Timeless Fashion Illustrator Mary Mitchell: Her Work Illustrating Three Decades of Style Now Subject of New Book and Exhibition
Fashion illustrator Mary Mitchell of Omaha is about to enjoy the kind of rediscovery few artists rarely experience in their own lifetime. Selections from Mitchell’s 1,000-plus fashion illustrations, an archive that sublimely represents decades of style, are the subject of a forthcoming book and exhibition that will expose her work to a vast new audience. No less a fashion icon than famed designer Oscar de la Renta has high praise for her work in the foreword to the book, Drawn to Fashion: Illustrating Three Decades of Style by Mary Mitchell. The soon to be published book explores her work in words and images and is a complement to the same titled exhibition opening the end of January and continuing through the spring at the Durham Museum in Omaha. My story below, which will appear in the February edition of the New Horizons newspaper, charts her rich life and career. The story also reveals how her illustrations may have never been rediscovered if not for the discerning eye and persistent follow through of her friends Anne Marie Kenny and Mary Joichm. You can see more of Mitchell’s work and order the book at http://www.drawntofashion.com. A short video about Mitchell on the Drawn to Fashion website is narrated by Oscar-winner Alexander Payne, a family friend from the Greek-American community they share in common in Omaha. Clearly, Mary and her husband John Mitchell have made many good friends and it’s only fitting that her work of a lifetime is finally getting its just due on a stage large enough to encompass her immense talent.
NOTE: My profile of the aforementioned Anne Marie Kenny, a cabaret singer and entrepreneur, can be found on this blog, where you can also find my extensive work covering Alexander Payne. Mary Mitchell’s reemergence as a fashion illustrator comes as the Omaha fashion scene is enjoying its own renaissance, and my stories about that burgeoning scene and its all-the-rage Omaha Fashion Week can also be found here.
Mary Mitchell in her studio, @photo Jim Scholz
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to be published in the New Horizons
Fashion illustration revived
Just as good art is timeless, so are the artists who make it.
Born in Buffalo, New York, fashion illustrator Mary Mitchell has seen art movements come and go through the years, but quality work, no matter what it is called or when it is en vogue, endures.
Much to her surprise, finely articulated fashion illustrations she made in the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s are finding new admirers inside and outside the world of design. Friends and experts alike appreciate how Mitchell’s work stands the test of time while offering revealing glimpses into the lost art of fashion illustration she practiced.
She worked as an in-house illustrator for an elite Omaha clothing store, “The Nebraska,” for four years. She then decided to become a freelance illustrator, which found her illustrating men’s, women’s, and children’s fashions for several leading Omaha stores. Her illustrations appeared in the Omaha World-Herald, the Sun Newspapers, the Lincoln Journal-Star and various suburban papers and local magazines.
When there was no longer a demand for fashion illustration, she moved onto other things. Her originals – meticulously rendered, carefully preserved black and white fashion illustrations – no longer had a use and so she put them away in her studio at home. Untouched. Unseen. Forgotten.
That all changed in 2010 when, suddenly, Mary found her work from that period the subject of renewed interest. It happened this way:
Two good friends visited Mary and her husband, John Mitchell, in Longboat Key, Florida, where the couple reside half the year. When guests Anne Marie Kenny and Mary Jochim asked Mary what she used to do for a living the artist showed a portfolio of her work. Kenny and Jochim were instantly captivated by Mitchell’s handiwork. The guests were so impressed that en route home they conceived the idea for an exhibition. The women formed an organizing committee and after many meetings and much planning, the right venue for the exhibition was found at the Durham Museum.
The resulting exhibition and book, Drawn to Fashion: Illustrating Three Decades of Style by Mary Mitchell, marks the first time and most certainly not the last that the artist’s work will be exhibited. The show opens January 28 and runs through May 27. Omaha-based Standard Printing Company designed and printed the book. The University of Nebraska Press is distributing it.
What so captured her friends’ fancy?
For starters, Kenny appreciates “the intricate detail and attitude, crafted in a superb drawing technique,” “the graceful lines” and “the exquisite flair” that run through Mary’s work. She adds, “The exhibit and new book devoted exclusively to her fashion illustration demonstrate her unique expression of a genre that is awesome to behold, highly collectable, and more relevant today than ever.”
Jochim, too, is struck by “the intricate strokes, down to the individual hairs in a fur coat, a herringbone weave, or the sparkle in a glittering evening jacket.” She said Mitchell “breathes life into the illustrations. The models in her drawings seem to all have a story to tell which makes you curious.”
