For the past three decades Mitzi Stone has been quietly producing what she describes as “outsider folk art” in Calgary, crossing multiple mediums like mixed-media collage, photography, sculpture, found-art, and guerrilla installations.
Now at the age of 56 she’s decided to transition to full-time artist for the first time since graduating art school in the 1980’s.
“This is how I want to make my living,” says Stone.
“I've been working as a bookseller for the last decade, and since April I have not been working and I don't want to go back to working for anybody else.
“I want to be a maker.”
Initially, Stone’s two areas of focus while studying fine arts at Red Deer College were painting and sculpting, specifically metalwork.
“I was the only female in the sculpture department doing the welding,” she says.
“The guys that I welded with, my peers, were great, it was the instructors that had a hard time with it.”
Shortly after graduating, Stone began working as a house painter to support her and her son. Art began to fall on her list of priorities, even disappearing from her life.
“When I was being a mom it got put away for a few years, and then I slowly started getting back into it,” says Stone.
It was the early 90’s when she decided to begin creating art again. Now in charge of her own artistic development, Stone begins self-teaching and experimenting with mediums she hadn’t explored during school.
Chief among them is collage, the format that’s come to characterize much of the work she prominently displays in her downtown apartment. Specifically, Stone’s collages are what’s known in the art world as “mixed media.”
They contain layers of printed illustration, even plants and other found objects. While many of her works are done on a traditional canvas, she’s also done collages on animal bones and skulls.
It was this versatility, the extent to which the medium of collage can make a statement, and its air of unpredictability that initially attracted her to it.
“It's storytelling and it's also the accidents, the creative accidents that happen,” she says.
“Some of the collage pieces are really planned from pieces I’ve collected even over a decade, paper, images.
“Then other times it will be pieces that get mixed together in a drawer, or whatever, and they'll tell me the story and then I just put it together.”
In addition to creating pieces from scratch, some of Stone’s works involve taking someone else’s story and literally adding her own message on top. They begin as paintings found at Salvation Army thrift stores and end as something completely different.
“The tackier the better, because you can really have a lot of fun with the really tacky stuff,” says Stone.
One painting that’s prominently featured on her wall, for example, began as a vintage Christmas advertisement and ended as a commentary on the excessiveness of the holiday.
Stone acknowledges that these methods probably wouldn’t have been accepted at art school, as they didn’t conform to their definition of “fine arts.” While unconventional, however, these methods have had an important place in the art history of the past century.
“I think Dada is the movement where I first really noticed the collage, like they did a lot of collage and photo montage kind of work,” says Stone.
Like Stone’s collages now, the works of Dada artists were a radical break from convention.
“They came bursting in onto to the art scene after World War one. They were very disillusioned with society and so they were rebels,” she says.
“I am the black sheep, so I think I have a little bit of that rebel streak in me.”
This innate feeling of being a rebel is why Stone has increasingly aligned herself with the philosophy of “outsider art” over the course of her career. Coined by art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972, the term refers to works created by those who consider themselves artists but lie outside the central nexus of the art world.
“Outsider Art is generally somebody trying to make art, they’re sitting down at a canvas and they're trying to make art whether they're a prisoner, or are schizophrenic, or whatever they are,” says Stone.
“Probably even just your basic amateur could be called outsider art too.”
Although far from an amateur, this mentality of existing outside the institution of art also carries itself over into the aesthetic of Stone’s work in other mediums as well.
The art that she’s received the most commercial acclaim for thus far has been her “sock monkeys.”
These fabric-based sculptures, fashioned out of a pair of sock, were at one point sold in the gift shop of the Glenbow Museum. They were also showcased in Avenue Magazine, and at the former Art Central.
“ I did sell a lot of these guys,” says Stone.
“And do you know who bought most of them?
“Men, you see a man can have a sock monkey and maintain his masculinity, straight guys too by the way.”
While the sock monkeys appear cute and amicable, they harbour a somber backstory. As Stone explains, they appeared during the Great Depression because their minimalist design and the accessibility of the materials made them suited for the era.
This, she says, is an example of “folk art,” one of the driving influences behind her works.
“Folk art could be Joe Blow has got a chainsaw, and he's looking at that stump out there and next thing you know he's carved a wood chuck out of that,” says Stone.
“It’s not a pretentious kind of art, basket weaving could be considered folk art.”
While the concepts of outsider art and folk art may be difficult to grasp at first for non-artists, the intersection between the two become more visible in some of Stone’s more recent work.
For the past four years, for example, she’s been using stones found in Edworthy Park to create a mosaic in the shape of a fish on the riverbank. It’s a guerrilla installation that often catches onlookers by surprise.
“People would ask ‘where did you find these rocks,’ ” says Stone.
“I said ‘you’re standing on them.’ ”
Another project she’s currently working on centres around the Bow River. It’s a collage featuring photography, her journal entries, and pieces of debris found along the banks.
That last elements, she says, is designed to make a political statement.
“Collage is a way of getting an idea across without words, and visual statements can have a lot of impact, and that is why my work is going to be more and more political,” says Stone.
“I think because I have more to say now.”
Outside of major projects Stone’s next goal is to establish herself on Etsy, an online market platform that echoes the grassroots, folk-driven nature of her work.
The decision to begin this enterprise now was driven in part by watching other artists on social media find success, but primarily by her changing view of mortality after a recent illness.
“I think I always wanted to do it, but always thought there was time you know,” says Stone.
“You're constantly trying to pay your bills, and we've all got debt right, but it was an illness that hit me that made me realize, like I didn't think I'd be sitting here today.
“So when you walk away from the fiery crash you kind of look and you go, well what do I want to do now?
“It's more, not the fear of death, the fear of dying doing something that I don't feel passionate about.”
While passion is a word often used in art, the source of Stone’s passion is ultimately what sets her apart.
One of the pieces that Stone is most proud of is an image of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo with a sock monkey drawn onto it. Not only is it her way of aligning herself with an icon of outsider art, it’s also a statement that, like Kahlo, Stone’s passion is fuelled by the environment and stories of the common people around her.
It’s a passion that’s fuelled by the desire to make art accessible while simultaneously championing a philosophy of radicalism that knows no boundaries.
Follow this space for updates on when Mitzi Stone’s Etsy goes live
Words by Jonathan Crane