The life & legacy of Surel Mitchell


Live, work, create.

You may have seen or heard these three words in relation to Garden City. There’s a neighborhood there dubbed the Surel Mitchell Live-Work-Create District, spanning 32nd to 37th Streets on either side of Chinden. It’s a neighborhood of many things – longtime residents in small houses, mobile homes, trailers; big metal warehouses storing who knows what; wineries and breweries; a few small businesses, a coffee shop, a market, a couple of bars; clusters of artists’ studios; a growing presence of towering townhomes built as close as possible to the river.

Surel Mitchell’s house is here. The late artist designed and built her house in Garden City in 1988, with the help of John and Sarah Seidl. It’s on 33rd Street, maybe a dozen paces from the Boise River.

I’m here in her home now, writing this story.

My laptop is sitting on a little wooden table tucked between a corner of windows and a floor-to-ceiling bookcase. The entire tabletop is covered in small drips, brushes, and wisps of dried paint. There is another smaller table in the immediate corner. A mannequin head wearing a painted helmet is sitting on top, looking lifelessly over the room.

This room is essentially her entire house. It’s a long rectangle. There is hardwood floor throughout and art everywhere you look, yet it doesn’t overwhelm. The length of the house draws you in, makes you curious and comfortable enough to go deeper, stay awhile.

Near the entrance there is a huge closet filled with canvas, painting supplies, artwork. It’s just off an open, empty room that blends seamlessly into the living room. Here there are two bookcases filled to the brim. Books line every shelf – Jewish Art and Civilization, Picasso’s Third Dimension, The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, and The Art of Eating, which I flipped open and found a reminder to call Maurice (I think) in sprawling cursive written on a folded Boise City Council Agenda from August 22, 1995.

There are big books and small books. A skinny paperback book, Spirit Bone by Gino Sky, opens to a handwritten note: “Dear Surel, Welcome to this Cowboy Buddha Hotel – cells dreaming inside. My love to you, Gino Sky”.

Books are not the only residents on her shelves. There’s several small flip books, a deck of tarot cards, a layered collage held in a tiny black frame, two clay pots, and a small figurine. There’s a button that reads “Art Slut”, a tiny orange wooden horse, a framed photo of Surel’s daughters, Rebecca and Stephanie, as children.

A soft purple couch, a desk, and a custom coffee table made out of an old screen print, crafted by Surel’s friend Mike Baltzell, make up the living room. My favorite room of the house is a tiny, bright red bathroom. Every wall is covered with artwork, big and small. The kitchen sits at the far end of the room, a table and a butcher block in its center. The lone bedroom is just off the kitchen, separated by French doors – one of few doors within the home.

Live, work, create.

It’s what Surel Mitchell did here, in this house and in our city. And those three words are important parts of Surel Mitchell’s legacy. Indeed, she lived a fun and full life here in Boise and Garden City. She worked hard and on many things, both paid and as a volunteer. She made art, taught, worked community and art events, served on civic boards and committees. And she was always, always creating.

But to truly capture who Surel was, you’d need to add a few more things. Be a friend to all, host parties often, get shit done, no regrets might be a few.

I set out to write about Surel Mitchell; to meet her though others’ memories, her art, her work, her house. But I found that Surel Mitchell can’t be summed up in just a few words, or even solely with words. Surel’s legacy can be more easily seen and felt, perhaps practiced, rather than said.

Meet Surel

Surel Lee Mitchell was born in New York City and grew up in Pottstown, Pennsylvania with her parents and four siblings. Her parents were quite bohemian and her father was an exceptional artist. Art was a constant in Surel’s life from the beginning. She had a model for what a life of prioritizing creativity could look like.

Surel and her father, Ulek Tosher, in NYC in the 1980s. Photo provided by Becky Mitchell Kelada.

