Conversation: Julia and Lucy Mitchell

Joseph Mitchell, Julia and Lucy's father.
Working from an understanding of a natural world

Last year, my cousin Julia Mitchell emailed me a number of old family pictures, faded black-and-white photographs of our respective parents and grandparents. One of them showed her father, Joseph Mitchell, a woodworker, model ship builder and stone carver, engrossed in a project. What he was working on is just out of view, but another photo suggests that it was a miniature model of a sailboat.

His right hand holds a screwdriver gently but firmly; his left hand steadies the work. His eyes peer from beneath a forehead clenched in concentration.

That keenness is what comes to mind when I think about what Julia and her older sister, Lucy Mitchell, bring to their own art. Julia designs and weaves tapestries, and Lucy creates a mix of sculpture, drawings, collage, and installations. They will exhibit their work in a first-ever joint show from July 30 through mid-August 14 at A Gallery, in Oak Bluffs.

I first saw their work in the 1960s, when we all spent part of a summer together in the West Tisbury home where they grew up after moving to the Island as children, with their parents and older sister, Anna.

I remember Lucy’s early work, intricate collages composed of natural and manmade artifacts, as well as labyrinthine drawings. Julia was still studying at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, Calif., but even then her weavings declared her careful observation and understanding of the natural world.

Lucy and Julia Mitchell. Photo by Nancy Tutko

Lucy and Julia Mitchell. Photo by Nancy Tutko

Over the years, I have enjoyed watching their artwork evolve and change, each of them following a distinctive path.
Lucy’s art has explored the complex interaction of the natural world and what we, as a species, have made of it, always with an eye to creating compelling visual images. For several years, she has focused her attention on sculptural installations composed of found objects like driftwood and/or objects Lucy creates. Writing, both real and imagined, weaves across the surfaces of her pieces like hieroglyphic animal tracks. These works place collage — the assemblage of objects and art in a framework — in a much larger context.

Julia’s tapestries hinge on meticulous planning and execution. Still, somehow, the subtle interplay of colors and textures in her work make it as vibrant and spontaneous as a painter’s. Her subjects often show scenes from nature, bent reeds in a pond or a stand of trees in winter, but are never just that. Her art is both representational and nonrepresentational: It incorporates the role of wind, water, and time to enrich and better understand what we see.
I recently had the chance to sit down with Julia and Lucy to talk about their work and their early influences, as well as what has fueled their creativity for 50-some years. An edited account of our conversation follows.

P: When did you first become aware that you liked to make art?
J: Earlier than I can remember — I’ve always just known it.
P: How did it first express itself?
J: Our folks always gave us stuff to draw with…. I remember one time at the Hill house [Indian Hill in West Tisbury] when I was really young, and they had peeled — Lucy, was there wallpaper in the dining room?
L: Yes.
J: They had peeled it off, and we just had a free-for-all. We were allowed to write and draw all over the wall as much as we wanted.
P: Do you remember that, Lucy?
L: I do. They gave us this special dispensation — because [the room] was going to be painted. It was wonderful.
P: Would you say your folks were a big influence?
J: Yes. More by omission than commission, I think. They just sort of didn’t mind that we preferred making art to doing everything else. A friend of the family’s used to work for the [Vineyard] Gazette, and he used to bring back the remnants of the rolls of newsprint, so we had miles and miles to use … There was never any judgment connected with it or any instruction or qualification associated with it. It was always just considered something that people do, just part of living.
L: But also the things that I remember most and that I realized influenced me were things like going out on walks with our mother and getting mushrooms and making spore prints with the mushrooms. She taught us how to do that. And then also collecting seaweed and learning how to float the seaweed, which is what I’m doing right now.
P: I always thought that the “collecting” influence came from your father’s side of the family. His father, who we called Da, was a collector, right?
J: He was, but he didn’t collect from nature. He collected art pieces.
P: But it’s interesting to see the intersection, that there are both kinds of collecting in your art, Lucy.
L: I’m very interested in the whole idea of collections. He [Da] was into the filing of things, the acquisition, the categories of things, museums and labels: that whole side of collecting. Because I think that most people, a lot of people want to collect things. They have throughout history.
J: I am so not acquisitive. I’m so interested in not having stuff. I am so not a collector.
P: Do you have any idea what you don’t like about it?
J: I don’t like clutter. The more space there is around me, the happier I am. We have completely different responses to our genetic heritage.
P: What is it about collages that inspires you, Lucy?
L: Again, it’s collecting. It’s finding ephemeral bits and pieces and using them. It’s mixing things. Since I do mostly nonrepresentational work, [it’s the mixing of things] that makes it representational. Say I collect leaves, press them, and use a leaf. The rest of the picture is focusing on this leaf as the important aspect. I didn’t draw the leaf. It’s a real leaf. That’s always fascinated me.

