Longtime Pagosa friends … and artists

Preview photo/Lindsey Bright
Longtime friends and colleagues Charla Ellis, left, and Cynthia Mitchell are seen here with several of Ellis’ Ikebana arrangements and one of Mitchell’s hanging fabric pieces. The two Pagosa artists’ creative activities have blossomed since their retirements from the local school system.

By Lindsey Bright
Staff Writer

“Life is a journey, not a destination.”

Most people have heard some rendition of this quote, most often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Life is continuing, always moving. When one arrives at a destination, life does not stop with that arrival. It keeps moving.

For two Pagosa artists, life has been a strange and wonderful journey, and one of the biggest surprises it held for them as their evolution as artists is their artwork now being shown in the national juried exhibition The ART of it ALL at Pagosa’s SHY RABBIT Contemorary Arts.

Cynthia Mitchell and Charla Ellis each came to Pagosa Springs in the early 1980s. Both then worked at Pagosa Springs High School. Ellis was the art teacher and Mitchell was the high school librarian.

It did not take the two women long to discover that they were kindred spirits.

“I was attracted to Charla’s warmth,” Mitchell explained. At the time, Mitchell did not view herself as an artist, however, she was a burgeoning quilter. Yet, after school, Mitchell saw that Ellis would be in her classroom past the last bell and into early evening. Ellis would be helping students with different art projects, but also, Mitchell said, Ellis’s art classroom attracted teachers and their young children along with the students.

“If Charla’s studio was open, I would drop by,” Mitchell said.

This was when she started to dabble in various art forms. This is also when the two ladies began to bond.

“We had a sympatico relationship,” Ellis said, “Both of us are attracted to nature and are drawn to beauty in ways that maybe aren’t classical.”

Their art displayed in The ART of it ALL is not a classical oil painting or pen and ink sketch. Ellis has several Ikebana arrangements with small pots she threw, fired and glazed herself. Mitchell, on the other hand, has  two vibrant, “creative art quilt” hangings.

Ellis studied art in college and received her master’s in art eduction. This, she says, opened her up to many different artistic forms, enabling her to explore her own artistic expression early on. One of the forms that drew her in and that has stayed with her is pottery. Though she has been working with clay for over 40 years, Ellis has taken wheel classes with noted artist Michael Coffee.

“I learned a lot from him,” Ellis said. Prior to enrollment in Coffee’s workshops, she was already interested in Ikebana, but Coffee’s focus on Japanese art opened up an avenue of creativity.

“I’m not just making a pot,” said Ellis speaking of making the vessels used in her Ikebana arrangements. “It has a function and a purpose. It’s not just a pot.”

And inside the pot — the arrangements of dried leaves, flowers, anything that catches Ellis’s eye in nature. “I’m always looking for what will go in the pot … It connects me so much more with the natural world than just taking a walk or a hike,” Ellis said.

Mitchell now feels the same way. “If I see anything that looks unusual when I’m out hiking or walking, I pick it up and take it Charla,” Mitchell said, adding, “By her reaction to it, you would think that I gave her a gold necklace.”

Mitchell, unlike her dear friend, did not have a schooling rich in the study of arts, but her art draws heavily on the influence of nature. When she began to work in Ellis’s high school studio, she would work mainly with oils or watercolors. Then, she got into quilting. Her artistic approach to painting and her methodical planning and skill in quilting, however, stayed in separate spheres. Creativity reserved for the painting; planning and precision reserved for the quilting. Then she took a printmaking class taught by Coffee.

“I had never done anything abstract, and I was desperate do some, but I didn’t have the eyes,” Mitchell said. But Mitchell took the printmaking class, and  responding to something in the way that the process was taught, Mitchell felt a sense of being artistically freed.

“Before the class, I bought and planned each quilt,” Mitchell said. Now, she makes “art quilts,” which do not start with a plan, but evolve. The colors in nature, and the colors of fabric that she finds inspire Mitchell.

“It’s so freeing. When a stitch goes off the edge and is imprecise, it adds interest,” Mitchell explained.

Both Ellis and Mitchell are retired from their jobs at the high school. Both now have studios in their homes. Most importantly, they still see each other on a regular basis and work on their art together at least once a week.

For both women, this is the first time their art has appeared in a national show.

“It does feel good when the artwork one creates is appreciated by people,” Ellis said, however, she added, “If a person wants to create, that need, that feeling doesn’t go doesn’t go away. When I make something, it’s not intended for a show, but intended for myself.”

Both Ellis and Mitchell’s art can be seen in the national juried exhibition The ART of it ALL at SHY RABBIT Contemporary Arts. The exhibit is open to the public daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at no charge, 333 Bastille Drive.

This story was posted on December 6, 2012.