Fashion designer icon Oscar de la Renta writes in his foreword to Drawn to Fashion: “Mary is a true artist, elegant and masterful. Her illustrations have enriched the experience of fashion in our time, and brought joy to the mind’s eye.”
Academics sing her praises as well.
Dr. Barbara Trout, a professorat the University of Nebraska Lincoln’s Department of Textiles, Clothing and Design, which is contributing original garments for the exhibition, said Mitchell’s work “marked technical excellence through the fine articulation of garment details. Her ability to mimic the hand of the fabric, its distinct structure, and the projected movement allowed the consumer to envision themselves in those garments…Mary’s fine examples of illustration are truly a benchmark of their time.”
“Mary Mitchell’s fashion drawings reveal the confident hand of the experienced illustrator, one who brings to her work an editor’s ability to subtract and to refine, and an artist’s to enhance and to glamorize,” said Michael James, chair and Ardis James professor in the UNL Department of Textiles, Clothing and Design.
The rediscovery of Mitchell’s stunning cache of some 1,000 illustrations not only prompted the book and accompanying exhibition, it inspired the artist herself to create new fashion illustrations for the first time in years.
“I thought I probably would never have done any more fashion illustrations if it were not for Anne Marie Kenny and Mary Jochim. They showed so much interest in my work, it inspired me to start drawing in color, since all my work previously was in black and white to be printed in local papers,” said Mitchell.
Her new work now graces the book and the exhibit displays alongside her older work. She makes the new illustrations not for any client or acclaim, but purely for her own enjoyment and pleasure.
She throws herself into the work, creating without the burden of client restrictions or project deadlines.
“I get so excited about this that now I go down to my studio and work for hours to create another piece of art.”
She’s experimenting with other mediums, such as acrylic paints and watercolors, to draw fashions. Perhaps most pleasing of all, she feels she hasn’t lost her artistic touch. Her eye for detail, sharp as ever.
One should not assume Mitchell halted her creative life after the fashion illustration market dried up in the 1980s when clients and publishers abandoned hand-drawn illustrations for photographs.
No, her artistic sensibility and creativity infuse everything she does. It always has. It is revealed in the tasteful way she decorates her contemporary home, in how her hair is styled just so, in the stylish clothes she wears.
She is, as Jochim puts it, “a natural beauty” whose “graciousness and glamour” seem effortless.
Kenny said, “Mary lives and breathes art in every aspect of her life – her beautiful home, her elegant manner, her exquisite fashion illustrations, her glamorous style. Mary brings beauty to all that she touches.”
When fashion illustration was no longer a career option, Mitchell found other avenues of expression to feed her creativity, She became vice president of an advertising agency called Young & Mitchell, where she continued her graphic art. During this time she designed billboards, posters, and stationery logos, she called on clients, she made presentations, created television story boards and camera cards, wrote copy, and created advertising campaigns.
Her husband had bought several radio stations in Omaha and throughout Nebraska. The station general managers began asking Mary to create logos and to handle advertising for them. She then became a hands-on vice president with Mitchell Broadcasting Company. She created logos, designed all magazine and newspaper layouts, and bus signs for the stations, and handled creative projects for station promotions and concerts.
She seamlessly went from the intimacy of fashion illustration to the, by comparison, epic scale of signs and billboards.
“It was a different style of art needed for commercial advertising. I used to draw intricate, delicate drawings and now I was doing big, bold designs. Of course, that’s not fashion, it’s advertising, but it’s all a matter of design.
“It was a lot of fun. The people that worked in that environment each had their own personality – the DJs, the sales people, the managers.”
The passion of this accomplished woman would not be denied , certainly not suppressed. It is a trait she displayed early on growing up in Buffalo, New York as the only child of Greek immigrant parents, John and Irene Kafasis.
Where it all began
Born Mary Kafasis, she inherited determination from her folks, who ventured to America from Siatista in northern Greece. Her father arrived in the States at age 16 with $11 in his pocket. After a succession of menial jobs he worked on the railroad as part of a track maintenance crew. The work paid well enough but was miserable, backbreaking labor.
Her father and a buddy of his saved up enough to buy a candy shop. Greek-Americans up and down the East Coast and all around the U.S. used confectionaries and restaurants as their entree to the American Dream. She said her father was pushing 30 and still single when he wrote his parents asking that they find a suitable bride for him in the Old Country.
“My mom was from the same village in Greece as my dad. They married and he brought her back to the States, and she worked very hard with him in their candy store,” said Mary.
When Mary was about age 8 she spent an idyllic three months in Greece with her mother, visiting the village in which her mother was born and raised.
“It’s a beautiful little village surrounded by mountains. We stayed with my grandmother and I met all my aunts and uncles and I had fun playing with all my cousins. It was a lovely time.”