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P: Did you have other influences and role models?
J: We had a lot of art in the house, art books all over the place. We had all these Japanese ukiyo-e, and I had that print — I forget the name of the painting — the Van Gogh portrait that I still have up in my studio. I had that hanging in my room since I can remember — I think it informed my art, my color sense ever since I can remember.
P: What about you, Lucy?
L: Growing up here and having that and having friends of the family be artists and writers. We knew it was a thing people did.
J: It was the Island, in a way. It really was an influence. I was at the hospital the other day, and my nurse and I were chatting and she was filling out my chart with her left hand, and I said, “I’m left-handed, too.” She said, “I think every other person who comes in here is left-handed. I have never seen anything like it. It’s really marked.” The Island’s a real magnet for the right-brainers.
P: Julia, your tapestries look like you’re painting with fabric. You could have been a painter, but you chose fabric as a medium. Why did you go in that direction?
J: I’m not a painter because I don’t like wet things. I don’t like ceramics. I don’t want to get clay under my fingers. I don’t want to get paint on my hands. I don’t want to make paper — God forbid. I just want to use a pencil, and I love working with fiber because it’s dry and soft and clean.
I got into making representations of things really right away, when I first discovered weaving, which when I was 15 when I went to Windsor Mountain School [in Lenox].… I was learning how to weave on a loom, throwing the shuttle from side to side and doing pattern weaving, and also studying medieval art history and Renaissance art history and looking at the tapestries that were coming out. And I just stopped throwing the shuttle. All of a sudden I just started pulling the shuttle out in the middle of the [warp] and then trying to weave little areas of the warp instead of throwing the shuttle from selvage to selvage. I was sort of drawing with the thread.
P: Your art is very distinct from each other, but I think you both have a real affinity for the natural world. Would you say that growing up on an island, where you were encouraged and really enjoyed going outside and looking, was crucial to what you do?
J: To be able to be alone and go alone into the woods and nature and down to the beach and to have access to that — which so many people don’t have — it’s really pivotal.
L: One of my favorite memories as a kid: We would sit in the water, at the edge of the water … and reach behind us and it was this game of the best pebble. And we would reach around and randomly get one.… And these pretty pebbles would come out and they’d be all wet. And the most beautiful pebble won. We might argue a little bit about it, but usually we knew which was the most beautiful.
J: I think it’s interesting that you brought that up, because that’s aesthetic training.
L: I still think if I had a few days to live, what would I want to do? I would ask somebody to bring me a little tray of pebbles and sand from the beach so I could look at them and play with them. It’s just my favorite thing. It’s so endlessly beautiful.
P: Do you go through a process, a routine when you work on your art?
J: I start out with drawing little tiny sketches. Then I’ll think about them and I’ll cut them out and I’ll spread them out. And sometimes this goes on for years…. And so I’ll have a whole bunch of these design ideas floating around at the same time, and then something looks like — aha! — and I start being able to see it whole and feel like this could possibly work. Then I start working on a working drawing and iterations. When I get to a point where it makes sense, then I do a color working drawing, and I do a cartoon, and I get the yarns and I weave it. That’s basically how it works.
P: Does your work ever take you somewhere where you don’t expect to go?
J: I mean sometimes — and Lucy, I’m sure you have this experience too — we just channel. Sometimes I just do a drawing, make the cartoon in the space of a couple of days, and then I’m just off and running.… I just did one like that. It took five months to weave it, but the plan for it was just there — bang.
L: It’s like a savant.
J: You’re just the person who’s got the physical skills to do it. I don’t want to talk in spiritual terms — I don’t know where it’s coming from, but it’s not coming from me.
L: That happens. People improvise music. It’s a whole different part of your brain that clicks in. It’s a great feeling.
J: It’s a wonderful feeling, because you know it’s good.
L: For me, those times are pretty rare. I spend a lot of time just struggling to get to that point. It’s hard. It’s really, really hard. I just have to go to my studio and do something. Repeat myself. I scour around my studio. I go for walks. I look for stuff, and suddenly it comes together, an idea.… Doing a show together, the challenge of that is really exciting. But it’s, like, hard, figuring out how is this going to work, come together. What am I going to do to make this whole?
