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MITCH MITTON

By Cassie Livingston
In Bayou Artist
Mar 26th, 2020
0 Comments
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ARTICLE BY KAY STOTHART RECTOR AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY KELLY MOORE CLARK

IF YOU CAN DREAM IT, MITCH MITTON CAN PRODUCE IT. IN HIS STORIED CAREER, THE NORTH LOUISIANA NATIVE HAS DESIGNED AND FABRICATED EVERYTHING FROM INTRICATELY CARVED DRAPERY FINIALS TO LIFE-SIZED PIRATE SHIPS FOR HIS CLIENTS. MITTON HAS SEEN HIS WORK DISPLAYED IN SETTINGS AS GRAND AS WALT DISNEY WORLD AND UNASSUMING AS INDIVIDUAL LIVING ROOMS.

Mitton is the creative mind behind Mitton Theme Design, a firm whose name is synonymous with imaginative design and quality craftsmanship. He often refers to his work as “dream building.” He gives artistic form and substance to whatever mental image, style or theme his clients envision. With an aptitude for creating custom pieces that embody his clients’ dreams, Mitton has amassed a devoted following and achieved a level of success he never imagined.


Mitton grew up in Cedar Grove, an industrial community in Shreveport, Louisiana. From a family of modest means, he didn’t expect to go to college. Mitton recalls being a poor student throughout middle school and his years at Woodlawn High School. He disliked most of his classes, and his grades were consistently below average.


Later in life, he was diagnosed with a hearing deficiency that has likely been present since his childhood. Once this disability was discovered, Mitton realized that his hearing problem contributed to his poor performance in school. “I couldn’t hear what the teacher was saying,” Mitton says. “So, I would sit in school and draw.” While drawing during class didn’t help his grades, he was honing skills that would eventually bring him much success.


Like most teenage boys in the early 1960’s, Mitton was into “hot rods” and dreamed of being an automobile designer. Mary Higginbottom, Mitton’s guidance counselor at Woodlawn, recognized his artistic talent and presented him with catalogs for various art programs, encouraging him to apply.


In 1965, Mitton graduated from high school, married, then headed to Ruston where he enrolled at Louisiana Tech. It was at Tech that Mitton’s outlook changed. “I fell in love with school at Louisiana Tech,” says Mitton. “That first semester was extremely eye-opening. I took to my art classes like I was born to do it.” He went from barely passing high school to earning A’s and a spot on the Dean’s List at Tech. Mitton finished college in three and a half years, graduating with a degree in advertising design.


After college, Mitton and his wife, Patty, moved back to Shreveport. There he worked as an art director with one of North Louisiana’s premiere advertising agencies, Glenn Mason & Associates. It was a good job with a steady paycheck, but Mitton longed to do more inventive, large-scale artwork. To satisfy his creative yearnings, he built a foundry in his backyard and began to do bronze casting. Before long, Mitton was creating trade show displays and other custom items for advertising clients in his home foundry. What started out as a hobby grew into a full-time business.


In the mid-1980’s, the Mittons moved back to Ruston, where they connected with fellow Louisiana Tech graduates, Charles Hart and Bill Hart. The Hart brothers operated a lamp manufacturing business. Mitch and Patty formed a company they named “The Woodchuck Carving Company” and joined forces with Hart & Associates. Mitton designed hundreds of patterns and, using an Italian carving machine, carved architectural-style elements used by Hart in making lamps and sconces.


With Woodchuck Carving, the Mittons also developed their own product line, crafting finials for drapery hardware. An advertisement in “Victoria,” a women’s lifestyle magazine popular in early 1990’s, helped Woodchuck grow from a small cottage industry to a thriving mail order business. Woodchuck’s decorative finials, brackets and sculpted drapery rods caught the eye of leading retailers, including Home Depot, who contracted to sell Mitton’s designs in their stores.

In the midst of Woodchuck Carving’s commercial success, Mitton was afforded a rare opportunity for a creative detour. He landed a job at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. “At Walt Disney World, I was introduced to sculpting with foam and the basics of mold making,” says Mitton. “We did all of the animated windows for Main Street, USA at Disney World. We also built their designs for all the stores in the park.” While his job at Disney World was temporary and not as lucrative as his work with Woodchuck Carving, it was an important step in the progression of his career. “It’s amazing what doors would open once people knew I’d worked for Disney,” Mitton recalls. After a seven-month stint at Disney World, Mitton resumed his work at Woodchuck Carving, which had been operated by Patty’s brother in their absence.


Another move—this time to Madison, Georgia–coincided with an opportunity for Mitch to work with Springs Window Fashions, the preeminent wholesale manufacturer of window treatments during that era. Springs not only offered Mitton a position as Manager of Window Fashion Design, but also agreed to purchase all of his Woodchuck Carving designs.


As a Springs employee, Mitton traveled extensively, all over the United States and to multiple countries overseas. “I was definitely a frequent flyer,” Mitton laughingly recalls. “In my first three months with Springs I was at home a total of three days.” He continued to design new products as he traveled to introduce them to potential buyers at showrooms and trade shows. “That first summer I designed 300 new products,” says Mitton. “One of those products was picked up by Lowes, and it became their best-selling finial.”


