Surel's Place 

A new artist-in-residency program blossoms in Garden City

A live-work residency program has been put in place to honor Surel Mitchell.

Leila Ramella Rader

A live-work residency program has been put in place to honor Surel Mitchell.

At the corner of 33rd and Carr streets, near the Boise River in Garden City, sits Surel Mitchell's quiet, well manicured home. The streets there are devoid of sidewalks, chain-link fences ring the yards of nearby homes and car-filled lots pepper the streetscape.

But behind the scenes, the neighborhood is changing. After Mitchell's death in 2011, her daughter Rebecca Mitchell joined members of the Boise arts community to transform the residence--half home, half art studio--into the Treasure Valley's newest artist-in-residence program: Surel's Place.

"Ultimately, her home is just a metaphor for her heart--a unique, comfortable space where all sorts of people gathered and felt safe," daughter Rebecca said, in a eulogy for her mother.

Stories from friends reference Mitchell's dinner parties and her never-ending sociality. The space gives an impression of its former owner: light floods the building and provides a warm glow. A large wooden table sits near the door, which served as a utilitarian-but-still-beautiful work surface, and the living room lacks a television.

"She was just a very quirky, unusual, strong-willed, strong-minded, hilarious, spirited person. She was her own person," said Karen Bubb, Boise Department of Arts and History's public arts manager.

Now Garden City has renamed the neighborhood, which encompasses Visual Arts Collective, Woman of Steel Gallery and Surel's Place, as the Surel Mitchell Live, Work, Create District. The district extends from the Boise River to the Bench, and from 37th Street to the Riverside Hotel.

"Right now that area is changing quite a bit," said Jenah Thornborrow with Garden City's Development Services. "The genesis of the idea was when Surel Mitchell passed away, it was a way to recognize her as being instrumental in the creation of that area."

Thornborrow said Mitchell's presence helped nurture the arts scene now blooming in the area. Surel's Place organizers believe they can help cultivate a new crop of artists who will continue Mitchell's vision. Applicants will be chosen by their medium for stays ranging from a few weeks to a few months. Organizers hope that the quiet neighborhood, within sight of the river and its greenery, will help inspire artists.

"We'd like people to be able to have that same, really satisfying experience that my mom had in this house," said Rebecca.

The project's organizers hope the space can retain that nurturing charm to allow an artist freedom from economic woes while creating.

"Artists are often economically marginalized," said Michael Cordell, board member and Enso Artspace artist. "It's a huge cost savings to be able to have a space under one mortgage--work and live."

Surel's Place will provide free rent, utilities, Wi-Fi, a modest living stipend and use of bicycles. A space for living and creating was essential to Mitchell, Rebecca explained.

"There would be times where she's working like a maniac, and there would be times where maybe she would be doing more reading," Rebecca said. "You don't have to plan, you don't have to drive there. It could be 8 o'clock in the morning or 8 o'clock at night."

Cordell said spending that much time close to one's art allows for reflection on the work. Like most everyone else who knew Mitchell, he was familiar with her process.

"She would sit here and review last night's work," he said. "'This needs this, that or the other thing. And all of a sudden, I know what it means.'"

Surel's Place will apply for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status by the end of June and the artists will be chosen by a board, on which Bubb will serve as a member. While the City of Boise won't be an official sponsor of the project, Bubb will be involved in its creation.

"They'll submit applications for what they want to do there, what their medium is," said Bubb. "We see one person in there at a time. They'll be taken on a rotating basis based on what they're working on."

Everyone working on the Surel's Place project said they had a personal connection to the woman, which was sparked by her artwork.

"I met her when I was 16," said Bubb. "I was on a tour from my art class at Bishop Kelly to visit her studio. I really loved her work. ... I became a groupie. I just started coming back and hanging out."

During those days, Mitchell shared a studio in the basement of the Fifth Street Belgravia Building. She worked in the back of the rented space with local artists Edith Hope and Maureen Boyle at the front.

"We stayed in touch. I went to school in New York, and I would see her there when she came back to visit her sister," said Bubb. "I got to know her family well."

Out at the home on May 21, Surel's sister, Vicki Tosher, said the live-work idea was one they grew up with. Their father, Ulek, was a furniture maker and painter. He had a workshop separate from the home, adjacent to an attached art studio.

"You'd walk through his studio, and then there was his furniture shop. My dad had a live-create-work space--it just now dawned on me. He would be on his way to work in his shop, and he would literally stop and paint a few strokes and then continue on to his shop," Tosher said.

Originally from New York City, Mitchell grew up in Pennsylvania. After moving to Idaho in the 1970s, she slowly established Boise as her new home through art.

"That was Surel's mentality--you live where you create, where you do your artwork," said board member Suzanne Knibbe. "I think it just adds to your ability to be creative."

After serving as a docent for Boise Art Museum, Mitchell served on the museum's board and helped with the Boise Open Studios Collective Organization and the annual Modern Art event.

Mitchell dealt with numerous health issues toward the end of her life. Though she quit smoking 20 years ago, she was diagnosed with lung cancer six months before her death. Because of that, the project accepts only nonsmoking applicants.

"It still came back to get her in the end," said Rebecca. "So that's definitely non-negotiable."

In the final six months of Mitchell's life, Rebecca left her job and family in Washington, D.C., and cared for her ailing mother. People poured into the home to show their love in Mitchell's waning days.

"I am drunk with love and gratitude for all of you. You nourished us spiritually, intellectually and physically," Rebecca said at the funeral. When Mitchell passed away in 2011, a promise was made to transform her home into a lasting testimony. In lieu of flowers, mourners sent donations--$10,000 to date.

"So many of you came to her for the same reason I came to her," said Rebecca at the funeral. "She inspired you during some small private moment, or a piece of her art made you see the world, or maybe her smile and laughter or wisdom healed some broken part of you."

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