b. 1971, New Zealand

Sam Mitchell Biography

Samantha Mitchell is an Auckland-based artist known for her Pop-like colourful 'portraits'. On these bold visages—painted with acrylic on the underside of Perspex—much smaller portraits of other people, or tattoos, images of assorted symbolic animals, plants or objects, are decoratively superimposed as a sort of 'face-painting'.

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The artist also works in ceramics, usually focusing on feminist settler history and painting on fired platters. She also makes drawings and paints on paper.

Early Life

Mitchell's family came out to Aotearoa New Zealand from Ohio in 1973. Living and working in Auckland, she completed an BFA at the University of Auckland's Elam School of Fine Art in 2000.


Sam Mitchell's paint application method, in which she paints in reverse order from the back of Perspex glass, is related to the Balkan folk technique of glass painting that was popular in former Yugoslavia. The method also has precedence in Aotearoa New Zealand with the artist Wong Sing Tai, who was well-known in the 1970s for his acrylic on Perspex mandalas and rocket ships.


Sam Mitchell's portraits—whether of famous dead authors or artists, fictional literary characters, or living people—are conceptually complex. The larger dominant physiognomy is not the point of the image's title, which is directed instead towards the collage-like insertions which allude to that individual's 'inner' passions, personality traits, and influences.

One of many interpretations of Mitchell's portraiture is that our enthusiasms 'create' us, that we as subjects are moulded by our likes and dislikes, and the people we are drawn to or repulsed by. They shape our personalities. Another ruminates on the complexities of interiority, and the dubiousness of outward facial appearance being used as an aid in determining character or moral integrity.

Instead of distinctive 'good looks', Mitchell prefers to present the fragmented rebus-like signification of popular tattoos and cartoons, juxtaposed with internet memes and a plethora of other loaded images. See, for example, Nick (2013), Janus (2010), and Someday (2012). These scattered quotations provide a kind of visual list.

Later portraits

In more recent years, Mitchell has introduced a more psychedelic multi-coloured palette, lessening an earlier reliance on deep blue or grey.

Often these portraits are about fandom, adoration, or obsession; for the physiognomies we see are now irrelevant shells, non-descript features of admirers who aspire to be the minds and bodies of 'movers and shakers'. They want to become 'creative' influencers too. They wish to inhabit these personalities of substance.This fangirl love, Mitchell seems to be saying, affects how we view the sources of influence. It is as if the future can go back and change the past. The mechanisms of desire that avidly embrace those lives and legacies can also smother or contaminate them. Rather than the portrait subjects absorbing the visions of their predecessors, those predecessors have invaded and consumed their admirers—becoming new portrait subjects themselves. Examples include Margaret Mahy, 1936—2012 (2019), Rita Angus, 1908—1970 (2019), Tony Fomison (1939—1990) (2020), and David (Bowie) 1947—2016 (2020).

Awards and Accolades

Mitchell has been the recipient of several awards and residencies. She was the Artist in Residence at Tylee Cottage, Whanganui in 2015 and a William Hodges Fellow in Invercargill in 2014. She was also awarded the Paramount Award at the Wallace Art Awards in New York in 2010. Her work is featured in the Wallace Art Collection, Auckland.


Mitchell has been the subject of both solo and group exhibitions. Solo exhibitions include Endings, Bartley & Company Art, Wellington (2019); Desires Postponed, Melanie Rogers Gallery, Auckland (2016); and Hips, Bartley & Company Art, Wellington (2014).

Recent group exhibitions include In Your Face: Sam Mitchell and Gavin Hurley, Bartley & Company Art, Wellington (2021); Henrietta Harris, Sam Mitchell, & Gavin Hurley: Rumours, Franklin Arts Centre, Auckland (2016); and André Hemer, Lonnie Hutchinson, Kerry Ann Lee, Sam Mitchell: Paperwork, Bartley & Company Art, Wellington (2016).

John Hurrell | Ocula | 2021

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