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In 1971, under the shade of the big oak trees on Lakeland Public Library’s west lawn, Joe Mitchell gathered together a handful of local artists and crafters for an art fair – an event that has been held nearly every year since and is now known as MayFaire by-the-Lake.
But Mitchell will be missing at this year’s MayFaire, May 13 and 14. He passed away on April 11 at the age of 91.
“He was passionate about visual arts, passionate about sharing visual arts with people, and teaching visual arts,” said his son, Tim Mitchell, 56.
Mitchell became an advocate for art and art education in Polk County during his career, teaching in Polk County Public Schools and also at Florida Southern College, where he became a popular ceramics professor. He also headed the school district’s visual arts department.
Growing Up in Lakeland
Mitchell was born and raised in Lakeland, growing up with his parents, Percival and Alice Inez Mitchell, near Lake Parker and the small airport on its west side at Tigertown. When the mail plane would come in to land in the early evenings of the 1930s, a young Mitchell would flash the porch light. The pilot would toggle the plane’s wings to wave at the boy before landing. One day, the pilot showed up at Mitchell’s house and presented the boy with a cast iron toy plane – something he treasured.
When the U.S. military took over Tigertown for World War II, his family moved to Orange Street and he held a job at the soda fountain at Woolworth’s downtown, walking or riding a bike to get there. Mitchell explained that his father had very humble beginnings, with his grandmother sewing together six feed sacks to make sheets and a pillow case for his father.
“He just thought that’s how the whole world operated,” Mitchell said. “The first set of real sheets he ever slept on was when he went away to college.”
While Mitchell began his studies at the University of Florida, he did a stint in the Army, stationed in Germany, before finishing his fine arts degree at Florida State University, where he also received a master’s degree.
Mitchell said it was while his father was stationed in Germany that his love affair with art, art history and architecture began.
“He loved his job – it was in the supply area – so he had a fair amount of free time and he would get to travel around during his weekends and when he got a pass, he would travel around in Europe. Every weekend, he’d go to a different cathedral or a different museum, or a different city, town or region, and just, you know, go see all the artwork and architecture and pick up on as much of the culture as he could.”
After earning his degree, he first taught middle school in Tallahassee, but then got a job in Lakeland through a grant. He was eventually one of the first staff to teach at Harrison School for the Arts in 1991. He also became the director of art education at the district office and president of the Florida Art Education Association, which is the statewide organization for art teachers.
Influential Teacher and Mentor
Several people prominent in art education today called Mitchell a mentor. Pat Lamb, who eventually replaced Mitchell in the district office, was one.
“He gave me so many opportunities to enrich my career,” Lamb said, becoming emotional about the loss of a longtime friend. “He obviously was one of the most giving colleagues that I’ve ever worked with … He gave me opportunities to grow in terms of professional development, asking me to join the academic tournament as a question writer. He always supported whatever professional development I felt like I needed and he was just a very special man.”
Lamb said he made sure Polk County teachers who wanted to attend the Florida Art Education Association Conference got to go. She said when they were both teaching at Florida Southern, he was generous with his time and knowledge.
“If I had a question about something about art history, he always had a little twinkle in his eye and would get me an answer if I needed it,” she said. “He would just do anything that anyone asks or asked him to do and he was just such a kind man. He was instrumental in my life in developing my career.”
Longtime employees of the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College were saddened to hear of Mitchell’s passing.
“I called him Joe Bird because he was always around, always helpful just like a bird,” said Pal Powell, deputy director of operations at the PMoA. “He just hovered over me like a mother bird, just to make sure everything’s just perfect for the exhibition. He just was always there for any kind of encouraging words when I first started and making sure everything was in place for the student gallery, down to framing, the reception, the labels.”
Ellen Chastain, the museum’s education manager, also called him “our beloved Joe.”
“He was a mentor of mine when I first started here at the Museum 20 years ago and continued to support my endeavors as late as this past Art Crawl 2022,” Chastain said. “He always made an effort to support those that he cherished and was a wonder of information.”
Nancy Puri now holds the job that was Mitchell’s for so many years as senior coordinator of visual arts and also president of the Florida Arts Education Association. She credits Mitchell with helping to make arts a bedrock of education in Polk County.
“Joe Mitchell was such an important part of the addition and support of art programs throughout Polk County Schools. He was dedicated to developing quality art programs in public schools and was such a good mentor and teacher and artist,” Puri said. “He also played an integral role in Harrison School of the Arts from the beginning.”
William Otremsky, an art professor and chairman of the Department of Visual Arts and Design at Florida Southern College, taught with Mitchell.
“I feel great sadness that Joe has passed. Our entire department misses him deeply,” Otremsky said. “Joe was an excellent professor and mentor to his students. He loved his medium, and was always doing research in the ceramics studio and digital labs. Joe was quite literally always here: evenings, summers, winter breaks… it didn’t matter. We used to joke that he would ride out hurricanes in the studios because nothing was going deter him from his work.”
