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22 February 2017

Sam Mitchell

The inclusion of old-school style tattoo imagery combined with areas of bold flat colour brings an innocent yet challenging element to Sam's portraiture work.


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I first became aware of artist Sam Mitchell in 2008 when her portraiture art work ‘Time Flies’ was featured on the front cover of the winter issue of Art News New Zealand.

There was no doubt something refreshingly different was afoot; what really struck a chord with me at the time was the seductively restful nature in which she had created the eyes, the gentle feminine tilt of the head, then boom! The skull and cross-bone imagery adorned with the words, ‘Like you I once was – Like me you will be’… I knew instantly I wanted more of what this artist had to offer.

Sam Mitchell’s family arrived in New Zealand in 1973 from America. She was born in Colorado Springs, her father’s family were from Ohio, and her mother’s family were originally from the Ukraine. Her father was an architect and a painter and so as kids she and her siblings were always drawing.

From an early age, it was her attention to detail that attracted people. As she recalls even at age six she meticulously painted shoelaces and finger nails with such precision that her primary school teacher observed this detailing and remarked that Sam’s intricate art work was very different to that of her peers.

Mitchell completed one year of a two year MFA at the University of Auckland, School of Fine Arts in 2000. Despite not finishing her MFA, she continued to develop her art practice and by 2010 Mitchell had won the James Wallace Art Award, which was the second largest Art Award in New Zealand at the time; her work is held in the collection of the Wallace Arts Trust. This award also included a residency at the International Studio and Curatorial Programme in New York.

Mitchell has a distinctive style. Her portrait works are carefully rendered with dominant tattoo style designs that have a cartoon-like innocence about them. One could say her paintings are well versed by a child-like yet cheeky and somewhat humorous approach whilst maintaining a commanding aura around them. She uses a diverse range of imagery in her works, from colonial events to hearts and skulls, cute little ponies to religious and pornographic imagery.

Mitchell works with various mediums. Her watercolours depict domestic pets that sometimes appear as vocalising obscenities and expletives. She also works with acrylics on Perspex. This is a challenging medium requiring the artist to employ a technique where the work must be painted backwards and in reverse. The nature of the Perspex and the palate of colours used, gives the viewer a sense that the subject ‘floats upon the wall behind’. Mitchell accomplishes this entire creative process with excellence!

More recently Mitchell has moved from painting into creating beautiful ceramics. This was something she experimented and dabbled with several years ago, and it was during her six month artist in residency as the William Hodges Fellow in Invercargill in 2014 that she was approached to make ceramics. Excited about the chance to work with this medium again, she continued with ceramics for the duration of her residency.

“Working with ceramics is both testing and exhilarating,”

“It is the un-predictability of the process; you are never sure if all the steps you took will create the desired end product. Unlike painting it is an instant result; it either fails or it succeeds!” says Mitchell.

And so the tests and challenges continue. Mitchell is currently developing an on-going series of ceramic plates. She says whilst she is fortunate enough to be self employed as an artist, she has several other initiatives happening on the side. She gives the occasional artist talk and works with the mentoring programme run by the Artists Alliance on Ponsonby Road. The Artists Alliance is a not-for-profit, membership-led organisation that works for and supports the visual arts sector in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Mitchell lived in Freeman's Bay for a number of years and enjoyed the walk up Franklin Road to Ponsonby Road. “It has changed so much since my days living here!’ she says.  “I now reside in nearby Sandringham which means I can simply pop across to Ponsonby and still enjoy my favourite haunts, like Dizengoff and Flotsam and Jetsam. I love those places they continue to give Ponsonby some of its old character.”

When talking of long term goals, Mitchell’s intention is to keep doing what she loves. She says she has a great relationship with her Ponsonby/Herne Bay dealer Melanie Roger who takes a collaborative approach and supports the creation of new and exciting work. Roger is instrumental in helping artists develop their careers both within New Zealand and internationally.

“It is this dedication Melanie gives to her artists that motivates me to continue to show my works at the Melanie Roger Gallery,” says Mitchell. “I’ll also look to have more shows throughout New Zealand and fingers crossed I’ll get the opportunity to exhibit overseas! My goal is to complete more artist residencies; I have done five to date.”

“We artists are as important as lawyers, doctors and police… we make up the notion of what a ‘community’ is and for that I wish to continue to grow and develop my role as an artist.”

Mitchell is committed to her practice and believes art has an enormous influence on people’s lives.  As she puts it, “Art creates a window into another world. It’s a very important part of human nature to create. All advanced societies have done so since the dawn of time and the arts are a fundamental part of our everyday existence. It is a tool that teaches and delights, it sparks ideas and blooms the imagination, builds cultural bridges, stops time and invokes emotions.”

“I want my art to influence people, bring joy, provoke opinions and encourage conversation!”

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