Mitton eventually left Springs for a position that afforded him more creative freedom and challenging design projects. He joined Creative Environs, a Florida-based company specialized in creating themed designs for restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues. “They were doing Cheeseburger in Paradise and Margaritaville restaurants then. They were also doing these full-sized pirate ships. That was kind of their specialty,” says Mitton. “I had built sailboats and knew ship layouts, so I understood what it took to build some of these things. I also sculpted mermaids.” The huge pirate ships and nautical themed sculptures were installed in client hotels, including the Atlantis resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas.


While working on projects for Creative Environs, Mitton continued to do other freelance work. He began getting commissions for custom pieces. Eventually, he met other artisans with whom he collaborated on large-scale theme designs. One such collaboration was with the owners of Entertainment Design Group in Atlanta. EDG had contracted with Dolly Parton to create a set with a pirate theme for one of her shows. Mitton was hired to design and build a pirate ship, mermaids and other sculptures for Parton’s production.


After completion of the Dolly Parton set, other theme-based work followed. Over the course of the next year, Mitton worked with EDG on projects that included four full-sized “Shrek” houses for the Gaylord Hotel lobbies, props from the “Madagascar” movie, and a “Kung Fu Panda” vignette. “It was a crazy year,” Mitton remembers. “I worked seventy hours a week for an entire year, travelling around doing these big projects.”


Building on the techniques he learned at Disney and Creative Environs, Mitton perfected his skills and experimented with different sculpting materials. He became an expert at sculpting large pieces with styrofoam and then applying an overlay of fiberglass or other material which he carves and paints to achieve his desired result.


As Mitton’s reputation has grown, opportunities for themed sculpture projects have increased. As an example, Mitton recalls a commission by Sherwin Williams Paint Company. As part of an advertising campaign display, Mitton produced an enormous replica of King Kong holding 55-gallon paint cans in each hand. “The area from the top of King Kong’s head to the middle of his chest was at least eight feet,” Mitton says.


Designing and fabricating themed sculptures are part of the venture Mitton now calls “Mitton Theme Design.” Mitton Theme Design is the culmination of Mitton’s years of diverse experience as an artisan. While his work still includes a broad range of products, part of his current focus is on custom home furnishings.


Mitton’s furniture can be found in premier showrooms of the Atlanta Decorative Arts Center. His affiliation with the late Beau Holland, a fixture in the Atlanta interior design trade, helped establish Mitton in the industry. Mitton’s work is now well-known among top interior designers in the Atlanta area and far beyond. “I have about 20 interior designers in the Atlanta area that I work with now,” Mitton says.


Although Mitton’s career ultimately led him away from North Louisiana, he maintained his connections here and his affiliation with his beloved alma mater. In 1986, Louisiana Tech commissioned Mitton to build a Mace—an intricately carved wooden torch symbolizing the light of learning and knowledge. The Mace became part of the university’s commencement ceremonies and was carried in each procession until it was retired in 2019. Last year, Mitton presented the university with a new Mace, designed to commemorate Louisiana Tech’s 125th anniversary. This new “torch of knowledge,” built by Mitton thirty-three years after he crafted the first one, will be carried during future commencement exercises. For Mitton, the Mace is not only a symbol of learning but a tribute to the university that nurtured his artistic gifts and started him on the path to success.


When asked about his projects, Mitton recounts his experience with Tyler Perry Studios as one of his most interesting. “A buyer for Tyler Perry Studios called and said ‘We can’t find the lamps that go in the foyer of the White House. They’ve got legs like the knees of a dragon,’” Mitton recalls. “I knew exactly what she was talking about, so I told her I could do it. She sent me some pictures and I built them four of them. Each one of those lamps has a hundred parts in it.” Mitton says in building the lamps he drew heavily on memories of his time with Hart & Associates in Ruston.


Satisfied with the lamps, Tyler Perry’s representative reached out to Mitton again. This time, they needed him to reproduce the “great light” that hangs outside of the White House. “It’s not technically a chandelier, because it’s about thirty inches in diameter and six and half feet tall,” explains Mitton. “This thing has eighteen lightbulbs in it and it’s hanging from a chain that’s about 12 feet long and has some other chains to keep it from swaying. He built a two-thirds sized White House, and when you see the scene where they’re pulling up to the White House, it looks like they are actually in front of the White House.”


Mitton lists as his most memorable project his recreation of Norman Rockwell’s “Santa at the Globe.” Authorized by the Rockwell family, the exhibit is a three-dimensional version of the famous Rockwell painting that appeared on the cover of the December 4, 1926 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. Mitton fabricated five full-sized Santa figures, weighing 350 pounds each. “They were extremely difficult to sculpt,” Mitton says. “Just like in the painting, Santa is bent over, looking at a globe, sitting on a stool with a magnifying glass in one hand and a list of all the good boys and girls in the other.” The Santas were on display at five different malls during the Christmas season. “It was fun,” Mitton recalls. “Everything really came together and I did it exactly my way. It gave me confidence, so when the movie stuff came along, I could speak with confidence and say that I know what I’m doing.”


When asked to name his favorite project, Mitton doesn’t hesitate in his answer. “The next one,” he says. “I’m always looking for that next project. I’m not going to retire anytime soon.” At 74 years old, Mitton is still excited about his work and open to new challenges. “I’m not afraid to do anything anymore,” Mitton says.