Ken and Vicki Mitchell know firsthand how a caring educator can change a life’s trajectory. Lifelong artists and career educators, this extraordinarily talented couple’s path was altered by one of Ken’s college professors. While attending Northern Colorado University, Ken was struggling academically. School had never come easily for him, but being a top shot putter helped get him into college.

He enjoyed history, but keeping the dates straight, writing papers without spelling mistakes, and completing all the reading was overwhelming. One day his history professor, Dr. Reynolds, called him in for a meeting. Reynolds told Ken he was nearly flunking out, but then asked Ken to look at a wall in his office. There the professor had tacked up a collection of drawings that Ken had made during the history lectures each day and simply left in the classroom.

Photo by Rick Moyer

Apparently, Reynolds had made a habit of picking them up. However, this professor wasn’t reprimanding his student; he was simply a talent scout with a plan. Reynolds had already talked to the head of the art department and then suggested that Ken fill his next semester entirely with art classes to get his grades up and to give them time to work out why this eager, bright student was struggling. “So that’s what I did. I took all art classes the next term and I went from being on academic probation to having straight A’s and being on the dean’s list in one semester,” recalled Ken, 79. “And we learned my problem. At the time, in the early 60s, it was something they were just learning about. I had severe, severe dyslexia.” Ken ultimately got a master’s degree in art, as well as a minor in history, and then became an instructor of fine arts himself.

Photo by Rick Moyer

Rewarding careers

Ken has spent more than 50 years as an educator and continues to prolifically produce paintings of all kinds, including some historically accurate ones that led both he and Vicki, 73, to be recruited in 2013 as artists in residence at the National Park in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Since then, each year they’ve served a month there, usually during the spring or fall.

There, Ken has six historical paintings at the main visitor’s center depicting the historic events surrounding this Civil War site, each requiring careful scholarship and painstaking attention to detail.

Vicki’s work there includes seven paintings that represent the major park themes, as well as a park coloring book, a 75th anniversary poster and a portrait of one of John Brown’s conspirators for the John Brown Museum in the park. She even restored an 18th century faux marble fireplace mantle in the park’s visitors center. And, the two of them worked together to create a mural at the park.

But the couple – and their artwork – is also well known in other places across the country. In fact, this May Ken was honored with a retrospective of his work at the Prairie Museum in Colby, Kansas. His work is well known there, including large murals in the city and one that he and Vicki both painted on the campus of Colby Community College, where they both taught from 1969 to 1989.

During those 20 years, Vicki taught art history, figure drawing and women’s studies, and was known for her creativity, even dressing up and acting as different historical women to bring them to life for her students. Ken taught everything from watercolor and oil painting to ceramics, silk screening, design, color theory, figure drawing, composition and even fashion design.

When Vicki realized she was interested in pursuing more education so she could work in academic administration, she added a doctorate in college administration to her bachelor’s in fine arts and master’s in education. During this time, they were raising their son, K.C., and daughter, Kendra. For two school years, Ken was “Mr. Mom,” while Vicki studied at the University of Texas.

Their next stop was in Central Washington, where they worked at a variety of institutions including Yakima Community College, Columbia Basin College and the Heritage College. Then in 1997, they moved to Grays Harbor for Vicki to take a job as vice president of instruction at Grays Harbor College. Ken worked as a substitute teacher for the Aberdeen School District and later taught math and art at Harbor High, the district’s alternative high school. After a few years, Vicki joined him there, teaching English and art.

Despite their illustrious and varied careers, the couple agrees that working at Harbor High was easily the highlight. And Ken is looking forward to the pandemic waning more so that he can at least go back to substitute teach there.

At Harbor High, Ken often told students about his struggles with dyslexia; and many could relate. Also, they both noted, it seemed like many of the students at Harbor High were particularly artistically gifted. Not unlike what Dr. Reynolds did for Ken, the Mitchells strove to do at Harbor High. They could be the people who spotted talent and encouraged and supported students in a variety of ways.

At home in Cosmopolis

The couple’s colorful Cosmopolis home is replete with both of their work, featuring a variety of subjects and styles. Despite a valiant effort, all the walls in each room can’t hold it all and some is stored on tables and in racks. Of course, that doesn’t include all the work on display at Harpers Ferry as well as all the work in museums in Kansas and that has been bought over the years or given away to auction for charities.

“There was even a time when money was tight in Kansas, where we were trading paintings for appliances and dentistry!” Vicki recalled. Ken says his favorite medium is actually pencil drawing, “but it doesn’t sell well,” he said. “I also love oil painting, but I can’t do it inside because my wife is allergic to it.”

But it’s clear by the resulting work that he also loves watercolor and acrylic painting. Some of his pieces are so detailed and accurate they look like photographs.

“He does highly, highly illustrative work, because he can draw so well,”  Vicki said of her husband. “He is a superb draftsman. He can draw anything! He is also an excellent colorist. He absolutely understands color and every combination of colors. That’s something I often ask his advice on. He is very patient getting every detail just right in his work,” she said.

As for her work, Vicki says she is enjoying picking it up after some 12 years of not being able to pursue it during her busy career. “I created some 80 pieces during the pandemic,” she said, and that doesn’t include the time spent on her hand-painted cards and humorous essays! “I like pastel best, but I like some pen and ink, and pencil,” she said. “I even went through a period where I was decorating gourds.”

“She’s determined and she likes to change,” Ken said. “She will get to a high level and will switch to a different subject or medium,” he noted. “We have never been intimidated by each other’s art and enjoy each other’s styles.”

While they both would say they’ve grown in their artistic expression over the years, some things don’t change. The couple attends Amazing Grace Lutheran Church in Aberdeen. And, just like during those history lectures more than 50 years ago, during the sermons, Ken draws. But, instead of leaving the pictures lying around, at the end of the service he gives them away to eager parishioners.

In addition to seeing their work in West Virginia and Kansas, some of Ken and Vicki Mitchell’s work is available for purchase at Amazing Grace Lutheran Church, where they have donated it to raise money for the church to restore its magnificent stained-glass windows.

Photo by Rick Moyer