As a young adult, Surel flunked out of Penn State and decided to moved out West to San Jose, California to live with her cousin Joni. Here, Surel met her future husband, Winston Mitchell. A college flunk out himself, Winston joined the Navy before going back to school and graduating from Cal Poly. He then went to work for HP, where he actually knew Bill Hewlett and David Packard. Winston and Surel married in 1967 and had two daughters, Stephanie and Rebecca. Soon after, Winston was tasked with helping HP open up a new Idaho location, so the Mitchell Family relocated to Boise.

“My mom cried all the way to Idaho. All the way,” said Becky Mitchell Kelada, Surel’s younger daughter and the co-founder of Surel’s Place. “She was very upset because, you know, she's this Jewish bohemian artist moving to a pretty conservative place. And I think the beginning years were hard. But she found her spot in the Idaho Watercolor Society and made some really great life-long friends.”

Surel’s presence in the Boise community only got larger from there. She got involved with the Boise Gallery of Art and worked to grow it into a full-fledged museum, both as a docent and board member (it's now the Boise Art Museum). She worked Art in the Park, even chairing it once. She volunteered at events, and went to shows and performances. Surel also went back to school in Boise, graduating from BSU in 1992. She was a member of the Boise City Arts Commission and the Garden City Arts Commission. She helped create the Boise City Visual Chronicle, a city-owned collection of art depicting life in Boise. As a long-time docent at the Boise Gallery of Art, Surel regularly gave tours to kids. “She always liked connecting with young creative people,” said Becky.

That’s how Karen Bubb met Surel. Karen has spent years in the Arts & History Department at the City of Boise and is currently the City’s Cultural Planner. She’s also an exceptional artist and a co-founder of Surel’s Place. Karen was a student at Bishop Kelly High School when she went on a class tour of Surel’s studio.

Surel and Edith Hope at a Watercolor Society show in downtown Boise in the late 70s or early 80s. Photo provided by Becky Mitchell Kelada.

“She was in a studio with Edith Hope and Maureen Boyle in the basement of the Belgravia Building. First, I was amazed that women could have studios – I thought that was like the coolest thing ever,” said Karen. “But Surel, she made art out of lint and collage stuff and she was just funny.” Growing up in Catholic school in Boise, Idaho, Karen couldn’t recall at that point if she had ever consciously met someone who was Jewish or from the East Coast. Surel was both.

“Surel was just different. Different than anyone I had ever met,” said Karen. “And she was wildly inappropriate. She made this joke about how she should have a bra that had a tip jar beneath it, so when people come to visit her studio they could tip her boobs and then she would make a lot more money than she did as an artist.”

Karen left with a strong impression. She went and found a bra at a secondhand store and made this contraption that Surel had talked about. Then she went back to visit her.

“I said I have something for you and I flashed her and she laughed uproariously. I took it off and gave it to her, and she hung it on her studio wall for the rest of her life,” said Karen. “That was the start of our friendship.”


Sponsored by Garden City Placemaking Fund

Big things are happening...

...in Garden City. And they are going to be hard to miss.

The Garden City Placemaking Fund has officially started painting large-scale murals on buildings throughout Garden City. GCPF exists to spur creative placemaking efforts that will keep Garden City's community vibrant, unique, and vital to the Treasure Valley and beyond, while ensuring local, emerging, and BIPOC artists have paid opportunities to create public-facing art.

This is a super important & cool project that deserves your attention. You can see the first completed mural, murals-in-progress and soon-to-be murals here (or in real life!!) and make a donation or get involved at www.gardencityplacemakingfund.org

Miguel in front of his brand new mural on the Zion Art Glass Building, on 33rd & Chinden in Garden City. Photo by Visionkit Studio.

A friend to all

Surel and Winston’s home became Karen’s second home and with that, Karen met Becky, Stephanie, and a revolving door of new people. Surel and Winston regularly housed people in their home on Shenandoah Drive in the East End, and, after they divorced in 1987, Surel continued hosting people in her big pink Victorian house on 8th Street in the North End. Becky remembers why the hosting began.

“We were at Municipal Park and some Asian kids showed up. I said to [Surel], ‘what's wrong with their eyes?’ and she was like, ‘oh hell no’,” laughed Becky. “You know, my dad is from L.A., my mom is from New York, and everybody here was white. So, she started importing diversity into the room next door to my bedroom.”