The small family carved out a nice middle class life for themselves. “My parents did well, but they worked long hours and very hard.”
Everything revolved around the family business located in South Buffalo. The family lived upstairs of the shop.
“My mom would hand dip chocolate candies, such as nut and fruit clusters. Dad would make homemade ice cream and sponge taffy. For Easter and Valentine’s Day they would make candy bunnies, baskets, and hearts and fill them with delicious chocolates and decorate them with colorful flowers and ribbons. My job was to fill the baskets and Valentine’s hearts with the chocolates.”
Summers and after school found her working in the shop. She began as a dishwasher before she was entrusted to wait on customers. Her penchant for drawing surfaced early on.
“I remember when I was little I would get a pad, colored pencils or crayons or paints and start drawing figures and designing dresses. That’s when I decided I wanted to be an artist. My mom was so encouraging. She also had me take piano and dancing lessons.”
Mary went to great lengths to pursue her art passion. “I was required to attend South Park High School. It didn’t have an art program, so after my freshman year I wanted to transfer to another school outside my district, clear on the other side of town – Bennett High School. It was renowned for its excellent art program. My girlfriend Shirley Fritz and I went to City Hall and obtained special permission to attend Bennett High. We really felt strong about it.”
Going to that far-off school meant waking up earlier and coming home much later. The extra time and effort were worth it, she said. “My art teacher at Bennett was phenomenal. She had a great gift of teaching and got me involved in several national contests. I won national awards in poster design and an award from Hallmark cards for my design of a greeting card. I also designed the covers of two school year books.”
Then tragedy struck. Just two months before Mary’s high school graduation her mother died. “She had been ill for a long time and in the hospital. She was only 39.” Losing her mother at 17 was a terrible blow for the only child.
“I was scheduled to go to Syracuse University, but my dad would not let me go. He insisted I go to secretarial school instead of art school. He said, ‘You’re a woman, you’re going to get married, what do you need to go to art school for?’ It was an (Old World) Greek mentality. I know if my mother were there, she would have insisted I go to college and art school.
“He also said he would not pay for my tuition to college or art school. Luckily, my mother left a savings account in my name, so I used that for my tuition, and of course lived at home with my dad.”
She decided to attend the University of Buffalo in conjunction with the Albright Art School and graduated as a fashion illustrator. Her original intent was to be a magazine illustrator, but she was advised against that male-dominated field and steered into fashion illustration.
“One of the courses I took was life drawing, which teaches you the structure of the body’s bones and muscles. It’s very important to have that if you’re going to do fashion figures, to get the proportions and movements right, and to know how clothing is draped on the body.”
She learned, too, how elements like light and shadow “make a big difference” when sketching different fabrics and textures.
“After graduating I took my portfolio to all the department stores in Buffalo, where I kept running into resistance: ‘Do you have experience?’ ‘No, I just graduated.’ ‘Well, call me when you get experience.’
“So after several months of job hunting I took a job as a sign painter for the display department at a Flint & Kent department store, knowing that the fashion illustrator was pregnant and would be leaving in a few months. Lo and behold, they called me when she left and I got my first job as a fashion illustrator. I was in Seventh Heaven.”
Then John came into her life. They met as delegates at a Cleveland, Ohio convention of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, a service organization closely allied with the Greek Orthodox Church. Like her parents, John’s mother and father were from Greece, only from Athens. His family’s name, Mitsopoulos, was Americanized by his dad to Mitchell. His folks settled first in Kansas City before moving to the south central Nebraska town of Kearney.
John was a recent Georgetown University law graduate with an eye on practicing law in Kearney and plans for pursuing a political career. He wooed Mary from afar, the two got engaged, and in 1951 they married in Buffalo before starting a new life together in Kearney. Leaving home was bittersweet for Mary.
“Kearney in those days was a town of only 13,000, with no opportunities for me to work as an artist. With no family or friends, it was very difficult. So I decided to go back to school (at then-Kearney State Teachers College). I took two years of French, English literature, and psychology and during that time I would venture into the art department and talk to the art teachers. They said they needed more teachers and asked if I would join the faculty. I finally said yes and started teaching Art 101 and Art Appreciation.
“I was asked to design brochures for the college and I was also commissioned to redesign the interior of the student union.”
More interior design jobs followed in later years. Finally getting to apply her craft made her feel “a little better” about the move West.
While in Kearney Mary gave birth to her and John’s only child, John Charles Mitchell II, who is now a gastrointestinal physician in Omaha and married to M. Kathleen Mitchell of Red Cloud, Neb. They have two grown children, John Bernard Mitchell and Emily Suzanne Mitchell.
