NEW PORT RICHEY
On a Thursday morning, in a classroom studio at the West Pasco Art Guild, Betty Mitchell worked brown clay into a fantastical beast.
The snout wasn't to her liking.
"Too piglike," she said as she squared the beast's nose. "The hard part about clay is that you just about get it where you want it, and you make one false move, and forget it."
Clay can be an unforgiving medium, but Mitchell was undaunted. At age 90 on this Mother's Day, that's how she rolls. Always has.
She's a creative multitasker. Her Hudson home is filled with whimsical sculptures, modern collages, a landscape quilt depicting her eldest son's farm in Ohio, and lots of paintings, including the model portrait she completed while studying fine art on full scholarship at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Mitchell's vibrant quilts hang inside Community Congregational Church in downtown New Port Richey, offering the illusion of stained-glass windows over blank walls. She made the first quilt at a minister's request, then two, then 15. She also designed the stained-glass window at the church's front entrance.
Add to that the portraits she painted of family members to hand out on her 90th birthday celebration last August in Ohio. It took the mother of four, grandmother of 12, great-grandmother of 33, and great-great grandmother of one, two years to complete.
Those portraits are in the hands of loved ones now, but Mitchell keeps on with her projects.
"Everything I have today came through art," she said. "My education. My job. My house. I've been able to help my family when they needed it."
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Some in the small village of Owensville, Ohio, dubbed Mitchell a hippie, maybe because she busted through 1960s stereotypes.
"I wasn't really a hippie," she said. "They just couldn't understand a woman who stands on her own two feet."
Her husband had a Mad Men kind of career in advertising. Hers was a different world, raising four kids on a farm and straddling the roles of both parental figures as the marriage soured.
"While dad was busy working, we would go out and fix fences, take care of cattle," said her eldest son, Butch Mitchell, 69. "My dad was a vagabond. Mom stayed home, and she was the foundation of the family. She stayed faithful to the family. She was the matriarch. She provided for everybody."
Mitchell went back to college when Butch started his freshman year, sometimes riding on the back of his 350 Honda. She earned her bachelor's degree at age 40 and her master's at 50 while teaching art at an inner-city school in Dayton, where over a 25-year career she drew thousands of portraits of her students.
If life was tough, she faced it head on — especially after her divorce.
"To succeed at life, sometimes you just have to stand up on it," Mitchell said, adding that if her marriage had been a good one, she might not have finished her education. "You drop the bad, keep the good and keep moving."
"She wasn't the bake-the-cookies mom," said her eldest daughter, Betsy Mitchell, 66. "She was more like the adventure mom."
There was rarely a dull moment, said her daughter, Edyth Mitchell, 63. "She had the paints and the ceramics, and there was always something going on."
Maybe because of her upbringing.
Mitchell's father was a carpenter, a Swedish immigrant who married the daughter of Swedish immigrants. The couple raised three daughters in the Chicago area. With no boys in the house, Mitchell became an accidental apprentice, learning how to wield tools of the trade at her father's side, while fighting familial traditions.
"My mother always told me, 'You're a girl — you can't do that.' After a while she'd say, 'But I know you're going to do it anyway,' " Mitchell said with a smile.
She learned how to fly a plane. Helped her son turn a Dodge station wagon into the truck he wanted in the worst way. She fixed houses for profit long before "flipping" homes became popular.
"She put in floors and bathrooms. She knocked out walls. She did all the designing," daughter Betsy said.
"She knocked a wall down in almost every house she lived in. She turned a carport into a garage," daughter Edyth said. "When she bought her first place in Florida, she poured her own patio. She was in her 70s then."
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Mitchell was blond, blue-eyed, petite and nearing middle age when she started teaching art at Edison Elementary School in Dayton in the early days of desegregation.
Sketching portraits was her strategy in dealing with difficult students.
"I didn't scare anybody, so I had to think of something," she said.
"I'd tell the class, 'If you all behave, I'll have everyone's portrait done for Mother's Day,' " she said.
It worked like a charm.
Mitchell cultivated family time and awesome experiences on her modest salary.
She spent a summer painting with her daughters in Mexico, another taking her eldest grandchildren on a whirlwind cross country road trip, camping out and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches along the way.
"She can really manage money," said her youngest, Carl Mitchell, 61, recalling how his mom would set some money aside for family reunions held every few years in Utah, Florida, Louisiana and Ohio.
"She's very family oriented, which was passed on to us," he said. "But probably the biggest thing that I have taken from her is to live your life — to get out and do things. Don't sit around while you've got life. Go do something."
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In the 25 years after moving to Florida to care for her late mother, Mitchell immersed herself in the local art community, especially when it involved children.
She volunteered to teach homeless children through Metropolitan Ministries and also at an after-school sewing program for local children in need. She co-taught children's art classes at the now-defunct New Port Richey Art Gallery. She joined local art organizations and is currently one of the featured artists in the Altered Minds group's exhibit at the Gateway Gallery and Emporium in New Port Richey
"She's been my mentor for about 20 years," said Altered Minds founder Ellen DeIntinis. "She's amazing. It's good to have people like that to look up to because it teaches you to be brave."
In her early 80s, Mitchell traveled alone to France to paint and attended artist workshops in Gatlinburg, Tenn.
"We worried about her being on her own — still do," son Butch said. "But I long ago gave up trying to put a tether on her."
Mitchell still attends weekly painting classes at the Beacon Woods Clubhouse in Hudson and is honing the clay process at the West Pasco Art Guild.
"It's never too late to learn," she figures. "The world changes. Everything changes.
"You just have to keep moving."
Contact Michele Miller at [email protected] Follow @MicheleMiller52 .