For St. Louis artist Metra Mitchell, the year culminates with Halloween.
Metra Mitchell peers out from the window next to her front door, a wide, devilish grin on her face. She clutches a handful of remotes, selects one and gleefully presses a button.
Outside, animatronic skeletons activate and smoke spews. A trio of gawkers — two children and a parent — startle and then get excited by the wild display that has sparked to life.
The group has happened upon one the most exuberant Halloween homes in St. Louis. Mitchell, an artist whose paintings and prints explore what she calls “the magic of Halloween” year-round, annually transforms her Tower Grove home and yard into a spine-tingling installation.
Part of her reward comes from watching passersby’s reactions. She’s happy to embody the artist as voyeur.
“I like the idea of seeing people happy,” Mitchell says. “Then, also, I’m not going to lie, sometimes the kids cry. It’s strange, and sometimes they freak out, and sometimes parents get mad.”
Metra Mitchell has a studio behind her house that she's named "The Witches Hut."
When you approach Mitchell’s house, first you see the lights — purples that run along the front banisters, pumpkin lights along the walkway and white spotlights all over. On the left side of the house stand a trio of skeletons arranged in height order, from a 9-foot, much-sought-after Home Depot giant to two closer to human proportions. There’s a graveyard complete with skeleton hands reaching from the earth. Large letters spell out “BOO.” The windows are festooned with silhouettes of bats and black cats.
Head around her house, and there are two skeletons carrying an empty coffin, sinister pumpkin-headed scarecrows, glowing eyes and an animatronic werewolf by a projected moon. The backyard features cauldrons, more skeletons, more graveyards and more window silhouettes. Smoke billows everywhere.
Mitchell starts putting out the display in September, but searches constantly for new additions. This year, she scored a limited-edition glowing cauldron off Facebook Marketplace, dying a thousand deaths as the transaction dragged on for two weeks while the seller searched for the adapter.
“I was like, ‘I cannot tell her. I cannot tell her what she has,’” Mitchell says. “… I’m like, ‘Lady, I’ll go buy a fucking adapter.’” Mitchell is in her element in the lead-up to Halloween. Every night at 6 p.m., the lights and the battery-operated animatronics flip on. She takes note of the kids who naturally get into the fun and those who need a few trips not to be scared.
When the 31st hits, it’s go time.
“It’s like pure adrenaline,” she says. “You're preparing all year for basically the show of all shows.”
A duo of pumpkin-headed scarecrows stand before Metra Mitchell's house.
But Mitchell’s passion for Halloween goes beyond the day itself. “On Halloween, it’s kind of like you can be anything you want to be,” she says. “With Halloween night — or I mean for Halloween people — we try to live this life that’s always magical. To be a practitioner of magic, there’s a magic trick, but it can also be very real.”
Mitchell got into Halloween through her art, which she started young while growing up in rural Kentucky.
Her father was a “hothead asshole,” she says, and her mother, an Iranian immigrant, was the breadwinner but often absent. Left by herself, Mitchell played with Barbies, drawing on the wall and painting on the carpet with her mother’s finger polish.
“When my mom found out, my dad beat the fuck out of me,” she says, saying he broke several of her bones, stabbed her with a pair of scissors and once bit her on the face. “I have literally been punished for my art since I was a kid, and I do not know how I stayed with it.”
Mitchell needed to get out, so she focused on getting an art scholarship, landing one at Governor’s School for the Arts in Louisville for undergraduate and then attending Fontbonne University for graduate school, which is how she ended up in St. Louis.
Mitchell now works from a studio — “the witch’s hut” — behind her house. Through her artwork, she channels strength and vulnerability from her past. Her paintings and prints depict women, witches, demons, goblins and other denizens of fantasia. They are often posed, sometimes writhing, in a way that evokes classic art with a horror spin.
Over the years, her themes have been consistent, as she demonstrates with pages from an old sketchbook. However, her style and technique has evolved dramatically from those early days. Even since last year, her paintings have changed and have more built-up texture, which Mitchell calls her “blobs.”
Metra Mitchell's artwork explores the magic of Halloween year-round.
Each painting begins with a model and sometimes a posed photograph. Then she works out sketches, sometimes makes a print, and outlines the composition on a canvas.
Once the prep work is done, the painting itself goes fast. Toward the end, Mitchell finds herself disappearing into what she’s named “the shadow lands,” that state of concentration where the outside world recedes. She recalls a recent instance where she was so into painting that she’d climbed onto the table next to her canvas without consciously realizing it, snapping out to wonder how she’d gotten there.
“It actually kind of scared me,” Mitchell says.
Mitchell’s art has huge fans — she’s represented in galleries across the country and is able to make painting her full-time job, though she also teaches at several area universities.
There are, of course, times when peoples’ reactions aren’t so great: everything from parents being concerned that her work is not appropriate for their kids to men being gross. But over time, Mitchell has learned to manage it all in her own way.
“There's a lot of great things about being a witch because it's outside the patriarchy,” she says. “The patriarchy doesn't matter to a witch because they're a witch. You're a creature. You're not a woman.”
Visit Metra Mitchell’s Halloween house on the 3800 block of Hartford Street in Tower Grove Heights on October 31. More details on holidaylighthopping.com. Her artwork is available for purchase at Houska Gallery and Soulard Art Gallery in St. Louis; Sager Reeves Gallery in Columbia, Missoui; and La Luz de Jesus Gallery in Los Angeles. Check her website metramitchell.com for more information.
This story as been updated.
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