Dennis Lee Mitchell

With blowtorch in hand Dennis Lee Mitchell, then a ceramicist, was inspired by the soot left on a piece of paper that had been accidentally grazed. In the spirit of a true abstract expressionist, Mitchell represents himself on his own terms using the rarely executed medium of smoke even as he walks in the footsteps of Yves Klein and Claudio Parmiggiani, who both experimented with smoke. Unlike his predecessors, however, smoke has been his primary medium to date.


Mitchell uses an acetylene torch to achieve lines and fields of black and grey, sometimes brown, that are the residual smoke from the flame. As the smoke hits the surface of paper it records the trajectory of its movement and thus Mitchell’s pieces are conceivably motion recorded, a brief moment encapsulated like visual poetry. Quite ephemeral. The more slowly the torch passes over the paper, the blacker the mark, while the lighter lines come from a more quickly moving torch. Mitchell uses relatively thick cotton papers and treats them with a liquid containing a substance similar to marble dust, to which the smoke adheres once dry. Mitchell is also experimenting with colored smoke as if daguerreotype meets Kodachrome.


Many of Mitchell’s compositions resemble rosettes, mandalas, or flowers. He comes to these forms with the aid of a spinning wheel that is eight feet in diameter and affixed to his studio wall. “I needed something to alleviate programming and to leave something to chance,” says Mitchell, which is what inspired his use of the wheel. Of the centrifugal pieces, or possibly he was speaking of life generally, Mitchell said, “I am constantly looking for the center point.”


Dennis Lee Mitchell was born in the town of Larned, Kansas, where he spent much of his childhood exploring the outdoors. He attended Kansas State University at Fort Hays where he received a B.A., followed by an M.F.A in ceramics he earned from Arizona State University. He now lives in Alexandria, Virginia where he also has a 22,000 square foot studio in which to wield his fiery brush. Mitchell has received two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, and a grant from the Illinois Arts Council. His work is held in many private and public collections including the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Daum Museum of Contemporary Art, the Clarke House Museum in Chicago, and others. He teaches at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago.