By Cameron Lee
July 28, 2022
When West Charlotte native Kevin “Surf” Mitchell came up with the idea of setting up a living room in Uptown for a photo shoot, he probably didn’t think it would be part of his life’s work. The photographer has created some of the city’s most iconic images through his work with artists like Lute, Deniro Farrar, The Ton3s (formerly The Hamiltones), Mavi and DEVN, an aspiring R&B artist and twin brother to Surf. Mitchell’s traveling photo series, simply titled “Couch Surfing”, allowed him to see the country with several of his friends, reconnecting him with nostalgia for childhood family trips organized by his Aunt Rudean.
Mitchell, a graduate of the Northwest School of the Arts, had a creative instinct one day in the wee hours of 2014. The idea led him to pack a makeshift living room in a Toyota Camry to recreate an image he had in his head. .
“It was just an idea. I was just like, ‘Hey, let’s put this couch on the road and call it ‘Couch Surfing,'” Mitchell said. I wanted to see it somewhere else, but it was so far-fetched for me at the time.”
Focused on dance and acting in high school, it wasn’t until Mitchell started hanging out with skateboarders at Black Sheep in the South End’s heyday that he took up photography. With many of the creators around him already documenting skateboarding around the city with videos, Mitchell aimed to capture footage for skate magazines using an inexpensive point-and-shoot camera he got it from a friend. Although he didn’t study photography in high school, he used many of the skills learned at Northwest School of the Arts for his Couch Surfing photo shoots.
“So it’s a bit like sculptural art with photography. And then the way it’s lit, everything is lit from above, like it’s theater. So a lot of those creative aspects came from the things I studied at Northwest,” Mitchell said.
With the idea lingering in his head, it wasn’t until he held his own small art exhibit at the Joint off 36th in 2014 titled “Uncategorized” – an ode to the famed hip-hop photographer Chi Modu’s book, Tupac Shakur: Uncategorized– that he fully conceptualized the idea. In 2015, while working at Armada Skate Shop in Plaza Midwood, he saved enough money to take his first “Couch Surfing” trip with several of his friends in tow and a well-worn black sofa. Passing through DC on the way to New York, the trip was reminiscent of the family vacations he had been on as a child led by his Aunt Rudean, a longtime restaurateur (Rudeans) from 1957 to 2016 and a mainstay of the West . Charlotte community.
“My Aunt Rudean used to take the whole family to South Carolina, but we all traveled in, like, a big RV or a big pickup truck. So I grew up doing this stuff every year,” Mitchell said. “That’s all I really knew. My Aunt Rudean has done this with the whole family for years.
After taking epic photos at the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument (across the waters of the Potomac River) under close surveillance, Mitchell and company hit Times Square, Wall Street, Coney Island, Chinatown, Soho, Little Italy and New York’s famous Apollo Theater.
Returning to simpler times, Mitchell recalled the early days of the project. “It was fun. It wasn’t too much to worry about. We were just kids skating and taking pictures,” he said. community engagement, like, people were seeing the photos on Instagram going crazy… you know, just to get the results, ‘like you, I did this.'”
While buzzing with New York and DC experiences, Mitchell set his sights on bigger goals. When he discovers for the first time the famous international art fair, Art Basel, which takes place every year in Miami Beach, he decides to make the trip. Learning more about the art business at the extensive annual show, Mitchell planned the next “Couch Surfing” expedition for Art Basel the following year. This time, Queen City rapper Lute was at the controls of the sprinter van, shortly after signing with Dreamville. While the trip to Miami was admittedly unsuccessful as far as actual photos go, it was another learning experience that would guide Mitchell through several more trips to piece together his vision.
He then explored New Orleans, photographing landmarks such as Bourbon Street, Piazza d’Italia and Louis Armstrong Park. The next trip to Austin, Texas for South by Southwest is where Mitchell will face real calamity when the RV he rented breaks down in Alabama. Harassed by cops who pulled over to search their vehicle, Mitchell questioned himself and the purpose of the project, especially after the original couch used in the photo series fell into disrepair.
“I was just like, you know, I’m beaten, I’m defeated, I’m tired. I’m exhausted. I just got arrested, I missed a whole day, I just lost money, like, I was like ‘you know what? This may be the last Couch Surfing trip I take.
Taking a break and walking away from the project after that failed excursion, more lousy luck would follow. In August 2020, just hours after bringing home his newborn son, Kai, Mitchell ended up in hospital after being shot by ricocheting bullets during an altercation in his neighborhood outside his home. in WestCharlotte. Although the injuries were not life-threatening, he noted that he spent 14 days in hospital.
After becoming a father, surviving the pandemic and an almost tragic situation, Mitchell’s perspective on Couch Surfing has become something more global. Completing the western part of the photo series in March 2022, he flew to Albuquerque, New Mexico, venturing through the Petrified Forest in Arizona, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Joshua Tree, Venice Beach, Beverly Hills and Hollywood. Mitchell now envisions Couch Surfing as being more generational for young budding artists.
“A lot of people make art, but some people probably never get the chance to go somewhere and travel and make art,” Mitchell said. “Especially with a group of other artists, I think it’s like a very different experience. And I want it to continue. »
In the same way his Aunt Rudean’s restaurant became a hub in West Charlotte for nearly 60 years, Mitchell wants to provide opportunities for the city’s budding young artists and encourage group travel. He wants Couch Surfing to be that hub.
Mitchell will be exhibiting her work on August 6 at the VAPA Center, hosted by The Light Factory, along with several talented Charlotte artists who participated in the expedition. Much like the childhood trips that encouraged him to start the Couch Surfing journey, Mitchell is planning a lot of familiarity and good nostalgic vibes at the event.
“I want them to feel like they came to a family reunion and met family members, like, they didn’t know they were related.”
Surf Mitchell’s Couch Surfing Expo will open at the VAPA Center on Saturday, August 6 located at 700 N. Tryon St, Charlotte, NC 28202. The opening night and exhibit will be free to the public.