Ex-engineer now lives artist's life

Posted: Thursday, November 25, 2010

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- When Ed Mighell walked away from his career as an engineer, he gave up a lot: a high salary, a Jeep Cherokee and even his marriage.

Ap Photo/Ajoc, Sean Manget
Ap Photo/Ajoc, Sean Manget
Ed Mighell poses with two of his tile designs in his downtown Anchorage studio Nov. 9. He sells the tiles, which can be adorned with everything from plant imprints to portrayals of traditional Inupiaq folklore, in Anchorage and at craft fairs.

But Mighell had grown weary of a life spent sitting in a cubicle, waking up every morning to calculate cost estimates for projects with Arctic Slope Consulting Group.

"I couldn't wait until the end of the day when I worked in a cubicle," Mighell said.

He quit.

Mighell, 53, now spends most of his days toiling away in his workshop, creating artistic tiles that he sells to tourists, art collectors and anyone looking to spruce up a countertop or hang a unique piece of Alaska Native art on a wall.

The tiles feature a variety of designs, from leaf imprints to depictions of animal characters from Inupiaq fables. Some of his creations are tailored to market demand; others are guided by his own creativity.

Tourists are drawn to his tiles for two reasons, in part because they are Alaska Native-made. Mighell is Inupiaq and is registered as a Silver Hand Alaska Native artist.

But they also like that the clay used to make the tiles is collected from the mud flats of Cook Inlet, giving buyers the chance to take something home with them that is truly part of Alaska.

"Someone called me a 'purist' because I mix my own clay and make my own glazes, but that's what sells," he said.

The journey to this point in Mighell's life, where he can finally wake up and do something he enjoys for a living, was a long and arduous one. He spent much of his childhood and young adult life wayward, with little incentive to work hard or to kick his addictions to smoking and alcohol abuse.

He also spent much of his adult life following in the footsteps of his dad and several siblings, becoming an engineer. But eventually, his creative drive got the better of him, and since, he has made his living solely as an artist.

Migrating north

Mighell spent most of his early childhood years in Colorado. His mother, an Inupiaq Eskimo from Point Hope, met when his father was deployed to the Arctic while working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In 1980, Mighell's buddy moved to Anchorage in pursuit of a girl. For adventure's sake, Mighell came along. After the friend moved back to Colorado sans girl Mighell, now into his early 20s, stayed.

He worked for a hardwood floor company until, at the urging of his sisters, he attended Anchorage Community College, graduating with a general associate's degree in 1987.

He then pursued a bachelor's degree from the University of Alaska Anchorage, working toward a bachelor's degree in engineering. He was especially taken with thermodynamics, the science concerned with the relationship between heat and mechanical energy. He believes this may have had an influence on his eventual love for ceramics.

Mighell also worked at a print shop and enjoyed the social life on campus maybe a little too much. About a year into the job, Mighell had been drinking heavily the night before, and came into work hung over. Mighell's boss called a meeting later that day and reminded all of the employees that drinking was not allowed while on the job.

Mighell said his boss's eyes were locked squarely on him while the warning was issued.

"It was sort of like a minor intervention," he said.

Later, Mighell opened a phone book and called Alcoholics Anonymous to find out where the next meeting was.

He hasn't had a drop of alcohol in 20 years now, he said. His grades improved and he lost a lot of weight. For the first time in his life, he noticed that women were interested in him. He theorizes that he became more approachable after quitting drinking.

He earned his bachelor's degree in 1991 and started work as an engineer with Arctic Slope Consulting Group in 1992, while working on his master's degree.

Mighell was ready then to explore his artistic talents. He started taking piano classes, where he mixed with art students. He spoke with the dean of the arts program (the dean's work often looked architectural in nature, as opposed to something more abstract, Mighell said).

He took courses in drawing and painting, and eventually got into engraving copper plates and printmaking. He eventually decided to try printmaking with clay, and took a summer class where, for each day of the summer session, he made a tile.

After a ceramics professor let him take home a test kiln to experiment with it, he knew he had found a skill he wanted to further develop.

As time went by, Mighell realized he wasn't enjoying his work with the firm. His off-season work involved poring over spreadsheets rather than traveling out to project sites.

A few years ago, Mighell called in to work and gave his two weeks notice.

"It was pretty sudden," he said. "It was just getting so hard to get up in the mornings."

The life of an artist

Mighell never did finish his master's degree. He had to scramble to finish getting his art degree because he had been going to school for so long that some of his credits were about to lapse.

He worked up a business plan that allowed him to break even in the first couple of years and, with a little extra work in the winter, he making a decent living. He put up part of his retirement savings and sold his car. His wife left him.

But Mighell thinks it was worth the sacrifice.

This is where Mighell now spends most of his days, with only a small television set or a radio keeping him company.

Mighell makes most of his money during the tourism season, at craft fairs, weekend markets or at the Alaska Native Heritage Center, the museum or at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention.

His tiles range in price depending on the size and the process it takes to make them, but they range from $25 to $130.

He didn't necessarily intend to delve into his cultural roots through his work at first. But as he spoke with employees of the Alaska Native Heritage Center, he learned more and more about Inupiaq culture and traditions.

Inupiaq stories gradually made their way into his designs, and his aesthetic style was informed by the culture as well. Many of these stories were hunting-related, he said, with some magical element woven in.

He is now able to live his own terms, and prefers to spend his days cooped up in a cluttered garage as opposed to a cubicle.

"I don't want to wait until I retire to make an attempt at living an artist's life," he said.

And, if it doesn't work out, Mighell said engineering has long been plan B.

"But it's one I don't want to pursue," he said.


Information from: Alaska Journal of Commerce, http://www.alaskajournal.com

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