They hosted traveling artists, performers in town with Idaho Shakespeare Festival, nomads. They hosted parties and had guests over for dinner. Surel was a stranger to none, friend to all.

“My mom could be very judgmental, but at the same time, everybody's way of being was totally legitimate and accepted. It's why people wanted to be around her,” said Becky. “People could sense that however they were in the world was celebrated by her. So not just accepted, but celebrated.”

Surel in her home on 8th Street in the late 80's. Photo provided by Becky Mitchell Kelada.

“She did not have specific ideas about the kind of person she was interested in having a relationship with,” said Becky. “She was friends with kids, she was friends with old people. She was friends with people who were totally unlike her. She had all kinds of friend groups that were all very different. She delighted in people; she really did.”

Being friends with Surel exposed Karen to different ways of living, thinking, being, and influenced her to pursue college in New York and a path as an artist. With Surel’s encouragement, Karen took the leap, spending a few years in New York, Oregon, New Jersey, and back to New York. All the while, Karen and Surel maintained their friendship, writing letters and visiting each other.

“Through all that, I would come visit home and I would always see Surel. And she kept making Boise a place that I was interested in coming back to,” said Karen. “I think that if Surel hadn't been here, moving back would have been a lot harder of a sell for me. It would have been difficult for me to contemplate.”

Live, work, create

Surel was a phenomenal artist and her art was something that came from deep within. Each piece was something that Surel not only wanted to make, but needed to.

“Even if she thought a series she was making was not necessarily sellable, if she had to make it, she had to make it,” said Becky. “Gallery owners would say but Surel, we need you to have a brand, and she would be like, yeah, well this is what I'm making right now, because this is what I have to make right now.

A painting by Surel Mitchell

Surel’s art helped people see the world. She worked with paint, mixed media, sculpture, and installation art – large, small, and everything in between. Her works brought beauty to the world through color and social and cultural commentary. And though it was something she did first and foremost for herself, Surel’s work earned much recognition. She was the recipient of the Idaho Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2000 and the Boise City Mayor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts and History, and an Individual Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2011. Her work has been exhibited extensively in New York, Washington D.C., and Kuala Lumpur, as well as in private and corporate collections.

Layered work by Surel Mitchell.

In 1988, Surel began building her home and studio in Garden City. Surel had MS and Lupus, and the big old Victorian on 8th had gotten to be too much upkeep. By that time her kids were grown and out of the house, and a simple, live-work space was just what Surel needed.

“She simplified so she could focus whatever energy she had on the things that mattered to her, which was making art and being with people and taking care of herself,” said Becky.

Surel designed a custom house that was all one level, with big doorways and thresholds, and plenty of open creative space.

“There's a bar in the middle of the house that has a curtain on it that she could pull if she wanted to have separation between the workspace and the home,” said Karen. “And she never used it – it didn’t matter to her,” added Becky.

Surel hosted many people here in this home. She threw big parties, art salons, and hosted drawing groups. She held grand performances and dinner gatherings.

Karen and Becky both remember a specific performance by Lynn Hofflund, a talented local actress and partner of Mark Hofflund, the Managing Director of Idaho Shakespeare Fest.

“Lynn is a really talented artist, but she hadn't sort of broken through as an actor yet at the time. She did a one-woman show called Shirley Valentine that takes place in two time periods,” remembered Karen. “The earlier time period took place in Ruth Wright's house across the street, and then everybody would traipse across the street to Surel’s house, and Surel’s house was Greece.”

“It was a phenomenal performance,” said Karen. “I mean, it was like traveling theater before the traveling theater was hit.”

And that was just what Surel did. She was before her time in many ways, and perhaps that was because Surel did not really care what was the norm was for any given time. Surel did what Surel thought was interesting. And that included being on the Planning & Zoning Commission for Garden City.

“There was never a time in her life when she wasn't also working in the community,” said Becky. “When she decided to go to Garden City, it wasn't surprising to see that she started working with the Garden City Council. She was very civic minded – in part for her own interest.”

