Fifty years of being a professional artist has brought Charles B. Mitchell to some interesting places.
Beginning with Saturday classes at the Chicago Art Institute, a young Mitchell began to follow what was destined to be his career path.
“It opened up my eyes to see art, not only how it was installed in a museum, but ecosystems,” he says.
Shortly before graduation, he took up a part-time apprenticeship before becoming a full-time apprentice, and working up to senior apprentice, at the Ray-Vogue School in Chicago, now a part of the Illinois Institute of Art — Chicago.
“It’s too bad that doesn’t exist anymore for young people, you can get so much from existing artists,” Mitchell says of his apprenticeships.
He was drafted during the Vietnam War Era and trained as an artillerist before becoming a combat illustrator who photographed what was happening on the homefront. Mitchell’s original unit was deployed to Vietnam, but he was not and was left to deal with survivor guilt.
The artist would go on to do children’s book illustrations with the likes of Random House, Harper & Row and Encyclopedia Britannica. Individuals familiar with the “Dick and Jane” books may have seen Mitchell’s early work. He achieved recognized success and awards as a figurative illustrator creating works in the realist tradition, but refers to that time period as “survival art.”
“I never kept count,” he recalls. “Just show me the paycheck.”
At the same time, Mitchell was participating in the Contemporary Art Workshop in Chicago where he “was playing with color for two years” and taking inner city children on tours through the Lincoln Park Zoo. It was there he developed an interest in small mammals and birds.
Following his apartment and vehicle being broken into, Mitchell packed up his Buick with cat and headed to Wautoma to study migrating water fowl.
“That’s a long word for ‘ducks,’” he jokes. He also took up fly fishing.
“It’s like archery. You love the flight of the arrow, but it’s not about hunting,” he says motioning with a flick of his wrist as if out with his rod.
Friends of his took bets on how long it would be before Mitchell returned to Chicago.
“It wasn’t me anymore,” he recalls. “I didn’t want anything to do with agencies, deadlines. … I was always on guard in Chicago.” He even turned down an offer from the well-known advertising agency, Leo Burnett, to do full-color posters for Marlboro.
Instead, he illustrated the book “Le Shack: a very SPECIAL fishing place” by Jim C. Chapralis. Mitchell received recognition for his wildlife art by traveling to shows in Kansas City, Minnesota and Illinois. He also won the Wisconsin Great Lakes Stamp and Wisconsin Inland Trout Stamp in 1990.
Mitchell, also went on to explore his Native American roots in the Ft. Peck Tribes of Montana. He had been put into foster care at age 5 and discovered his father was no longer living, but he did have a chance to meet his grandmother before she passed away.
His discoveries into his past influenced his art again and he spent time in Arizona and New Mexico selling his work. He still didn’t want to punch a clock for a 9 to 5 job and went on to take up three residencies at the Vermont Studio Center in Vermont where he met artists from Africa, China, Japan, South Korea and Estonia.
“It was like a League of Nations. All that was expected of us was to do our art,” Mitchell explains of the center, which was near the Gihon River and a trout stream. “It was real hard, I’d be working on my art and I’d look out the window and see all these mayflies,” he says.
It wasn’t until later in his career that Mitchell discovered his latest art form.
“In 1994, I discovered printmaking. I thought it was a process I never wanted to get into because it seemed too technical and mechanical,” Mitchell notes. “I like it because it’s full of happy accidents. … I like it because if you let it sit long enough, you see ‘Oh, maybe this is the way it wants to go.”
One such “accident” became a group of work that makes Mitchell smile.
“(One night,) I didn’t know what to do with myself. I took my shirt off and stuck it on the press and that became the ‘Men’s Shirt Series,’” he says.
“I record a lot of stuff in my art even though sometimes I forget why or how, but it makes a statement,” he adds, noting that some of his art is a reflection on the middle class.
Mitchell works with a variety of objects in his prints.
“You may see imagery there that relates to nature. I use original forms in my work including roots, various weeds, dried flowers, fish,” Mitchell explains. “The process, you can get so much detail with the press. … This in seconds I can take what took one weeks to do.”
Where Mitchell’s art will take him next remains to be seen.
“With the other art forms I did, they were all leading up to this,” he says. And though he’s pretty content, Mitchell admits he did test the waters with his work in New York a few years ago and discovered that too was not for him.
“At my age, I’m pretty good, but there’s always that unrest,” he admits. Mitchell has lived in Appleton the last 24 years.
He encourages individuals to see his work on the second floor of the Appleton Public Library, the Neville Public Museum and in private collections, including businesses like Quad Graphics. He has won several notable awards and had his work featured in several museums, including the Field Museum and was acquired by The Pentagon Collection in Washington, D.C.
“It’s about accepting art has this big filtration system. At the very end, what comes out of it is what will live on and inspire others,” Mitchell says.