From Drawing to Driftwood: The Artwork of Wallace MacMahon Mitchell

During the Archive’s Reading Room relocation at Cranbrook Art Museum, we have been digitizing negatives for preservation and access. This has enabled a new collection for CONTENTdm which highlights the artwork of Wallace MacMahon Mitchell (1911-1977). There are thirty images so far, with more being added soon. Five of Mitchell’s paintings can also be viewed during tours through Saarinen House: Presidents/Residents, 1946-1994.

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Wally Mitchell in his studio, early 1940s. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The collection features images of the rich diversity of Mitchell’s artwork, from his early drawings and still life paintings to his later geometric abstract works and painting-constructions. Mitchell’s later works include many driftwood sculptures and Plexiglas paintings.

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Driftwood in Three Sections, 1965. Estate of Wallace MacMahon Mitchell/Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

In 1946, two of his paintings were included in the European Exhibition of the Guggenheim-funded Museum of Non-Objective Painting. These two pieces, with two other paintings added in 1948, are now in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Between 1950 and 1962, Mitchell’s work was frequently exhibited at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery in New York. He was also commissioned to design murals, such as one installed at the University of Kentucky in 1962, based on his painting Turnabout Number One from 1952.

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University of Kentucky Mural, installed in 1962 based on a painting ‘Turnabout Number One’ from 1952. Estate of Wallace MacMahon Mitchell/Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Mitchell’s archival collection will be available for research again when the Archives Reading Room reopens in July. Mitchell’s collection contains professional papers relating to his studentship and work as an instructor and administrator at Cranbrook. It also includes interviews and correspondence related to Joan Bence’s 1983 publication, The Art of Wallace Mitchell. There are also audio-visual materials including negatives, transparencies, slides and photographs.

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Villa-Neuve-Les-Avignons, 1938. Estate of Wallace MacMahon Mitchell/Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Mitchell was born in Detroit in 1911. After receiving his BA from Northwestern University in Chicago, Ill. in 1934, he studied with Zoltan Sepeshy for a year (1934-1935). He then toured Europe before returning to Cranbrook in 1936 as a painting instructor. His career at Cranbrook spanned 1936-1977, during which time he taught Arts and Crafts at Cranbrook School (1944-1947) while he was painting instructor (1936-1956), he was Registrar for the Academy of Art (1944-1956), Director of the Cranbrook Art Museum (1956-1970), and President of the Cranbrook Academy of Art (1970-1977). A retrospective exhibition of his work planned for his retirement at the end of the 1976/1977 academic year became a memorial exhibition following his death in January 1977.

-Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist

Sources:

Wallace McMahon Mitchell Papers (1990-21)

Chad Alligood, What to Paint and Why: Modern Painters at Cranbrook, 1936-1974 (Bloomfield Hills, MI: Cranbrook Art Museum, 2013)

Joan Beehler Bence, The Art of Wallace Mitchell – Cranbrook’s Op Art Master Colorist (Unpublished, 1983, 1996)

Wallace MacMahon Mitchell, 1911-1977: a memorial exhibition of paintings and painting-constructions, 1936-1976 (Bloomfield Hills, MI: Cranbrook Academy of Art, 1977)

Reel-to-Real: Archives and the Challenge of Obselete Technology

While new advancements in technology can certainly make remembering history easier, it is important not to forget what has already been done and make sure it is still accessible in the future. All organizations concerned with the preservation of culture must at some point address the problem of obsolete technology, archives chief among them.

The oral history collection at Cranbrook Archives holds fifteen recordings made on reel-to-reel magnetic audio tape that are in danger of being lost unless their content is migrated to another media source. The recordings were made between the 1950s and 1980s, with the oldest being a 1956 interview of Robert McMath, the solar astronomer who served as Cranbrook Institute of Science Board of Trustee from its founding in 1930 until 1962. Other interviews capture the wide breadth of life at Cranbrook and feature the voices of artists, craftsmen, administrative staff, teachers, and clergy, telling the story of Cranbrook’s history as it happened.

These are just a few of the reel-to-reel tapes from the collection. Justine Tobiasz/Cranbrook Archives

These are just a few of the reel-to-reel tapes from the collection. Justine Tobiasz/Cranbrook Archives

In partnership with Wayne State University’s Digital Media Projects Lab, we are now in the process of converting audio from the reels into digital files. The machine we’re using for this process is the Ampex ATR, which has been refurbished and modified with the record head removed to avoid accidental recording. The reels will continue to be preserved, but having another format ensures that these pieces of Cranbrook’s history will continue to live on.

Digital Media Projects Lab at Wayne State, complete with Ampex ATR.

Digital Media Projects Lab at Wayne State, complete with Ampex ATR. Image courtesy Wayne State University Digital Media Projects Lab.

Thank you to Wayne State for assisting us on this project, and stay tuned for future updates from the conversion process!

– Justine Tobiasz, Archives Assistant

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