Scribbles and clouds, wavy lines and wild colors: Sam Mitchell’s jewelry bursts with the verve of a happy kid’s drawings. She is, in fact, influenced by children’s cartoons, stories, and illustrations, but the exuberance in her work is the result of careful creative decisions made by a serious adult artist.
Well, serious artist, for sure: She has a BFA from James Madison University and an MFA from the University of Iowa, and years of teaching, showing, and devoted work in the studio. Adult – yes, but with an asterisk.
Growing up the middle sister of three in Harrisonburg, Virginia, Mitchell was doing laundry and making her own meals before she was 10 to help out her working parents. When she was 20, her father was injured in a car accident, and Mitchell shouldered a lot of his care. That same year, she became a mother.
“I felt like I never had that chance to just be a child. I always felt like a child pretending to be an adult,” she says.
Now, at 30, she feels as though true adulthood is a state that’s always just beyond reach. “I’m living in a constant of limbo – not child, not adult, a weird gray area,” she says. “My jewelry lives in that limbo.”
In her artistic mining of that gray zone, she starts with numerous full-color sketches in pencil, marker, or crayon. It can happen anywhere: While planning a brooch inspired by the cartoon TV series Adventure Time, Mitchell colored with the kids on a holiday visit home, using the time to draw and brainstorm.
Working in brass, she usually builds components for three to five pieces at a time. “I lay it all on the table and look at it for a while. Sometimes all the forms don’t quite fit together the way they did in my head,” she says. “So I rearrange them to allow them to have the life they’re supposed to have.”
When the forms are final, she coats them in a thin layer of powdered, pigmented plastic and places them in a toaster oven at 400 degrees. After just a couple of minutes, Mitchell pulls them out and draws or paints on them with markers, watercolors, or colored pencils, then pops them back in to finish curing, so all the colors and designs fuse to the surface. Finally, she roughens each piece by sanding or sandblasting it to take off the shine.
Mitchell always knew she would make art, but she initially resisted metal. While she was working on a degree in painting at James Madison University, her mother was studying metal there, and Mitchell didn’t want their paths to be constantly crossing. But it took only one class for her to feel metal’s magnetic pull.
“My last year, I took pretty much only metal. It was all metal, all the time,” she says.
A spare bedroom serves as her studio in the Iowa City home Mitchell shares with her husband, Andrew, son, Conner, a large dog, and a kitten. There, when not at her part-time job helping manage a hospital patient-safety network, she channels into her jewelry the energy of the books, shows, and characters she loved as a kid – Batman, X-Men, Muppet Babies, and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. She’s also “devouring all the contemporary abstract painting I can get,” citing Jaime Derringer and Halle Siepman as current favorites.
Her biggest influence, though, is Conner, with whom she has been able to revisit favorite authors such as Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein – and who keeps the door to the world of childhood wide open.
“It wouldn’t be possible without my son,” she says. “My work would be really boring if I didn’t have him.”