was no exception. He decided it was time to get back to what
fulfilled him, and he began painting. Hoyt Oliver, an Oxford professor of
religion, suggested Mitchell use as his canvas the leftover slate from Seney
Hall, and so began a period of productivity that shows no signs of slowing.
In one corner of "The Cave," the basement of Mitchell's Covington
home-where he lives with wife Donna and children Timothy and Kellie-is his
drafting table. Blanketing the rest of the basement is everything else under
the sun, from an old wood-burning furnace salvaged from his father's house
to old toys to Mitchell's first car, a white '66 Chevelle. "I'm a collector
of anything; there's no junk in the world. If it's unique, I like it, especially
old stuff. It doesn't have to be shiny for me to like it."
Mitchell attended no art school and received no formal training. He said
he did want to go to school but has no regrets because "it might have
altered my style." He does, however, know what he's doing, as evidenced
by the Dali prints on his wall, the Cassatt book on his coffee table and
the way he offhandedly discusses ancient Hopi Indian art, Picasso or the
"That's my man, Claude Monet," Mitchell said. "He's what
it's all about, a master of color and light. If you want to make a piece
look all 'real,' that's what cameras are for. It's your own interpretation."
Mitchell balks at the term 'folk art,' however. "It's just folks
doing art," he laughed. "It's a decorating of everyday things.
People use bowls or tables, something they use everyday. I don't even label
my stuff, to tell you the truth. I just do it."
He does sell work to friends and others who ask him. Sometimes, he said,
he's even been known to "stand on a street corner" at Christmas
time and sell slate. But he prefers to keep much of what he does relatively
"The Lord gave me the talent; I just try to use it," Mitchell
said. "I do it for myself. I enjoy it. When you're into a piece, time
doesn't mean a thing, and as soon as you put a pricetag on it, everybody
becomes a critic."
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