Sue Mitchell points to the cormorants swooping over Lake Evans at Fairmount Park in Riverside. "We're having a great show today," she says, then peers forward to get a closer look, leaning against her white walking canes. "I wonder why they're landing on some trees and not others."
Mitchell has made a year-long project of paying close attention to the natural world at Fairmount Park, then transforming what she discovers into art. To mark her 60th birthday, and the start of what she considers her "Third Act", Mitchell has taken a sabbatical from the company she co-founded 35 years ago, Riverside Personnel Services, and has immersed herself in a self-directed study of contemporary art and art techniques, primarily print making and mixed media. Her explorations will culminate in an exhibit at the Riverside Art Museum next fall titled "52," inspired in part by the 52 Montezuma Palm Cypress trees that line her favorite portion of Lake Evans.
"52 trees; 52 weeks in a year; I was born in '52. It just makes sense," she says.
She gestures to the intricate bark of one of the Cypresses along her path. "Isn't this tree magnificent? Look at the lines; look at the design." Her daily walks have only intensified her appreciation of the trees.
Mitchell says the Olmsted brothers, who designed the park in 1915, chose the Cypresses for their hardiness. "They resist disease, and they're hard to carve into. On all of them, I've only been able to find one little heart."
Mitchell's heart is anything but small. She sees her art as a way to channel both her love and her pain; during the election season, she self-published a mixed-media book called "Outrage" that directly addressed the greed and hatred she perceives in our country, and used it to raise money for Barak Obama's re-election campaign. Her first solo art show, "A Love Affair," mounted in October at the Riverside Community Arts Association gallery, was similarly heart-centered, showcasing mixed media pieces that incorporate rocks she's collected along the California coastline over the last 35 years. The poster for the exhibit features Mitchell hugging a large boulder, her eyes closed as she communes with the stone.
Now rocks help her mark the passage of time. Mitchell has two glass jars at home; she started her project with one empty jar and one filled with 365 rocks. Each day, she moves a rock into the other jar, and is slowly and somewhat nervously watching them accumulate.
"Two and a half months in, I'm struggling to produce," she says. "And that's why I'm doing this. To be forced to learn about commitment. To force myself to grow."
Mitchell has always seen herself as a concept person, a person who would come up with a great idea, and then hand it over to a board or a committee. She was the inspiration behind wildly successful signature fund-raising events for local health and human service organizations such as black tie bowling nights, check writing parties, and the Shop to Stop Breast Cancer boutique, all brought to fruition by a band of volunteers.
"As an artist, you have to do it all yourself," she says. "The time for talk is over; now it's time for action." She says that she could have chosen to have a quiet sabbatical, but decided to challenge herself, instead. "I've done what's come easily for 35 years and didn't force myself to do something new until now."
Her business did not come easily at first. When Mitchell started Riverside Personnel Services, her husband had just died in a B-52 crash; she was fairly new to the area, and barely knew her business partner, Zee Beard, also an Air Force wife. The two of them pushed themselves to learn about the community and connect with other women in administrative roles to make their business a success; now, over three decades later, they continue to inspire and learn from one another. Beard, who became a personal trainer in her 60s, fully supports Mitchell's taking time off from their business to delve deeply into art.
And Mitchell's not truly doing it alone. She has assembled a team of artists who serve as mentors and advisors. Photographer Doug McCulloh was the first artist she approached about the project (she considers him one of the three people she would like to get stuck with "on a desert island or in an elevator"). When McCulloh agreed to be her adviser and told her that the project was worth pursuing as a museum exhibit, Mitchell says she skipped home. McCulloh regards himself as "part cheerleader and part pointer-at-other-artists/art-projects-that-might-be-relevant" as Mitchell moves forward with her year.
"Sue has been on art's slippery slope for years," says McCulloh, "aficionado, then collector, then maker of prints and quirky, multimedia assemblages. But now we get to watch as she leaves the slippery slope, goes off a cliff, and into year-long freefall. I admire the dedication, intensity, and insanity. It's really a model for all of us."
Despite a lifelong long of art, Mitchell only started producing her own creative work in 2009. In high school, she had been intimidated by a friend for whom art came easily, and set her own dreams of making art aside. Mitchell sees herself as picking up where she left off as a teenager, and likens what she's doing now as akin to a high school and college art education. She has nicknamed her project "Homeschooling at 60" and is even calling the art that will be exhibited her "Senior Project." Her high school artist friend plans to travel across the country to see the show.
Drew Oberjuerge, Director of the Riverside Art Museum, is thrilled about Mitchell's upcoming exhibition. "This is an exceptionally interesting story of someone's journey into art. I love how she's taking the connections and momentum she's making in the community and bringing that to the museum; she's making art accessible."
One of the two galleries that will house "52" will feature 52 prints and mixed-media images of her beloved trees. She calls that room "Sanctuary 52" and says the floor will represent Lake Evans. "People will realize they're walking on water," she says. The other gallery, which she has deemed "Studio 52," will be more process-oriented, and will feature work she created throughout the year, along with a recreation of her studio and study space. She will continue her daily practice inside the gallery for a month, turning her creative process into performance art. Visitors will be welcome to join her on her daily walks around Fairmount Park before she heads to the museum.
The year-long project, she says, "is about art, but it's also about a lot beyond art." Her mentor Todd Wingate, agrees. "As a person a few years younger than Sue," he says, "it's a fascinating approach to the natural redefinition we all undergo as we move from work to retirement. It has made me think about how I'll approach the process in a few years and so in that regard, I think her project can be a model for others that is not specific to creating art." Mitchell feels the same way and hopes the exhibit will inspire other people entering their own "Third Act".
"There are 10,000 people a day turning 65 over the next 19 years," she says. "That's a lot of people figuring out what to do next." During her exhibition, the museum will host a panel of people who all turned to art in later years after pursuing other career paths.
For Mitchell, an inveterate multi-tasker, the year is also about slowing down and paying deep attention.
Mitchell points out her house, built in 1908 by G. Stanley Wilson, which overlooks the park from nearby Indian Hill. She sweeps her trusty walking canes out to encompass the green space of Fairmount all around her. "This is my classroom, my studio, my front porch," she says. "I walked here for five or six years without knowing the names of the trees or the birds. I've finally started appreciating where we live."
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