Meanwhile, her husband’s law practice flourished and his political career took off. He became state Democratic party chairman in the 1960s. It was a heady time.
“We got involved in local, state, and national politics. We got to meet Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy. When JFK came to Kearney for a political event we met him with our young son and he held Johnny. We met both Teddy and Bobby Kennedy. John was very close to Hubert Humphrey. It was a very busy and exciting time.”
Mary Mitchell’s halcyon fashion illustration days
Mary pined to work full-time and to have her own professional identity. John, by the way, “supported anything I wanted to do,” she said. The opportunity to fulfill her creative hunger finally came when the family moved to Omaha in 1968. Scouring the classifieds she saw an ad that read, “Fashion illustrator wanted, Nebraska Clothing.” A venerable clothing store then, “The Nebraska” was renowned for its quality brand name selections. She called, made an appointment to interview for the job, and got hired on the spot.
She enjoyed her four years with “The Nebraska” very much, but she reached a point where becoming a freelance artist made sense. She resigned from Nebraska Clothing in December 1971 and went into business for herself, calling her boutique design firm Mary Mitchell Studio. “Freelancing,” she said, “was the best career thing I did. It was a little scary at first, but people started calling me to design their ads and illustrate their garments. It was so wonderful to be independent and to work at my own pace. Each year kept getting better.”
Her client roster grew to include: TOPPs of Omaha; Goldstein Chapman; Herzbergs; Zoobs; Natelson’s; Parsow’s; Wolf Bros.; I. Eugene’s Shoes; Hitching Post; Crandell’s; The Wardrobe for Men, Backstage, Ltd.
“My general attitude is, whenever I sit down to create an ad or drawing I will try my best to achieve the attributes of the client’s business. I want it done as perfectly as possible.”
Creating a finished advertisement for a newspaper or magazine is a several step process. It begins with the client deciding the size of the ad, which determines its cost. Then the layout is made, the drawing of the garment is executed, and the ad copy written. Whether a suit, a dress, or a pair of shoes, there are usually instructions that go along with it. For instance, a client might want an 18 year-old look for one item and a 30 year-old look for another. A Girl-Next-Door vibe here, a sophisticated image there. A relaxed stance in one ad, a formal posture in another.
“The article was given to me to sketch and I created the look of the individual it would appeal to,” she said.
When doing fashion illustration ads, there is always a space limitation to work within, based on column inches. And, of course, there are always deadlines.
Once the parameters of the job were known, Mitchell arrayed the tools of her trade: pencils, pens, brushes, inks, paints, drawing paper. Her job then became animating the apparel and the figure wearing it to accentuate the fashion.
She started with a rough layout.
“There were two methods of drawing for reproduction at that time,” she said. “One used a fluorographic solution mixed with India ink to obtain various shades of gray and painting with a fine brush or drawing with a pen. The other used a No. 935 pencil to draw on textured paper to obtain various shades of gray to black. Different techniques produced different effects.
“If you have a dress with lace on it, you used a very fine quill pen, with a fine point. The way you handle the light and shade for materials and patterns depends on the amount of wash you use with your brush, dark to light.”
By mixing more water with a wash and by adjusting her brush stroke she approximated velvet, taffeta, fur or leather.
It’s all in the details, particularly in black and white. “The more you show the detail the better the garment looks. You try to approximate the article as close as possible.”
Depicting the essence of a garment requires great skill.
“The skilled fashion illustrator must be able to reduce the architecture of a garment to its essentials while amplifying its hedonic appeal. This is no small task when the means she has to do this are a few marks of pencil or pen or brush on paper. She must interpret the designer’s stylistic signature, but to be convincing she must render with her own authoritative style,” said UNL’s Michael James.
The dynamic sense of flow or movement in Mitchell’s work, then and now, is intentional. “I don’t want it just to be a static figure, I want it to be active.” Besides, to show off the clothes in their best light, she said, “you’re not going to draw the body straight forward, you’re going to give it movement.”
A file of fashion magazines offer her ideas to extrapolate from. Perhaps a certain facial type or expression that catches her attention. Or the way a model’s hair blows in the wind. Or the way a hand is gestured.
“Fashion illustration figures are always elongated,” she said. “We were taught that the human figure is eight heads high but illustrative figures should be nine heads high or tall because that gives a more dramatic and elegant look.”
When she did fashion illustration for her livelihood she made a habit of studying fashion ads. “I certainly admired the Sunday New York Times fashion ads and those in the Chicago and L.A. papers as well.” Staying abreast of the latest trends meant she frequented local fashion shows. “I modeled, too, for some of the stores that I did ads for when I was thinner and younger,” said the still petite Mitchell.
