AN INTERVIEW WITH LORI MITCHELL
We really wanted to catch up with Lori Mitchell, having met her so long ago! It's hard to believe we have carried her creative designs in our store for over 2 decades. We remember seeing her creations for the first time at a folk art show in California. All of us used to flock to those shows in order to witness the latest fabulous creations by the folk artists of that time. Many have come and gone, but Lori Mitchell is still here because her art touches the heartstrings of those who collect it.
Sprinkled throughout the interview are unique and original photos taken by Lori showing her figures and her studio!
So let's start from the beginning!
Lori, there are so many generations of collectors that collect your art, but they might not be lucky enough to know who you are. Why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself.
"I grew up in Marietta, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. I then went The Rhode Island School of Design. I was an Illustration major but had begun solving my class work 3 dimensionally after taking a puppetry course taught by a Jim Henson Studios puppet maker my Junior year. We learned many different techniques in that class, including the paper mâché technique I continue to use today.
My mother was an elementary school teacher who loved children’s literature and introduced me to so many amazing books growing up. I initially thought I wanted to write and illustrate children's books. Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas came out when I was in college and I was also introduced to Nick Park's claymation work and loved the characters they created in their worlds. I began sculpting my own characters and sets for them as part of my Senior year work. After taking both stop animation and book production courses, I realized I was probably too impatient to work on projects of that length. We are talking years, people, years to finish! LOL"
"The summer after I graduated from college, my mother passed away suddenly and I moved back home to regroup. I was fortunate to know Jody Battaglia, a wonderful soft sculpture artist from my home town. Through her friendship, I was introduced to the work of other folk artists designing in many different mediums. Debbee Thibault’s pieces in particular struck a cord with me. I loved the nostalgic feeling of her work and that inspired me to create my first paper mâché designs. Humpty Dumpty was my very first, followed by rabbits, Uncle Sam, angels, witches and trick or treater's. Soon after, I began showing and selling my originals at juried Folk Art shows around the country. It was so much fun to travel and meet artists and collector's in person. I also had a representative that helped foster a relationship with many outstanding stores across the US and they began carrying my originals in limited quantity. That is how I came to know Debi and the Traditions crew!
After the first few years, I had really hit my ceiling as to how many originals I could make in a year. ESC and Company approached me to see if I was interested in having my creations reproduced. I loved the idea of reaching a broader audience and being able to invest more time into the creative process. I was also a newlywed and ready to start a family.
My collaboration with ESC has been wonderful. I am so grateful for all of the people who are part of the process of making my reproduction line a reality. I am grateful for the stores who carry my work and the collectors who welcome them in to their own hearts and homes. And, I am grateful to continue as a creative business owner while raising 3 amazing children with my husband."
Let's go back in history a little bit! Tell us what your younger life was like growing up in Georgia. Were you always creative?
"I grew up in Marietta with my older brother, Robert. Robert was excellent at drawing, so of course I had to keep up. I loved art classes and declared in 3rd grade I was going to be an artist. I was fortunate to have parents and teachers along the way who supported my dream."
Did your early jobs always revolve around art or designing? Did you have any fun jobs that people would be surprised about?
"In high school I painted murals in a few homes and businesses. I also painted furniture. In college, I interned at the Boston Ballet in their costuming department working on the small costume props. I also worked with a mask maker in Boston (performance masks). After college I briefly worked for the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, fabricating puppets."
Did you grow up drawing characters or figures that inspired you?
"I grew up drawing everything. I had an amazing High School art teacher who taught so many different mediums both 2-D and 3-D. To look back on that work, I'm not sure you could draw a straight line to what I create now. As any creative, it is so important to experiment and find out what works and speaks to you. My work now just feels like an extension of me somehow. I just kind of sit back and let the characters come out to play, but it took time to find that."
We got to know you from the folk art shows where you featured your originals, right around the time we opened Traditions! Was it a big decision to license your art for reproduction?
"ESC's licensing opportunity came at a time when I knew I had hit my ceiling on what I could physically produce in a year. It was a door opening at just the right time. I had no idea if it would be a success or not and it was a leap of faith. I had to stop designing for real time sales and create pieces that would take a year in production before they even hit the market for its response. That was a long year, but I committed to making a range of characters for all seasons. I wanted a true line up, not just a handful. I felt that was the best way to introduce my designs and get feedback."
One of our favorite things about your line is that you designed figures for every holiday. What is your favorite character and/or your favorite holiday to create figures for?
"This is such a tough question. I really love designing for all of the holidays, but it can be tough to create "out of season," so I have really tried to align designing the following years pieces with respect to the current years season. There was a time when this was not the case, and trying to conjure up Halloween at the beginning of summer took some Jedi mind tricks.
I will say that Valentines has been such a fun surprise for me. Because it doesn't get the "major holiday" treatment, I wasn't sure how well my Valentine line would do. The reception has been awesome and I am delighted!"
I bet it was fun to design your fabulous figures, create something you love and then receive such critical acclaim from fans, collectors and critics. For decades you have been at the top of your field. Do you have much contact with your collectors?
"In the early show days and web sale days, I did connect with collectors and it was so wonderful. Now, as mom of 3, my schedule is "flex." That's the hip term for completely unpredictable and perpetually changing. When I am in the studio, I am nose to the grind stone because I never know when I will make it back or for how long. This means that I am horrible at keeping up with much else. I did finally set up an IG page so have had some conversations there, but I am still struggling to find time to post with any regularity."
Did you keep one of everything you have ever created? And if you do have some, do you decorate your own home with them?
"I have about 15 originals from the earliest days. They are just some of my favorites. I didn't keep many in the beginning as my husband was in school for the first 7 years and we needed to eat! LOL. I do keep top of production on the reproduction line (one of each from the first run). Many of the originals that I send to be molded get damaged in the process, so I also have a box of the injured."
Did you ever want to branch out and license your designs to any other medium, like towels, pillows, one dimensional wood cutouts and such?
"I did work with a well known embroidery company early on. We had cocktail napkins and towels. I made color drawings of each design for their reference. In the very beginning, I also had a few soft bodied dolls with paper mâché heads with ESC, as well as a mug and dish set. Those experiences were fun, but ultimately I decided it was best for me to stay on one path and do it well.
In the last few years, I have created structures like the Nativity Creche, Nutcracker Stage, Spooky Door and Hearth Backdrops for my characters. I worked in wood for those prototypes and it was really fun to switch things up and flesh out the world that my designs live in."
We love letting new collectors in on your little secret about the figures: how some of your figures have different socks! What inspired that and how do you choose which ones get the different patterned socks?
"I've always loved the ridiculously skinny legs that hold my little people up in the world. Adding flare to accentuate that element is always fun. Ultimately, I really play with the colors and patterns of the entire piece to determine what is needed. Sometimes more is more and sometimes less is more… sometimes the painting comes easily and other times I re-work, over-work and then re-work again."
Do you have any new plans for the future of your Lori C. Mitchell figures for ESC?
"Just keep truckin'!"
It was so fun catching up with Lori! We are so thrilled that she has been in business almost as long as we have. The continuity to her designs makes decorating easy for her fans, and having the backdrops now helps collector create a vignette for their own homes.
Thank you, Lori!! It was so fun catching up!