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‘These Are Our Ancestors, They Need to Have a Name’: Artist and Entrepreneur Melissa Mitchell Talks Giving Identity to Her Descendants Through Her Artwork, Viral Success and More

When Melissa Mitchell became an artist, it was more so by accident and the result of being stuck at home during a snowstorm in 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia. Having created over 500 original art pieces and even garnering a co-sign from several celebrities, including actress Lupita Nyong’o, Mitchell’s creations have become less about what she can do with color and more about honoring those who came before her.

Atlanta Black Star recently spoke with the Miami native to talk about her artistic journey, including her viral moment when her headwraps were photographed in Vogue magazine and how figures such as Oprah Winfrey and her ancestors inspire the person she is today.

Melissa Mitchell. Photo: (Courtesy of Melissa Mitchell)

Detailing her creative process, Mitchell revealed that she does “full naming ceremonies for each of her pieces,” whether it be a painting or wearable art. Through online research, Mitchell found a list of names with African origins. She also uncovered one of the original slave voyage ships and its full manifest detailing the transport of enslaved persons, many of whom were merely labeled boy or girl, ages one and two. 

Mitchell explained that at the time of naming her creations, she chose to select a name from her directory and assign it to an unnamed person from the manifest. “These are our ancestors; they need to have names, and so I named them with names [I researched]. Can you imagine some of our ancestors that will never have a name?” Mitchell asked. “I feel like there’s somebody that didn’t make it across that water, but the one that did was in my bloodline to get me here. So, the least I could do is name pieces after them.”

When Mitchell first started, she never could’ve imagined where her “doodling and adding fine lines” would take her. After chronicling her creative progression on social media, she slowly gained attention from users online who began requesting pieces. Shortly afterward, she was able to pay off her mother’s mortgage, and, in 2016, she created her art business, Abeille Creations, pronounced “A.B.L.” Abeille is the French word for honeybee. Mitchell revealed that her first name also means honeybee in Greek. 

Still, she admitted she was always hesitant to pursue a full-time art career. This ideology was shared by her longtime friend and recent collaborator David Castro of the Dungeon Forward’s Black Artist Collective — a black-owned creative brand aimed at highlighting Black artists. After years of delay, the pair connected to create a hat called “Ikenna,” derived from the Igbo language and meaning “father’s strength.” 

This “Crown,” as the website describes it, features “the perfect combination of soft pastels centrally and artistically set with a mesh overlay.” It continues, “Mitchell finishes the Ikenna Crown with a profound symbolic reference etched in her mind years ago by her father. The rear right panel has Melissa’s initials deconstructed inside a box, and the left has her signature breaking through that same box. The symbolism here is; when we are born, we come in a box un-assembled, but when we put ourselves together, we will never fit in a box again.”

Mitchell’s entire portfolio is inspired by those around her and the public figures she grew up seeing. “I hate to sound cliché, but I’ve been listening Oprah’s [Winfrey] ‘Seat of the Soul’… Someone recently asked her, ‘why didn’t you have any children.’ And she said, ‘you know, I feel like the calling on my life was so big that God called me to be a teacher over being a mother,’ and not that that’s my story, but I loved her strength and her statement,” she explained. “She knew who she was so much that she was able to defend and explain whenever someone would ask her, and that is me as an artist, and I believe that this is my calling.”

Melissa Mitchell. Photo: (Courtesy of Melissa Mitchell)

Her confidence in her calling would ultimately lead her to try her luck at getting actress Nyong’o to wear one of her pieces. After switching mediums from making paintings to working with fabric, she eventually started stitching headwraps. Shortly after getting in touch with the actress’s stylist roughly around 2015, Mitchell shipped a few samples to London, where Nyong’o had presumably stayed. 

She revealed nothing ever came from the transaction until 2017 when a friend notified her that the “Black Panther” star was wearing her headwear in Vogue magazine as part of her traveling diary feature. As they say, the rest was history. “I call myself a master manifester, but you know, like most people, I’m always second-guessing,” Mitchell confessed. “That moment really showed me, this stuff is happening, and it’s going to happen fast, but you got to really believe that it’s going to happen. It just really showed me that manifesting is a real thing. It could really happen. And so, I think from that moment I just became so fearless with my ask, I was like ‘I can do that, I can do anything.’ “

Since her viral moment, Mitchell has been featured in several other publications, including Huffington Post, Essence, and The Shade Room. She even became the first Black woman to design for shapewear company Spanx. Yet, Mitchell disclosed she tries not to dwell too much on statistics, but “understands the reality of them.” When asked how she felt working in an industry that doesn’t overwhelmingly reflect her, Mitchell expressed that “It’s sad because everything is male-dominated and everything is non-Black.” She added, “The perspective I take is: I gotta work 20 times harder to make sure that I’m not overlooked, regardless if I’m a woman or Black.”

Reflecting on her journey and achievements, Mitchell revealed that her views have changed on the title of being an “accidental artist.” “I definitely think it’s by design. I think I just had to find it.” Jokingly comparing her journey to discovering her craft to eating crab legs and sunflower seeds, Mitchell said she believed “God was just waiting for me to crack that shell. I think it was always here. I think it was always in me. It was just a matter of me frozen in my house or being frozen by depression or frozen by sadness and self-doubt. I had to be shook and kind of isolated to kind of figure it out that now I’m ready or it’s time.” 

She continued, “I think sometimes we have to be put into auspicious situations because we won’t necessarily see it on our own. I don’t know if I would have just jumped out and say ‘I want to be a painter.’ And if God would have gave it [success] to me in 2009, I would not have been who I am in 2021. I think everything has to come with a cycle because if you get it too soon, you’re not going to appreciate it the same.”

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