Mitchell created ceramic wall hangings. Some were landscapes, while more recent designs were layers of organic shapes and textures, glazed in different colors.
“They were just aesthetically pleasing ceramic panels,” said Rocky Bridges, who teaches at Harrison. “They remind me of the walls in Rome that are, you know, just this rich age, a history of color and decay, but it’s just so beautiful.”
Gifts Would Appear
For his son, nieces and even friends’ children, gifts would appear for birthdays that encouraged their artistic talents. Bridges said Mitchell would give his daughter Brooklyn, who is now 27, gifts and recently sent Bridges’ two-year-old granddaughter, Lila Bleu, a gift about children’s artwork around the world and how it was all similar, no matter if they lived in China, Europe or the United States.
“(Brooklyn) loved the book and she was like, ‘Oh my gosh, he still thinks about me,’” Bridges said. “So he was still reaching out and giving an offering and letting you know that he cares.”
Bridges said Mitchell would monitor students’ progress as artists throughout their time in Polk schools.
“He believed in the art spirit inside of children,” Bridges said. “He had the privilege and the opportunity to watch their growth in their career and he would pay attention to them. He would pay attention to how they move forward in their progression in the arts and he would offer inspiration and motivation to them and let them know, ‘I saw your piece when you were in fourth grade at the Polk Museum. It was really amazing.’ His passion and love for the education of our young people was profound. He just offered so much because of his caring ability and it was his innate desire … he just offered so much and asked nothing in return, and was always giving. He was the, you know, the solid person behind the stage.”
Traveling and Art Fairs
For several summers, he would take students on whirlwind tours of Europe, to the cathedrals, castles and museums he had fallen in love with as a young man.
“He loved Europe; he loved all the aspects of going over there and reliving, I think, he enjoyed reliving his army days and going around and capturing all that culture there,” Mitchell said. “And he was also just a very kind and patient man, as well.”
Bridges said he and Mitchell would often travel to New York City together and Mitchell reveled in showing obscure sites around the town.
“He would know where William de Kooning used to live,” Bridges said. “’This is where he walked up and Robert Rauschenberg came to de Kooning’s front door, right here, and ask him to erase this drawing, which is now a famous piece called ‘The Erased de Kooning’ by Robert Rauschenberg.’ It’s in the textbooks. He just knew personal things about, you know, they were living a real life. It’s completely alien from the art history books … he knew where they were and what they were doing and what bar they were going to.”
In fact, Bridges said Mitchell would take him to The White Horse Tavern where the abstract expressionists would often gather.
“That was a favorite place for Joe and I to go and just the history, you know, it wasn’t just going out as buddies to have a beer. It was more like, wow, some of our heroes sat right here,” Bridges said. “And he knew those things and that was so special.”
MayFaire in Lakeland captured his attention for several years before the Polk Museum of Art stepped in and turned it into the influential art fair that it is today.
Mitchell would also attend other art fairs throughout Florida and the southeast, taking his young son along with him.
“He was a big proponent of going to art shows and supporting local artists and artists from around the south and the southeast,” Mitchell said. “Lots of memories of the early MayFaires as a kid … I think initially it was just a day and maybe it expanded to two days, but he’d be there the entire time, doing whatever he can do to help out. I think he was a judge in the early, early days, too. So lots of art shows and just lots of meeting interesting artists and people that were in that kind of art world.”
His son said Mitchell could never pass up any kind of scrap of metal if he thought it was something he could use in his artwork to make a pattern or a texture, saying – like many artists – he had a hoarder’s stash of found scraps.
“He just had a very unique way of looking at the world,” Mitchell said. “I think he taught me to, you know, really seek first to understand something before you try to manipulate it or change it. He just had a way of looking at something and kind of deconstructing it in his mind. And then being able to relate that back to people … (He had) that sense of just always stay curious about whatever your favorite chosen topic is in life. I didn’t turn out to be an artist. He’s given me a good appreciation for it, but I can’t — I’m not a creative type person in that way. But he’s given me the appreciation, whatever your passion is, to never stop asking questions and never stop learning.”
As his age progressed and health declined, Mitchell moved in with his son in 2019. Tim Mitchell and his wife cared for him until his passing.
Mitchell said his father did not want a service. His ashes will be spread in a town in Switzerland during a family vacation there. Mitchell said he will be starting a scholarship in his grandmother Alice Inez Mitchell’s name, per his father’s wishes, at Harrison within the next year.
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Joe was one of the most giving, generous and friendly spirits I met when I moved to Lakeland to direct the Polk Museum of Art. I am very saddened by his passing but am still warmed by my memories of him. We are lucky to have a small ceramic wall relief by Joe in our art collection. This article is a loving tribute to a great man.
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