By Megan Cain
The phone hadn’t stopped ringing for three days.
George Mitchell was lying on the laminate floor of his kitchen in his childhood home. He slipped in and out of consciousness.
Next to him was his stepfather, the man who had shot him in the neck with a shotgun three days ago. After shooting Mitchell, he turned the gun on himself. He was dead.
RING, RING, RING.
Mitchell could move his arms and hands but couldn’t muster the strength to reach the phone high above him on the wall.
“All I need is one. Just one of them to come by,” Mitchell thought.
Painting his pathway to success
Comic books and superheroes.
As a six-year-old boy left to his own devices on his family farm, Mitchell became obsessed with his action figures. He picked up his crayons and began to draw the ones he admired.
Before long, he realized he had potential. Mitchell’s artistic ability drove him through his early years, especially when he struggled with subjects like math. He hated math.
Mitchell remembers watching his mother scrape by to provide for him. She was a house worker with a grade school education, working long hours, determined to provide a better life for her son.
Mitchell knew he had to succeed in order to build a better life for himself and his mother, a challenge he accepted with open arms. He spent many late nights next to the gas stove that heated his house, scribbling through his math homework.
Those long nights paid off when he got a B in geometry his sophomore year. He knew right then he could do the whole college thing.
Classmate Faye White remembers Mitchell as a quiet, kind soul. Their class formed a lasting camaraderie through art, even painting a mural commemorating John F. Kennedy’s inauguration together. White and Mitchell won the superlative for “most artistic.”
During high school, Mitchell began working at the Museum of Life and Science under the guidance of the museum’s director and curator at the time, Richard Westcott. Westcott took him under his wing for three years, teaching Mitchell how to craft life-size sculptures, including dinosaurs that still stand in the museum today.
Later, Mitchell would credit this experience for putting him ahead of his classmates as he worked for his undergraduate degree at North Carolina Central University and his master’s at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Mitchell was the first in his family to graduate from college.
His mother attended his master’s exhibition, where he was the only Black student and one of the first to graduate from UNC’s master’s program.
“I had this big afro,” Mitchell recalled with a chuckle. “But she was so proud, so happy to see me succeed.”
He was offered a position at University of California, Berkeley, but he didn’t have the money or the support system to move across the country.
“So I chickened out,” Mitchell said.
Instead, Mitchell moved to New Jersey with his cousin and worked in a factory for 10 years. He kept creating his art out of a basement studio until he was offered his first teaching position at Morris College in South Carolina. He was the only art faculty there.
During the four years he spent there, Mitchell experimented with collages because they were easier, quicker and cheaper for him to do. He was invited to speak on South Carolina’s educational TV network and had one of his sculptures published in a textbook.
But he was ready for a new opportunity. He packed his bags for Georgia and accepted a position at Albany State where his antics quickly formed a reputation.
The art department had few resources, but Mitchell pushed his students to their limits. For one sculpting project, Mitchell had students gather materials from around town.
Garbage, scrap wood, metal. Whatever they could get their hands on.
Willette Battle gathered a hodgepodge of materials, doused each piece in paint, and tried to build a sculpture that stood as tall as she did at 5 feet, 9 inches.
Sawdust, sweat and maybe a few tears swirled around the room as the students worked tirelessly to please their teacher.
When Mitchell walked in he took one look at the mess, chuckled, turned around and left.
“Only A’s and F’s existed in Mitchell’s class,” Battle said. “He wanted your all. There wasn’t any in-between.”
He was relentless — but with good intentions. If students were struggling, he made sure to meet them where they were and bring them up to speed.
“You just have to get past that hard crust to get to the soft middle,” Battle said.
Under Mitchell’s guidance, Battle went on to attend Howard University on a full scholarship to get her master’s in fine arts. She was the first student from Albany State to go on to pursue a higher degree.
“I knew I could survive anything because I survived Mitchell,” Battle said. “He made me fearless.”
But teaching was never part of Mitchell’s plan. It was simply a vessel for him to continue creating and to help others do the same.
As he aged, Mitchell began to receive more recognition for his work. His goal was to get a permanent display in a national gallery. He kept working and experimenting in different mediums — creating sculptures, collages and paintings.
Fascinated by Black athletes at the 1996 Olympics, Mitchell began painting their physiques on large canvases with bright colors. He used bold, distinct lines to emphasize their strength. Each athlete has one characteristic in common — blue skin. Mitchell says this is meant to represent their struggles as athletes of color.
He was working on this collection when he made a fateful journey home to check on his ailing biological father.
He’d never finish the collection.
Rediscovering his devotion to art
She wanted him to cook a steak. He had no interest in cooking a steak.
His occupational therapist was at her wits end. She sat down to talk to Mitchell instead.
“What would you like to do, George?”
He began to talk about his days of painting.
“I feel like I have my hands tied behind my back without art,” Mitchell said.
She encouraged him to pick up a paint brush — a feat he hadn’t accomplished in 13 years.
From there, he kept building and taking his art more seriously. In his condition, Mitchell can’t sit up for long periods of time without passing out.
Word traveled along the grapevine in the art community that Mitchell needed help. Eventually he was connected to Holly Phelan Johnson in Durham at ArtPost, a group that helps people with disabilities find ways to make art.
“I put coming to see him off for a month,” Phelan Johnson said. “I just knew he was going to be this grouchy old man given all he had been through.”
Mitchell was quite the opposite.
Phelan Johnson remembers talking to him for hours about life, art and his goals.
“And he wasn’t bitter at all. Just a warm soul that was dying to create again,” Phelan Johnson said.
She was astounded by the amount of art Mitchell had stowed in his house.
Piled in corners. Crammed in a decaying shed. Haphazardly strewn across his living room. His life’s work was shoved into each crevice of the house.
To help him continue creating, Phelan Johnson connected him to engineering students at Duke who crafted a special easel for him to use while lying down.
“I felt free again,” Mitchell said.
But he still required assistance. Anybody that knows him would say that’s hard for Mitchell.
He’s prided himself on his independence and work ethic his entire life, but now he requires the help of others to do the thing that brought him new life.
“They say Picasso had a blue period,” Mitchell said. “My whole life has been a blue period.”
You wouldn’t know it though.
Surrounding himself with art, friends and family keeps him going. When his show “Continuing the Dream II” opened at Duke on March 7, dozens of Mitchell’s friends dropped by to congratulate him but ended up staying for hours.
They gathered around his wheelchair, sharing laughs and words of encouragement.
White came from Durham, bringing other classmates along with her.
Battle made the drive up from Alabama, joking with Mitchell about gas money.
He’s still working on the Olympic series he started in the ‘90s, partnering with Phelan Johnson on a fundraiser to restore what he’s already made.
Sometimes he catches himself thinking about the incident with his stepfather in 2003.
He thought his stepfather’s mental health was declining, and he warned police because he was worried for his safety. They informed Mitchell they couldn’t do anything until his stepfather took action.
He doesn’t dwell on it, though. He can’t.
“I’m disappointed in what he did,” Mitchell said. “But I’m still here. And I’m going to keep doing what I love.”
Edited by Charlotte Spence.