Deborah Mitchell finds her art’s inspiration in the Everglades

Deborah Mitchell stands in the Everglades, surrounded by art. Photograph by Christina Mendenhall.
Deborah Mitchell stands in the Everglades, surrounded by art. Photograph by Christina Mendenhall.

In a well-worn Hollywood cliché, the camera pans across a wall in a police precinct that’s been plastered with surveillance photographs, maps and news clippings, all linked together with string. A detective studies it, searching for clues, looking both obsessed and brilliant.

It’s pretty much what you see when you walk into Deborah Mitchell’s home office.

Half-crinkled sheets of paper — hung with scotch tape and pieced together with twine — flutter as she walks past. There’s a Florida map identifying flood zones. A photograph outlines a trail blazed by pioneer soldiers. Many of the images contain a signature of Mitchell’s artwork: digitally added birds, butterflies and bodega saints, melding the natural and manmade.

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Deborah Mitchell. Photograph by Christina Mendenhall.

She’s an artist and an educator

Mitchell explains the collage in pieces, and what seemed like chaos suddenly has structure. It will be a field guide, a visual history of the ways we’ve depleted and preserved the Everglades. “How else would I get all of this in a little room in a way that I could understand it?”

Mitchell has spent decades looking for inspiration in the Glades. For the past five years she’s been the Executive Director of Artists in Residence in Everglades, or AIRIE (airie.org), a nonprofit that gives artists a rustic cabin for a month, allowing them to create with nature.

‘When you’re out in the Everglades, you look inward.’

Her fascination with untamed Florida began when Mitchell was 6, after moving from Toronto. She chased catfish that crawled over Pompano Beach low-tide mud, and she sprawled in the back of her parents’ car to watch birds overhead.

“It’s easy to see how an area is changing by the birds,” she said. “They are harbingers.”

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Deborah Mitchell. Photograph by Christina Mendenhall.

Finding answers in the River of Grass

Already an accomplished artist, Mitchell spent a month a decade ago as a Big Cypress National Preserve fellow.

“When you’re out there in the Everglades, you look inward and question things in your life that aren’t true to your soul.”

At AIRIE, she helps others answer those questions. Ten artists a year — writers, painters, dancers, musicians and more — settle into AIRIE’s cabin at Everglades National Park to work on projects about the swamp.

This year, with the help of a Knight Arts Challenge grant, the program opened its Nest Gallery within the park’s Coe Visitors Center. Drenched in natural light, it’s a comfortable place to display the work of AIRIE’s resident artists and to host educational workshops.

Mitchell said the goal is to motivate others to explore the Glades — majesty, mystery and all.

“This is important to do even if you’re not an artist,” she said. “The Everglades is a chance to stop and reset.”

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