J: I built a little maquette of A gallery, and now I’m making little scale-model drawings of my tapestries, and I’ve asked Lucy to make scale models of her work. And we can just move them around.
P: It’s like you’re creating a piece of art using the gallery as a frame.
J: Making an installation. Because it’s so important how things flow in a gallery, in a show. How things relate to each other. And it’s challenging when you’re working with another person, even, as in our case, when you really admire the other person’s work. It’s so different. How’s it going to work; what does it have to say? How’s each piece going to inform the next piece and the pieces next to it? What is it all going to mean?
L: That’s what makes it really interesting, that pointing up of similarities.
P: Do you see your work as a continuum? Or did you ever have an epiphany where you thought about your work differently than in the past?
L: I did start thinking more about the body of work in a room — an installation, rather than individual pieces.
P: Do you remember how that started?
L: I started thinking about the idea of rooms. I remember reading something about a map room in an old house. I did a whole series of maps, real maps with collage around them, because I wanted to make a map room…. Having a big space and thinking about it as a space, it appeals to me.
P: How about you, Julie, do you think your work has been a continuous evolution?
J: No, not at all.
P: How do you describe it?
J: It’s jerky.
P: Can you give an example?
J: It’s partly jerky because of the fact that I do both commissions and my own work for gallery shows. Even if I wanted to work along a continuous arc of thematic art, I’ll be working along happily and then I’ll get a commission … and it will be something completely out of the stream. And I’ll just have to stop and get myself out of that head and into whatever head is required. And then I’ll have to go back and pick up the thread again and try to get back into what I’ve been doing, and oftentimes I can’t — it just isn’t there anymore.
P: Do you think your work has become more nonrepresentational over the years?
J: Yeah, I think so. I certainly don’t do landscapes anymore. I’m really focused in; I’m more about abstractions and surfaces and time, the effects of time on things. How a picture works, planes and that kind of thing. Strictly light and dark, shadow and movement.
P: What do you like best, and what do you like least, about what you do?
J: I like the fact that I get to do what I want all day. I like doing it more than I like doing anything else. And I’ve felt that way for 50 years. And I still really look forward to it every day. I like the solitude. I like the process of creating something out of nothing that is my own expression, and I like making other people happy with it. My favorite responses to my art are from people who have visceral responses. One of them: A guy went into a show and there were little discreet signs that said, “Do not touch.” He went up, right up next to [a tapestry], and he put his arms like behind it and he drew it to his face, and he went “Sssssffff,” just sniffed it all over. That was one really great expression of appreciation. The other: I made a piece for a client, and when I delivered it, he just burst into tears. That was like the best. So I love that, giving people something they really love and respond to. I love seeing that process, of people getting it.
What do I like least? Paying taxes.
L: What do I like best? I like the studio and being able to go up there every day, and be all by myself and do whatever I like. It’s a great pleasure. I like discovering new things. But there are a lot of negatives about it. I have a lot of angst about the feeling that it’s really stupid to make art. Like, what is the point? I really do. So I have a constant pull. I enjoy myself completely when I’m doing it, but I’m thinking, What is this for? Why am I doing this? I really struggle with that.
P: So it’s almost like the best and the worst, they’re the same.
J: I think we’re both really process-oriented. We both love the process. And then you get this studio full of stuff — not a good thing. It’s just taking up space. But I have never had any doubt whatsoever that making art is one of the highest endeavors that human beings can do.
L: I have lots of doubt about it. At least me.
J: I’m not talking about myself. I’m talking about art in general. Look at the Venus of Willendorf, and you think, I’m so glad someone made that, and that someone cared enough about it to care for it and nurture it and protect it. I can’t think of anything that’s more important than that in humanity, in our role in the world.

Phoebe Mitchell was a writer and editor at the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Mass. Now retired, she lives with her husband in Westhampton, Mass.

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