Photo by Jim Scholz

The Mary Mitchell Story

Born Mary Kasfasis, Mary inherited her determination from her parents, who immigrated to America from the picturesque mountainside village of Siatista in northern Greece. Mary's father immigrated to the United States at age 16 with $11 in his pocket. After a succession of menial jobs, he worked on the railroad as part of a track maintenance crew. The work paid well but it was miserable, backbreaking labor.

Her father and a friend saved enough money to buy a candy shop, like many Greek-Americans who used confectionaries and restaurants as their entrée to the American Dream. Her father was 30 years old when, in "Old World" style, he wrote his parents in Greece asking if they could find a suitable bride for him. The answer was Mary's mother, a beautiful young woman of 18 from the same small village. The two of them lived above the candy shop in South Buffalo and both worked very hard making a success of their business and providing for their young daughter. Early on, young Mary worked in the candy store, helping fill the Easter baskets with hand-made chocolates or decorating the Valentine boxes with ribbons and flowers.

Mary's penchant for drawing surfaced at a young age. "When I was little, I would get a pad, colored pencil, crayons or paint and start drawing. My mother encouraged my interests, keeping art supplies available and seeing that I had piano and dance lessons. I decided very early that I wanted to be an artist."

The high school Mary was required to attend didn't have an art program, so after one year she asked for a transfer to Bennett High School, known for its excellent art program but located on the other side of town. Doing that meant waking up early, taking three different buses, coming home later and getting approval from City Hall. Mary did all that and continued to focus on improving her art. The art teacher, who noted that Mary's talent was of exceptional merit, mentored the young artist and encouraged her to enter national art competitions. Mary's flair and talent were recognized. She won national awards for poster design and the prestigious Hallmark Corporation national competition for greeting card design.

Then tragedy struck. Just two months before Mary's high school graduation, her mother died after a long illness. She was only 39 years old. Losing the mother she adored at 17 was a terrible blow to Mary, who was an only child.

Mary had been scheduled to go to Syracuse University and pursue an art degree but her father insisted that a secretarial school was the proper choice for a young woman. It was an "Old World" Greek mentality. If Mary's mother had still been alive that discussion would have been short-lived as she believed in her daughter and believed her talent shouldn't be denied. Her father would not pay for art school, but her mother's love, wisdom and instinctive foresight produced a miracle. "Unknown to anyone, all those years my mother had saved the coins from the jukeboxes in the candy store and left a savings account in my name. It was my mother's love that provided the means for me to pursue my interest in art."

After attending the Albright Art School in conjunction with the University of Buffalo, Mary graduated as a fashion illustrator and started her job search. Talented, but without experience, it took several months of job hunting before Mary found a position as a sign painter in the display department of the upscale Flint & Kent department store. At the time, Flint & Kent's fashion illustrator was pregnant and after she left Mary was asked to be their next fashion illustrator. And so began a 30-year career as a fashion illustrator.

Mary's book, Drawn to Fashion, reveals the genre of fashion illustration to be an art form in its own right. Especially when the pencil, pen or charcoal is held in the hand of an artist like Mary Mitchell. Mary has preserved over 1,000 fashion illustrations from a freelance career working for major retailers and fashion stores in the Midwest. The book features more than 100 previously unpublished illustrations as well as commercial fashion illustrations used in newspaper advertisements created over a prolific 30-year career. This was a time when fashion had evolved from a luxury best afforded by the wealthy into a global business where trends change quickly. Mary drew it all, from bellbottoms to ball gowns. From full skirts to mini-skirts. From leather jackets to leisure suits. From polka dots to paisley. From batik to brocade.

Designers appreciated how she artistically translated their inspirations for countless customers they would never meet. Merchandisers loved her because her illustrations brought eager buyers into their stores. Her impact on the fashion scene was significant. All accomplished without saying a word. A line here and a line there. A curve here, a curve there. Smooth here or textured there. Her art spoke for her, a persuasive message about the joy of dressing with elegance and stylish ease.

Mary Mitchell along with other artists helped define the face of fashion with amazing skill. She created and continues to create an astonishingly vibrant body of work that has made money for retailers, put smiles on customers' faces and added beauty and style to the world around her.