Artist preserves farmland of native Kentucky in watercolor

PEMBROKE, Ky. (AP) — A New Jersey artist with Christian County roots, Laurie Mitchell, painted the landscapes of rich farmland she grew to love in Kentucky.

Seven watercolor paintings comprise a collection Mitchell calls "The Kentucky Series."

"When I lived in Hopkinsville, I was so impressed that people cherished their family farms and the beauty of the farmland," she said. "I think it is always inspiring to see one's town and countryside from a new uplifting lens."

Mitchell is the daughter of Curtis Bryant and Laura Mitchell. Her father's parents -- Mitchell's grandparents -- were Curtis and Ludie Mitchell who had a farm in Pembroke, around the corner from Pembroke Baptist Church.

A Navy veteran, Curtis Bryant and his family lived in New Jersey, but Mitchell said they would visit Kentucky once or twice a year when she was a child.

"I was lucky to have a father who always remembered where he came from and took his kids back to the farmland in Kentucky," she said. "To just see all of this beautiful farmland and the richness of living on a farm ... It was the thrill of my life to visit Kentucky. New Jersey is densely populated. There's not a lot of farmland."

Mitchell recalls her grandmother had a henhouse behind her home in Pembroke.

"I was just a city slicker," she said. "My grandmother would take us to the henhouse. We didn't know where eggs came from."

Mitchell remembered the tobacco fields, the barns, the animals and "the wonderfulness of seeing family."

"All the different farms were in close proximity, so all the aunts and uncles would come by when dad would visit home," she said. "They would sit on the front lawn. It was just fun."

Her great uncle and aunt, David and Blanche Mitchell, had a standardbred horse farm right up the road in Pembroke.

"Just being able to sit on a horse was such a thrill," Mitchell said. "I begged my uncle for years to send me a horse in New Jersey."

- Passion for art

When Mitchell was age 10 or 11, an artist offered art classes at the local community center in New Jersey.

"We liked it so much that our mom hired her to give us private lessons," she said.

From there, her passion for art blossomed.

"I would say my specialties are watercolors, but I do work in other mediums," she said.

Mitchell earned a bachelor of fine arts in illustration from the Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia.

After graduation, Mitchell visited Christian County in 1972, just after her grandfather died.

"I wanted to make sure I got to know my grandmother and other relatives as an adult," she said. "I came down for the summer, but I actually spent a year in 1972."

Mitchell remembered her great uncle David teaching her to ride a horse that summer.

"He had his own race track right on his farm. He and I would sit in a sulky and I would go around his racetrack with his standardbred horse," she said. "When you're young, the horse takes advantage of you. I remember him going to a tree and stripping the branch and getting a switch. He said 'You won't have to use this, just hold it.'

"I feel like I learned so much about life that summer -- just taking control and having the confidence to just manage the horse and learn how to ride among the fields in that vast amount of beauty."

- Inspired to paint

Years later, Mitchell returned to Christian County in 2000 to work in the school system as an art teacher. She taught kindergarten through fifth grade at Crofton and Holiday elementary schools.

While she was living in Hopkinsville, Mitchell took the opportunity to make sketches and take photographs of the farms she loved as a young child. Those sketches and photos would eventually inspire "The Kentucky Series" watercolors.

"Because of the history of my grandpa being a tobacco farmer and just seeing the beautiful wide-open spaces, the peace and the serenity, the loveliness of farming the land just was inspirational and brought back so many happy memories of visiting Kentucky and my relatives," she said.

"Things always turn out best when you paint what you love and what you personally know and something that brings back wonderful memories that mean something to you."

A resident of Woodbury, New Jersey, Mitchell finished "The Kentucky Series" in February. Although none of her paintings have names, there are certain scenes that have special meaning to her.

A painting of dirt road with cut tobacco fields leading up to a gray barn was based on imagery from the Andy Gray farm in Trenton.

"Stacked up between the crevices of the barn is hay," she said. "You can see through the barn's sliding red doors."

The watercolor of the gray barn and gray silo is an image of her family's farm on Bond Road in Pembroke.

"I went out into the field and saw this beautiful silo and was just inspired to paint," she said.

A member of the Gloucester County Art Guild, Mitchell said she has not determined if her paintings will become a part of an exhibit in New Jersey or perhaps Kentucky. If there is an interest, she said some of the paintings may be made into prints to sell.

Either way, Mitchell said she hopes her paintings have preserved a visual of Christian County farming for future generations.

"I went there and captured God's country. Pembroke and Trenton, these are beautiful little towns with wide-open farmland," she said. "People love their family farms. People cherish their farmland and the beauty of it. ... (but) some of these barns may not be there forever. So it's kind of capturing history."

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Information from: Kentucky New Era, http://www.kentuckynewera.com