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A Love Letter to Rocks and Wood – Totems and Topographies by Samantha Dylan Mitchell


The latest works by my friend and former classmate at Oberlin College, Samantha Dylan Mitchell are currently exhibited at the Grizzly Grizzly gallery in the 319 N. 11th St. warehouse, which also houses the Vox Populi gallery. Her show, entitled “Totems and Topgraphies,” seems like a breath of bracing formality in comparison with most of the neighboring free-form and mixed-media shows currently inhabiting the building (see the awesome untitled geodesic dome in V.P., for example).

Old House Trashcscapeweb
Samantha Dylan Mitchell, Old House Trashscape

A dozen neatly framed ink drawings circle the walls of the Grizzly gallery, including portraits of petrified wood, mountain landscapes and a picture of a collapsed house on top a pile of garbage at a landfill.

Their presentation may be formal, but Samantha Mitchell’s approach to what she called ‘abstract landscapes and natural portraiture’ feels compelling and new. Her meticulously detailed drawings can expose the symmetry in the face of a piece of wind-swept water-battered rock that’s often obscured by nature’s chaos. She makes radical shifts in scale from piece to piece that highlight correspondences between the pieces of wood, rock and earth she examines. A massive mountain landscape is dissected crag by crag and drawn line by line, exactly like the infinite variety of crevices and cracks in the fist-sized rock hanging beside it.

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Samantha Dylan Mitchell, Pink Landscape

A degree of perfectionism is evident in all of these detailed and intricate drawings. But while the magnified studies of petrified wood are realistic, they’re also alive with that indefinable whimsical strangeness of nature. You can tell Samantha Mitchell that a piece of wood looks like a duck or a flying skull or a mountain looks like a donkey and she’ll laugh. It’s obvious that the attempt at verisimilitude in capturing the literally infinite detail in just a tiny rock or pieces of wood has forced Mitchell to confront the unconquerable in artistic representation, but she’s come away with works that successfully captures the chaotic patterns of natural forces. In addition to her drawing, she also works with wood – at her opening at Grizzly Grizzly, she told this writer that she made all of her pieces’ frames herself, using pine, poplar and sassafrass wood.

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Samantha Dylan Mitchell, Old Wood Butte

Mitchell’s technique’s ongoing evolution is evinced by her most recent work, where wood has literally become the medium in a series of multi-toned woodblock prints. One of these, Static Shift 2, went up Feb. 16 at the Woodmere Museum in Chestnut Hill, as part of an Elaine Kurtz retrospective open through April 22, which includes the works of local artists operating in a similar vein to Kurtz.

Mitchell is a 2nd-year MFA student at PAFA who graduated from Oberlin College in 2008. The Grizzlies are hosting her work after she won their annual juried exhibition, “Other Possible Titles,” in November 2011. A large detailed face portrait by Mitchell was previously shown in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in 2009, but this is her first solo show since moving to Philadelphia.

The last day to see Totems and Topographies at Grizzly Grizzly is Saturday Feb. 25 from 2 to 6 pm. For more information, visit

Ben Meyer is a writer living in Philadelphia who graduated from Oberlin College in 2008.