As a freelancer she not only completed the artwork but the entire layout and the copy as well. All of it a very tactile, labor, and time intensive process.
“I would do the layout, then draw the article, type the copy, give it to a typesetter, and order certain fonts, and when I got it back I would cut it out with an X-acto knife and paste it up with rubber cement. It was the only way it was done then – no computers.”
From there, it went to the printer, and the next time Mitchell saw it, it was in print.
Then the industry changed and the services of commercial fashion illustrators like herself became expendable.
“Instead of retailers hiring a graphic artist to draw their clothes or their shoes or whatever, they began taking photographs. It was less expensive. And so they no longer used fashion illustrations. Not even in big cities like Chicago and New York.
“I would say it became a lost art.”
The timeless beauty and the scarcity of commercial fashion illustrations explain why they are collectible artworks today and featured in fashion books and on fashion blogs. The Fashion Illustration Gallery in London is devoted entirely to the work of master fashion illustrators .
Denied her fashion illustration outlet, she continued designing in a new guise as vice president and art director of Young & Mitchell Advertising and as vice president of Mitchell Broadcasting.
Mary said she and John sold their Nebraska stations, which included Sweet 98 and KKAR,, just “as the big boys started coming in, like Clear Channel,” adding, “We sold them at the right time.”
Another whole segment of her design work is interior design. John and Mary became part owners of Le Versaille restaurant and ran that for several years. They decided to change the decor and Mary redesigned it from a red velvet and mirrored interior to a black, green, silver, and white decor with large photographs of French vineyards. She also designed the Blue Fox restaurant. She executed the concept and theme for the Golden Apple of Love Restaurant.
“It was incredible,” she said of these all-encompassing projects and the large canvas they gave her to work on.
Her home is another epic canvas she has poured her passion into.
“It’s indeed a pleasure to create your own space,” she said, referring to her chic residence that reflects her “contemporary” design palette. “I like clean lines and not a lot of frills. Basically black and white with some beautiful colors.”
©photo Jim Scholz
A well-designed life comes full circle
She and John have traveled to Greece several times. They took their son there when he was 11. The couple have remained close to their Greek heritage in other ways, too. They are longtime members of Omaha’s Greek Orthodox Church.
“I do speak Greek on occasion, and with my Greek friends, and so does my husband. We cook Greek foods for special occasions, as does my son and his family.”
After the sale of the radio stations in 2000, her life proceeded like that of many retirees, as she divided her days between travel, shopping, decorating, and spending time with John and Kathleen and their two grandchildren, John B. and Emily. She never expected the work she did way back when to be the focus of an exhibition and a book.
When still active as a fashion illustrator, it never crossed her mind to exhibit her work, she said, because commercial art was generally not considered museum or gallery worthy. That attitude has turned around in recent years. She is very much aware that the graphic art form she specialized in is making “a comeback” with young and old alike.
She has a collection of fashion illustration books and has her heart set on one day visiting London’s Fashion Illustration Gallery.
“I’d love to see it.”
Her illustrations might never have seen the light of day again if Anne Marie Kenny and Mary Jochim had not persevered and shown so much interest to exhibit them. Mary Mitchell is flattered by all the interest in this art form from so long ago.
There would be no exhibition or book if she had not preserved the original illustrations. She held onto enough that her personal collection numbers about 1,000 illustrations. It adds up to a life’s work.
The way she had carefully mounted the illustrations on framed and covered poster board panels and in portfolio books indicates the importance they have always held for her. Just as there was nothing haphazard in the way she created the works, she took great pains in preserving them for posterity.
Still, the illustrations would likely have remained tucked away in her home studio if not for the unexpected series of events that led to the book and exhibition.
Now, these valuable artworks and artifacts have a second life and Mary Mitchell suddenly finds herself the subject of renewed interest.
Harper’s Bazaar editor Glenda Bailey writes, “I love that Mary Mitchell brought such a high caliber of artistry to the local level. I was in fashion school in London in the 1980s, but when I look at the work of Mary drew for the women of Omaha at that time, her level of detail puts me right into the moment. To the casual viewer, Mary’s work appears effortless. But when you look more closely you see the precision and intention behind each brushstroke. She elevates each drawing to a tactile experience. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a Mary Mitchell illustration is worth a thousand rustles of silk and crisp snaps of tweed.”
Mary never expected such a fuss, but she welcomes it. The timelessness of Mary Mitchell and her art now resonate with old and new audiences. The rediscovery of her work should ensure it lasts for generations to come.
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