In Garden City, Surel was not interested in zoning, per se. Surel was interested in making Garden City a place where artists could easily live and work.

Credit: Visit Garden City

“She was not afraid to get involved in something that was really outside of her wheelhouse to try to affect positive change,” said Karen. “She saw how things could be better or different, and she wasn't afraid to take that on.”

Surel advocated for a neighborhood where art and community were at the forefront. She saw gentrification happening in Garden City even back then, and she saw the potential to solve those problems with art and creativity. In 2007, after several years of work, Garden City Council formally approved the creation of the Live-Work-Create District, a place that advocates for artist work space, affordable housing, and creative placemaking. After her death in 2011, the Council renamed the district in her honor.

Surel’s Place

Surel’s home was a “door’s always open” kinda place. She used her home in unusual ways and she invited people over often.

A workshop at Surel's Place. Source: Surel's Place

“Her house has always been a gathering place for all sorts of people,” said Becky. “She threw great parties. It was a kind of place people just stopped by because people just wanted to be there. And it's because they knew that they could be themselves.”

Near the end of Surel’s life, Becky came back to Boise to take care of her mom during her final six months.

“The amount of management I had to do of the people was intense,” said Becky. Almost every night someone would show up. People brought food and flowers. People came to cry and say goodbye. “And every single one of those people felt they had the most special connection to her. Every one of them, you know? It wasn't like acquaintances. They all felt like she was an exceptionally special person in their life,” said Becky.

Surel died on October 10, 2011. In the days leading up to her passing, Becky had a light bulb moment.

“The prospect of dismantling her home, in the face of the fact that all these people have been gathering there for so many years, just seemed almost impossible to me. I had this thought like, why can't we just keep using it the way she has been using it? Why would we stop this?,” said Becky.

Becky did a quick search and found that Idaho was the only state that did not have a nonprofit artist-in-residence program. She knew immediately that this was meant to happen here, in her mom’s home, and she knew she couldn’t do it alone.

“I knew I couldn't do it without Karen. And that she'd be the only person that I could do it with,” said Becky. “I just knew that Karen and I would be motivated by the same things on both levels: to honor my mom's legacy and to serve creative people. And that would fuel us to keep doing it.”

Becky and Karen founded Surel’s Place in 2012, along with the help of founding board members Michael Baltzel, Leah Clark, Traci Ehlers, Suzanne Knibbe, Mike Cordell, Bev Harad, and Mark Goldy. Winston Mitchell has also been a supporter of Surel's Place over the years, and serves as the organization’s staff photographer.

Surel's Place. Credit: Winston Mitchell and Surel's Place

The nonprofit offers Surel’s home, studio, and community to artists, writers, and performers from all over the country and world for month-long residencies. Local artists also use Surel’s Place for events and 7-14 day studio residencies, as well as professionally supported art events.

“We joke that we created a nonprofit out of grief and not wanting to dismantle her house, but it's true,” said Karen. “The majority of the house is left as it was when Surel was alive. So, the other cool thing is people really feel Surel’s spirit there. You know? She really is still embodied in the home.”

After nearly a decade of running Surel's Place, Becky and Karen have stepped away from the daily goings on of nonprofit. The organization is run by a dedicated Board of Directors, Executive Director Greg Hahn, longtime Program Director Jodi Eichelberger, and longtime Staff Assistant Marne Elmore. Surel's Place has served hundreds of artists from Idaho, the US, and around the world who have come to stay and create in Surel’s home. In addition, Surel’s Place hosts multiple free or low-cost events every month, including workshops, readings, performances, and exhibits open to the greater community.

Wonder Room: A Cabinet of Natural Curiosities by Surel's Place artist-in-resident Ingrid Erickson in 2019. Credit: Surel's Place

Each visitor who sets foot in Surel's Place comes to visit Surel, in a way. You can’t help but feel her here. She is everywhere, still. Even without having known her, I feel like she could breeze through the open front door at a moment’s notice.

