And the Music Goes Round and Round
(The twist in Bea Mitchell’s art)
Bea Mitchell has always been an artist in one way or another. She grew up making
finely-tuned connections between line and tone, color and love. A roundabout path
brought her eventually to sculpture and to the playfully geometric, fast-moving
abstract paintings for which she is known today -- but by way of several other
“In 1952, at age twenty, I married,” she tells me, “And I asked my husband Max
about an ad I’d seen in the paper for a modeling agency and school. ‘Do you think I
could do that?’ I said to him. He told me to go downtown and get a contract, and he’
d look it over.” For the next fourteen years she modeled, and after that did layout
for an offset printer; she was even a stage actress for a little while.
But the real twist in her story began a long time afterward, when she graduated
from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1980. “It seemed to me that my life would be
divided into different parts. I questioned myself as I went along,” she comments
wryly. “I wondered if I was going in too many directions. It’s only now I’m able to see
how it all comes together.”
Bea traces her creative ambitions back to her father, who was a Cleveland billboard
painter. Some of her earliest memories are of helping him mix paint or lay out the
design of smaller signs. She learned so well that forty years later when she
attended the Cleveland Institute of Art she was given academic credit for her
knowledge of color theory. Dad was also a self-taught piano tuner, tinkering with an
ancient Steinway baby grand, on which Bea played her lessons for many years. In
the end his daughter (who somehow found time among her other activities to study
piano for a total of nineteen years) would bring these two occupations together in
works that are, among other things, a tribute to him.
Beginning in the early 1990’s Bea began making sculptures based on her
fascination with topology and especially the marvel known as a Mobius strip. A
circular band, cut and reunited after being given a half-twist, a Mobius strip has only
one, continuous surface – if you were to walk around it you’d return to your starting
place at the end of two complete circuits. It’s a model of infinity you can see and
touch, at once plain and mathematically fancy.
Mitchell’s lilting half-twist sculptures have a special grace and freedom. Constructed
from materials as various as cast stainless steel, jute, and found objects, they seem
to fold subject matter and materials into themselves, suggesting melodic variations
and recurring life themes. The eye links with, then sinks through Mitchell’s porous,
seductively complicated surfaces.
One mid-size sculpture hangs in the dining area of her east side Cleveland home.
Titled And the Music Goes Round and Round it’s made of ten rows of whole piano
keys about a foot long each, and black vacuum hose from an auto parts store
threaded with sturdy brass wire. Pieces like that and her Always Tubing Tuning Pins
closely resemble a musical staff, but one translated into three dimensions, then
flung over the shoulder of the space it occupies.
Among recent accomplishments Mitchell was one of the three principal members of
the Newcelle painting/drawing group, working with long time CIA professor Ed
Mieczkowski, and the late John Jackson. Improvising their distinctive lines serially in
large-scale works on paper, the three took turns as they created an extraordinary
kind of visual jazz.
Like her sculpture, Mitchell’s story is interrupted and mended by unexpected
intersections of identity and purpose. And in the last few years her life’s unusual
topology has succeeded in circling the globe. Her sculptures and paintings can be
found in public collections from Cleveland and Chicago to Bangalore, India.
[Northern Ohio Live 2008]