The nautical artist, James A. Mitchell, a well-known East Coast painter of historically accurate sailing vessels, died in late February at age 89 at his home in Noank, Connecticut.
Jim’s father, Rev. James A. Mitchell was the minister at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Fishers Island. He and his family spent three summers there in what turned out to be critical years as far as Jim’s art was concerned.
The family had a flatiron skiff named the “Guppy”, tied to a post on the shore in which Jim, at age eight, and his younger brother, Hugh, six, would re-enact famous sea battles (this, in spite of the fact that the boat was firmly secured to the shore). They spent their days there, messing about in boats, as Ratty – one of Jim’s favorite characters from Wind the Willows – said.
Jim later returned to Fishers as a teenager and spent two or three summers working there at the Hay Harbor Club.
There was something about Fishers Island that fixed itself in Jim’s psyche. It was there, in the background, as he suffered through grammar school and high school, land-bound in Englewood, New Jersey. It haunted him when he spent a year at the University of Virginia and then dropped out to seek his other dream – inspired by his first command as captain of the “Guppy” – to cross the Atlantic in a square-rigger; which he managed to do by joining the Coast Guard and serving as a deck hand on the Eagle.
Throughout all those years Jim was working on his art; first pencil drawings, then, around age twelve, oil painting and watercolors. All these works featured boats. At first he did battleships, (this was, after all, the war years), then sailing vessels, sloops and schooners and square-riggers, and also the sea and the sky. Later in his career he was noted for his skyscapes, as well as his historically accurate representations of ships. He also continued to mess about in boats, serving as crew on private yachts and boat deliveries. He endured shipwrecks, (through no fault of his own it should be said); three all told. And then, finally, he enrolled in the Art Students League, in New York, where he studied under the popular teacher, Frank Riley. Following this, he embarked on his full-time career as a painter.
Jim had early success in New York galleries, including the Kennedy Gallery; also in Boston, at Haley and Steele, then seaport galleries on Nantucket, the Vineyard, and Palm Beach, and, finally, in Mystic and Noank.
By mid-career he had earned enough to buy a house. Fittingly, he found a somewhat run-down house on a bluff in Noank, overlooking the Sound. From his kitchen door and front yard he could see, across the waters on clear days with winds out of the Northwest, the shadowy outline of Fishers Island.
The choice of the location of the house reminds one of the main character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quintessential American novel, The Great Gatsby. Gatsby, longing to recover the lost love of his youth, buys a house from where he can gaze across the bay at a green light at the end of the dock of the house where his former love lives. That light symbolizes all Gatsby’s aspirations.
For forty-six years Fishers Island was out there across the Sound for Jim Mitchell, the green light at the end of the dock, both symbol and inspiration for his art.The Day article w/service & exhibit dates