June 30 2015 05:39 PM

Scalped in a freak accident, the glass artist isn't letting fear crush her creativity

Kathleen Mitchell is ready to get back to work
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

Kathleen Mitchell didn't even drop the glass vase when the accident happened.

A standard glass-art studio is separated into two parts: the "hot shop," where the burning-hot kiln is located and the work is formed; and the "cold shop," which is where the work is finished. Tired after blowing glass all day in her hot shop that sits just inside the entrance of The Glashaus in Barrio Logan, Mitchell wanted to go home, but at the last minute she decided to head into her cold shop instead.

"It all comes back to that one moment of, I guess I'll go ahead and finish things up today," says the well-known glass artist and instructor.

Mitchell pinned up her long hair, put on goggles and other protective gear and stepped up to her lathe, a beastly vintage German-made machine used for polishing, engraving and texturing. She leaned in slightly to inspect the glass vase she was shining and, in an instance, her hair fell from the clips and twisted into the machine's spindle.

"It immediately flipped me around and just scalped me," Mitchell says, standing in front of the machine that nearly killed her on that late afternoon in April. "I started screaming at the top of my lungs. I'm just so fortunate I work in a collective and there were other people around to hear me."

Out of habit, Mitchell clung to the black-and-white cylinder vase she was working on as fellow Glashaus artists Spenser Little and Michael Ross rushed in to help. She knew she had to stay conscious so she could walk Ross through the steps of disassembling the spindle while Little called 911. Excruciating pain shot through her body, but she somehow managed to methodically coach Ross on how to separate her flesh from the metal. 

"I took his hand and said, 'OK, Michael, we're going to undo this nut and now we're going to sliiiiiide my head this way,'" she says, reenacting the gruesome moment. "Those guys saved my life."


In Mitchell's artist statement, she mentions how she enjoys the fact that her creative techniques are fraught with danger. The irony is that she's referring to the hundreds of pounds of molten glass and sharp shards she works with every day. She never once considered the possibility of being wounded while polishing a vase. 

"I always think about the sharp things, the hot things," she says. "It really didn't occur to me that it was going to be something in the cold-working studio that did me in."

Mitchell's work can be divided into three main categories. She's got one-off vases, bowls and other, more commercial work that's sold in local galleries and stores like Teeter in Ocean Beach. She works with her husband, artist Rich Stewart, on custom-made doors and gates made of metal and glass. And then there's the more striking, conceptual fine-art assemblages that beautifully blend her blown glass with found objects and other interesting items she collects.

"Golden Child"
Photo courtesy of Kathleen Mitchell

"Golden Child," an eerie, large-scale assemblage that sits in the gallery space above her studio, depicts a kid in a straightjacket locked inside a birdcage with white glass eggs—both whole and shattered—strewed across the bottom. It's part of Mitchell's series of works using cages, which is inspired by her experience teaching art to prisoners at Richard J. Donovan state prison.

As the lead art instructor for Project Paint, a state-funded program that was launched more than a year ago, Mitchell goes inside the prison two nights a week to teach art to incarcerated men, many of whom are convicted murderers with life imprisonment. Though challenging, she puts the experience on the same plane as blowing glass, in terms of where her passion lies. She says her injury helped her realize just how much the program means.


Mitchell still stutters or has a hard time finding the right words sometimes. That's just one of the side effects of having her hair and bits of skull ripped from the nape of her neck to just over the crown of her head.

After the initial hospitalization, Mitchell was readmitted for a staph infection picked up in surgery. Her scalp and the chunks of hair that'd been stapled back on had to come off again. For the next operation, doctors took a huge swath of skin from her left thigh and grafted it onto the back of her head.

"Fortunately, the skin graft has taken so I'm super happy about that," Mitchell says, gesturing to her bangs and the tufts of hair framing her face. "But this is all the hair I have left. At least it's in the front."

Mitchell had 88 staples stuck in her head at one point. She kept all of them along with chunks of her hair and has plans to include the macabre materials in future artwork.

"It'll be an important part of processing the accident," she says. "The work will be about addressing it—confronting it head-on."

Mitchell laughs at the head-on pun. But then very seriously explains that she has no intention of letting fear keep her out of the studio. She runs one of the last hot shops in San Diego, and has no plans to shut it down anytime soon. In fact, she was back in the studio just days after being released from the hospital the first time, but she says it was too soon.

She's since gone into the studio to give a few personal instructions, but last week was the first time she tried doing her own hands-on work again. Her doctor asked if she thought her heart would pound or she might otherwise feel anxious when she stepped up to the lathe.

"Obviously, I think anytime you get injured by something you love, you have to love it a whole lot to face it and go back," she says. "Yes, there's a lot of fear, but more determination. It's what I do. I know how to do it. I'm confident in my skills and when I get to the cold shop..."

Mitchell pauses and thinks hard about how she'll approach it.

"You know what? I know this stuff. I'll just be confident and I'll wear three hair clips instead of one."

A busy month for Mitchell

An assemblage piece by Mitchell will be on view in The Frida Kahlo Group Art Show opening from 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday, July 18, at La Bodega (2196 Logan Ave.) in Barrio Logan. Art made by Mitchell's Project Paint students are on view in Art Transports Us Out of Bounds, an exhibition opening from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday, July 11, at the Oceanside Museum of Art (704 Pier View Way), and some of the Project Paint works will also be on view during a pop-up event happening from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday July 2, at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park.

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