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A Distant Learning

A Distant Learning

Sitka, Alaska where my family moved in 1961, and my mom bore down on her painting lessons

Have you ever fallen down the rabbit hole of Google Maps? I sure have.

I was traveling, digitally, the other night to my childhood haunts: the street of my family’s first little home in Syracuse, New York (the house is still there!), and other places I grew up. We moved about every four years, and they weren’t little hops, but sweeping migrations across the country. America, post-WWII, was a mobile society and we were certainly part of it.

The sweetest stop I made was Sitka, Alaska. A historic town at the edge of the Pacific, where I spent fourth and fifth grade. On the satellite view, I saw white snowcapped, spruce-clad mountains, islands of them, adjoining a sea of midnight-blue. Once you were in Sitka, there was no easy way in or out, no highways to take, surrounded as we were by ocean and colossal, precipitous wilderness.

I clicked on Street View to zoom in closer. Suddenly I was back, in a virtual world of gloomy skies and pendulous rain clouds, just as I remember it. I was 11 again, pedaling around on my bike, breathing in the salty sea air, and the smell of damp ferns and fir trees.

When my dad took a job with Alaska Lumber and Pulp, Alaska had just become a state. Everything about Sitka was strange and new. Its location, the native Americans who still lived there (the name Sitka comes from a Tlingit word meaning “People on the edge of Baranof Island”), and the seaplane my Mom, brothers and I arrived by.

I’m on the right. Brothers Bruce (left) and Scott (middle.) Seconds before the picture snapped, I’d been crying. But Dad could always make us laugh.

The kind of WW II PBY seaplane we rode in the last stage of our flight to Sitka. My mother, brothers, and I sat in the machine gun turret bubble you see in the middle. We weren’t expecting to land in the water!

Sitka was a place of loggers, hunters, mavericks – descendants of Russian, Swedish and American pioneers. We would go on to make wonderful friends there with our Japanese neighbors, schoolmates, and my dad’s co-workers. (The pulp company was owned by Tokyo investors.)

My brothers and I thrilled to all the little deprivations, like the way milk came to us by ocean barge, frozen in blocks. Or walking back and forth to school in the dark. (Step off the beaten path and you could run into a bear!)

Google helped me find our old ranch-style house on the banks of Swan Lake. Spanking new and cranberry red when we moved there in 1961, it had not weathered the decades well. I imagined the rooms inside and remembered seeing my mother eagerly open a large package in the kitchen. It was a painting she had made, in oils, of a still life.

Mom was taking a correspondence course in painting. That day, when I watched her remove her artwork from the protective padding, after its long travels across the mainland and back, was when I first became aware that my mom had a secret life.

Alice Margaret Mitchell

While we were off at school or tucked in bed, I realized she was hard at work. Her supplies taking over the kitchen table, Mom studied her reference pieces and mixed her colors and glazes, trying to bring her scenes to life. When she finished one, as soon as the paint dried, she’d wrap it up in a big package and mail it to her instructor, back in the states.

Weeks later it would return, corrections made on a tissue folded over the painting, with additional suggestions typed on separate pages.

Every painting arrival day was exciting. Mom would absorb the comments and go right to work on the re-do.

Whether her muse was Famous Artists Schools (many of its teachers belonging to the New York Society of Illustrators) or another outfit, I can’t remember. I wish my mom were still here to ask.

To my 11-year-old eyes, the lessons seemed formidable: extensive corrections, along with B&W images and her next assignment (invariably another still life).

But more than that, it didn’t make sense. Our new home was a scene of glorious mountain peaks, lonely rugged beaches, and teeming tidepools. Its tiny downtown beckoned with a vintage Russian Orthodox church, Tlingit village and fishing fleet, and the slippery piers where my buddies and I fished for bullheads and patrolled the harbor for killer whales.

Amazement all around. And nobody seemed to be painting it. My mother’s curriculum centered on her still lifes – bottles and baskets, weeds and gourds. And the occasional New England covered bridge.

Because the basics come first. She accepted that and was grateful to be learning, however cumbersome the format and inconvenient the wait. The cycle of mailed lessons and critiques meant so much to her. Sitka possessed no fine arts community, not that we knew of. There were no nearby cities to visit. No museums or galleries, university, or community college to take art classes from.

Art students at Syracuse University, thousands of miles away from Sitka

So the USPS was our lifeline. It brought Mom the lessons and critiques she craved from her art school. As for my brothers and me? We pounced on each new issue of Classics Illustrated and Jack and Jill.

Mom painted on the kitchen table through those Alaskan winters. The isolation was splendid and exotic and just a bit devastating. We were thousands of miles, and worlds, away from my mother’s childhood home in New York. I knew she ached with homesickness, for her mom, for Syracuse.

Mom kept up her long-distance study after we returned to the states. She ventured into watercolor and took me along on her Plein air classes and workshops with watercolorist Jerry Baum in southern Indiana. Later, she painted beside John Carter, after my parents’ move to Texas in 1972.

In her dedication to grow as a painter, Mom worked with many teachers. Her pictures and sketches began to find customers. Eventually, Mom became a beloved teacher herself, inspiring watercolorists young and old.

And so it’s in the spirit of my mom’s love of learning that I offer my online art course, Make Your Marks and Splashes: A Natural Approach to Children’s Book Illustration. My course is self-study and self-paced, with live online Huddle sessions each semester. You can find more details about the program here.

A perspective-defying still life painted in oil by Paul Cezanne, my mom’s favorite artist

Before she met my dad, my mom with her spaniel, Shana at her parents’ home on South Bay, Oneida Lake, just outside of Syracuse, N.Y.

About The Author

Mark Mitchell

Award-winning children's book author-illustrator Mark G. Mitchell teaches classes in watercolor and children's book illustration at The Contemporary Art School in Austin, Texas.


  1. Virginia L Rinkel

    Thanks for sharing this part of your life, Mark. I hope your class goes well. I’m working a bit when I can, but now chestnut harvest is upon me and will be for the next month. I even wrote Jake Parker if he couldn’t have a Januinktober, so I could join in then. October just isn’t my easy month. Will you be doing any more series for we alumni? I just haven’t received anything from you for a long time, and maybe I’m missing something? Hope you and Julie’s health is well. Ours is here, but I don’t go to too many things. Just stay here and take care of this orchard. The hazelnut crop wasn’t good this year. Have some new trees coming from Rutger’s University’s Tom Molnar, who is thinking he went to Crimea and Georgia (country) and has had these 4 cultivars done up on a tissue lab, and mine have been shipped. Will pot them up with the help of a nurseryman and store them in a cool place for the winter, and plant them out next spring. If these turn out to be blight resistant, this will be big news for the hazelnut world. I’m just hoping they will grow ok here. Thanks again for everything.

  2. Sheryl Gwyther

    Mark, this was a fascinating read. I could see the landscape and your home life through your descriptions … and what an interesting revelation about your mother too. Thanks for the great read! 🙂

  3. Deb Bartsch

    Thank you Mark for putting your family story and heart on paper!
    Alaska! I love to hear this Mark as my mom grew up in Ketchikan!
    My grandparents were all over that area too. Wonder if they knew one another?
    I will ask you more questions about this another time as I have a Tlinkit lullaby my Gr Grandma would sing to us, I taught my kids and grands too and would love to turn it into a story.
    Your mom sounds lovely and her art learning through coorespondence is a beautiful story, and your art and modern course teaching is just life fulfilling it’s circle! So great.
    Thanks again,
    Love the pics too.


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