Local interdisciplinary artist Erin LeAnn Mitchell’s work gained worldwide exposure in 2018 when it was featured on the hit Fox television series Empire. Last year, the Birmingham Committee for Truth and Reconciliation commissioned her to create a portrait of Birmingham activist Dr. Angela Davis in honor of her humanitarian achievements. When the BMA’s contemporary galleries reopened in February with a new rotation of art, it featured a recent piece from Mitchell’s Imperishable Stars series.
An ASFA graduate, Mitchell received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She earned her master’s degree in teaching arts from the Columbia College Chicago and taught art in Chicago before moving back to Birmingham in 2018.
Hugh Kaul Curator of Contemporary Art Hallie Ringle recently spoke with Mitchell about the artists who have inspired her work, the power of the arts in Birmingham, and more.
Hallie Ringle: Erin, tell us a little bit about yourself. You’re from Birmingham and moved back here from Chicago. What’s that been like as a practicing artist? How has Birmingham been influential to your practice?
Erin LeAnn Mitchell: Birmingham has been good to me since returning from Chicago. My homecoming has brought unexpected opportunities in the city that have furthered my career and challenged my art practice. I’m seeing the city through a new lens and want to contribute to the art scene where I can. I feel I’ve been able to tap into a strength in my practice I was unable to build before my return and I have Birmingham to thank for giving me the space to do so.
HR: When we first met, you talked about being inspired by Kerry James Marshall. I love that. Can you talk about your influences?
ELM: I’m an art history lover and its Marshall’s reimagining of European history painting through black centered perspectives in a contemporary context that most influenced me. Those details and references to academic paintings being represented by his
Black figures aligned with my intent to expand the ideas of how black people are represented in art. The phrase, “We Mourn Our Loss,” seen in the work is a reference to Marshall’s Mementos series that memorializes martyrs of the Civil Rights era. Incorporating cultural & historical contextual clues to the message I want to convey through the work is a part of my practice that I admire in his.
HR: I am also constantly impressed by your dedication to representing people and histories from Birmingham. Can you talk a bit about the people and recent events that inspired Imperishable Stars? How can we see those references within the work?
ELM: I started working on Imperishable Stars when Kamille Cupcake McKinney was reported missing in October of 2019. Following her abduction, I noticed a trend of missing black girls and (trans)women streaming on my social feed that urged me to dig deeper into why more mention of these cases weren’t being made. Names including Aniah Blanchard, Dana Martin, and Alexis Crawford started to pile up in the list of predominantly southern cases I’d been tracking and I put little details of my research into my work. Cupcake is referenced in the patterned feathers of the winged figure and the night sky is comprised of multiple feminine silhouettes to symbolize the number of lost girls and women.
HR: You also recently created a mural in Ensley. How was that experience? What was it like to translate your work into a large architectural space?
ELM: Painting a mural in the city was a priority I set upon my return, so having the opportunity to achieve this goal but also work with an awesome crew of folks at Living Walls made it ideal. I was also happy to hear that the mural would be placed in Ensley which has a history for cultivating black artistry and is in the midst of a revival in the area.
This was my first mural experience painting my own design and after learning from the expertise of Living Walls, I feel confident and motivated to seek other mural opportunities in the future. I still pause in amazement thinking of where the design started, to it being on the side of a building now. I normally use a lot of fabric and embellishment in my work so not having that option was a shift during production but I feel in the end my style and message resonates in translation. See it for yourself off 19th/Ave F.
HR: What do you think the arts have the power to do in Birmingham?
ELM: The arts have the power to bring diverse crowds together in Birmingham and bridge the gap on conversations that need to be had in the city to progress the community, arts and beyond.
HR: What are you reading/watching/listening to?
ELM: I’m reading As Black as Resistance and listening to Gil-Scott Heron.