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Former Arts Festival Board Presidents Linda Gall and Sally Kalin flank Mitch Lyons at our 2009 Sidewalk Sale and Exhibition Awards Ceremony.

The Festival lost a member of its extended family earlier in the month with the death of Mitch Lyons, a longtime exhibitor in the Sidewalk Sale and Exhibition.

Mitch was a printmaker from New London, PA, in the southeast corner of the state. He wasn’t a run-of-the-mill printmaker. He developed a unique process where he printed on fabric. For fabric, he used something like Dupont Tyvec, the stuff used in home building. For the pigment, he used clay slips, the liquid version of clay. Though his monoprints (they weren’t in editions, each was a one-off) sometimes included elements of collage, they’re more typically abstract explosions of color.

Abstract art, like Mitch’s, is the kind of thing that makes people who are snobs about not liking art say, “my dog/kindergartener/fill-in-the-blank could do that”. Of course, their dog/kindergartener/fill-in-the-blank couldn’t do it. When it comes to making art, the artist is the most important ingredient.

According to our stash of vintage program guides, Mitch first came to the Festival in 1990. His booth was a fixture along the Campus Mall, though in later years he relocated to the upper end of Burrowes Road. He embraced a minimalist aesthetic, with prints framed in simple maple frames hung on his tent’s neutral walls. Mitch made clay pots too, and would occasionally sell his  ceramics along with his monoprints. When he displayed his ceramic work, his tent looked like a miniature art gallery.

More than a few times he told me his sales were terrible. I wasn’t entirely surprised.  He seemed uncomfortable working as a sales guy; he was too modest for that. There were times when I thought that he’d have a hard time giving away Sno-Cones in the middle of the Sahara Desert. “You don’t want this one,” he’d say, “the ice isn’t quite a perfect dome.”

Though he was never bullish about his sales, I know lots of people who bought his work. In fact, one of my predecessors as festival director bought one for the office. We’re fortunate to have a big Mitch Lyons hanging in our outer office. It’s the only piece of art from a Sidewalk Sale exhibitor that we have in the office. 

Even if the public didn’t like his work as much as Mitch hoped, our Sidewalk Sale jurors were big fans. Though we have five different jurors each year, Mitch’s prints often won awards. In fact, he was the only artist to win our Best of Show Award three times. He took the top prize in 1994, 1995, and 1999. His last Festival was in 2013.

In years when we had artist demonstrations, Mitch almost always agreed to do one. He showed hundreds of Festival visitors how, with his deft touch, he created a print with bottles of runny clay substituting for ink. When he finished, he would peel the fabric from his slab of clay to show the print to the assembled multitude. Without fail, the audience’s eyes lit up as Mitch showed them what he’d just created. It was almost like showing a child a Polaroid photo for the first time.

I took the time to enjoy Mitch’s printing demonstration at a conference of artists and show directors held in Lancaster some years ago. Since it was just up the road from his home and studio in New London, Mitch brought his wife Bea along to be his assistant. After he finished the demo, the conference organizers auctioned the print as a fundraiser. My high bid was contingent on both Mitch and Bea signing the piece. It’s one of my prized possessions.

Mitch wasn’t just a good artist, he was a nice guy. A prince, really. He had a dry sense of humor that complemented his modest manner. The most he’d do to call attention to himself was to wear a Nittany Lyons t-shirt. I’m sure lots of people never noticed that he spelled Nittany Lyons differently than the way we spell it in State College.

I understand the Lyons family will be establishing a scholarship in Mitch’s memory. It’s a fitting way to remember an artist, teacher, and friend who brought so much joy to so many people.

A celebration of Mitch’s life will be held at the Delaware Contemporary in Wilmington, Delaware, on April 28th from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. The public is invited to attend.