Emory Report

January 12, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 16


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. Literally.

"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 that storm."

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 Impressionists.

"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 private.

"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."

-Michael Terrazas

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