Live like Surel

Sometimes when I am considering a story for From Boise, I casually mentioned it to people to gauge the interest or knowledge on the subject. I started mentioning Surel last summer, and every time without fail, people would light up.

“Oh, I just loved Surel. She was a hoot!”

“Oh, you have to write about her, Surel was one of the coolest people ever.”

“Surel was one of my dearest friends. You know, us Jewish women have to stick together.”

“Ah yes, Surel. She was such a force.”

A force. That phrase came up so often. And I can see now, what people mean.

Surel was a force because she was different; she was different because she was unapologetically herself. She was who she was, and in turn she allowed everyone to be exactly who they are, too. She offered radical acceptance. She said exactly what she thought (for better or worse). She went after opportunities and didn’t hesitate stepping in if she thought she could make a positive change. Surel carried an extreme openness that made way for extreme fullness of life.

Surel at the 2002 BAM Triennial Opening. Photo provided by Becky Mitchell Kelada.

“I think her experience of growing up as a Jewish person in Pottstown, with these weird parents… I mean, she was definitely a fish out of water. Then she ended up in Boise, Idaho, where she just couldn't help but be herself,” said Becky. “I think she inspired people and gave people permission to do the same.”

Surel has left all of us with something. For Karen, it’s her laugh.

“She had a wonderful laugh, and irreverence, and that would be applied in multiple different kinds of situations. I remember her ability to find humor in situations that weren't necessarily that funny,” said Karen.

For Becky, it’s a memory of her mom that plays like a loop.

“You know, you grow up and you move away, and you're in a big city and you're busy... and I didn't talk to her enough. It'd be three weeks in between talking to her, but when I came home, she was always so happy to see me,” said Becky. “I remember one time specifically: she was wearing these green overalls and a white long sleeve shirt, and she had her slippers on and there was paint all over the overalls. And the way she looked at me was just like… she loved me so deeply.”

“No matter how full her life was, when she looked at me – just like she looked at everybody else – she saw me and she loved me. And I delighted her,” said Becky, remembering her mom through tears. “And I just replay that in my mind. Simple.”

A framed photo of Surel in Surel's Place.

Hundreds, probably thousands, of people have their own memories of Surel. Her parties. Her incredible art. Her kindness. Her acceptance. Her wit. Her humor. Her willingness to get shit done. Her home. Her heart.

Even those of us who didn’t meet her can carry piece of her. We can all take a page or two out of Surel’s book. We can host more parties. We can go to more things. We can make friends with people regardless of their age, background, culture, or worldview. We can get involved in our cities and community where we feel passionate, and we can make positive change. We can make or buy art. We can give people space to be who they are, without judgement or control. We can adapt our lives to our changing bodies and needs, without losing sight of the things we love to do. We can find humor in the mundane. We can focus on the potential of our neighborhoods rather than fall to the fear of change. We can speak up. We can keep creating. We can love everyone. We can be unapologetically ourselves. We can fill our time here on Earth with people, places, parties, and pleasure.

We can live and work and create. We can all live life a little more like Surel.

Thanks for reading!

With love from Boise (& Garden City),

Marissa

You can learn more about Surel’s Place and make a donation here. As Surel’s Place is not endowed, individual donations and memberships are integral to its longevity.

You can also visit Surel’s home (& Surel) by attending an upcoming event at Surel’s Place, like this year’s 10th Anniversary Shrinky Dinks Auction, an amazing and popular event featuring truly fine works of art made by professional artist out of, well, Shrinky Dinks.

Also, if you haven’t, you should visit the Live-Work-Create District in Garden City. And while you’re there, you should go check out the new murals going up as part of the Garden City Placemaking Fund (a project that I think Surel would be very, very happy about).

Lastly, huge thank you to Beth Edwards for making a donation to From Boise! If you are like Beth and love this newsletter, you can help us keep it going by supporting it here. Thank you!!

From Boise

A weekly newsletter & podcast about what's going on in Boise, Idaho. Every week we share stories about people, places, history, and happenings in Boise.

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