This month’s artist— Jim Bob Mitchell of Highland Springs, VA— was mixed in a different bucket. A solo painting contractor, the 53-year-old Mitchell is a fountain of folk wisdom. Now a Lakeside resident, he has been painting for over three decades.
Mitchell also spent twenty years serving part-time in the National Guard and graduated a staff sergeant. It is this second career with the U.S. Army that Mitchell credits with giving him the discipline to pursue his trade. Every night, he sets out his clothes, coffee, and sandwich; every morning, he gets up and goes to work.
DHR: When did you start painting?
JM: I started messing with paint when I was a little kid, man. Ush. I used to take paint out of my grandfather’s garage and put it on boards and trees and stuff.
Do you like painting?
Yeah, dude, I’m into it. I used to always want to be a portrait painter or something, but to me, when you finish a nice clean room and it looks mint, that’s my portrait. And people get to come home and live in it.
Do you look at it as a work of art?
What do you call those people that tell you how to decorate your house? Ush, interior decorators. Well, I can do what they do.
I design spaces. I tell people what looks good and with the times. Right now, beige is really in, and whites. Grays, white trim. It pops. But to be honest, eighty percent of it is prep. The other twenty percent is painting.
When you go to prep, what are you looking at?
The first thing I look at is the nail pops and indentations in the walls where it don’t look right. Especially when you put a fresh coat of paint on, everybody can see it, and that bothers people. They’ll get home from work, be drinking a glass a wine, and say, “Why didn’t that guy fix that?” Gives them something to complain about.
But I fix it. If you do have something to complain about, tell me about it, and I’ll fix it before you write that check to me. That’s why I always get more business from the people I work for. If I get a new customer, they always come back.
I looked for you on the Internet, and I couldn’t find you.
I’m not in the phone book or nothing, man. I can’t afford it. Plus, if I get to the point where I can’t keep up, then I gotta go hire help, then there’s liability insurance. You know the old saying: it takes money to make money.
When did you first start painting professionally?
I was 21 years old. I was painting before then, but as far as going to a real company, I was 21. Citywide Decorators. It was the real deal, man.
What’s a day in the life of Jimmy Mitchell?
Trying to get out of the bed.
The older I get, it’s harder, you know, but I do. The physical aspect of what I do will tear your body all to pieces. Walking ladders, 32 foot extensions— back in the day I could do that. It’s a rough life, man, it’s not easy.
You’ve got a lot of responsibility. You tell these people you’re coming, and you better show up, especially if it’s your second or third day of the job, and you got all your equipment at their house. They want it done, they want you out. Doesn’t matter what shape you’re in— you’re there, or else.
I’m full of mesh from lifting big ladders, and I don’t like climbing big ladders no more. I try to keep my highest ladder to 24 or 28 foot. Realistically, something that big, one man cannot do that job. You’re talking about a very big house, man. It could take like four months, and they want you out of there in two or three weeks— you’re invading their space.
So I tell these people, I take on what I can, and I give the rest to buddies of mine who have legitimate companies.
Are you independent because you dislike working for a boss?
Yeah, kinda sorta. In the painting world, it’s really hard to work for a boss, because everyone has their own ideas of how they want something done. When I look at a house, I analyze the whole thing and imagine the way that I’m gonna do it. It’s not like construction.
Plus, the big boss man has always got a real nice boat, and he gets to go places on trips and stuff. And so I’m thinking, I want to live the American Dream too. So that’s why I do it.
I got a little boat— a poor man’s boat— but I get to take it out, I get to go on trips. I’m happy with where I am. My son’s through college. I’m not getting rich, but I’m very happy. I don’t know what else to say on that one.
When did you start working for yourself?
I was living off Nine Mile Road back in the 1980s. I wanna say it was my first wife. I started working for myself, I had a Jeep, I kept it fully loaded. 1984, I think it was.
How has the industry changed over time?
The products. They come out with awesome products, and I know how to sell it, because I know what’s in it. You never stop learning, man. I want to put the finest product that I can on someone’s investment.
Another thing is the way you deal with people. When I’d make a deal, I used to shake somebody’s hand, but that’s gone now. Now I got to write contracts.
What’s the hardest thing about your job nowadays?
The hardest thing is trying to stay consistent. I try to work every day. Any man that’s out here in business wants to get up and go to work every day. The weather is a factor. I might have to take my weekend on a Wednesday or Thursday, then work Saturday-Sunday so I can bring my money home.
What I do for a living is inconsistent, but I make it work. You stay on the phone, you’re always communicating. If you don’t, you’re gonna fail. I’ve been lucky, knock on wood.
Then you got the power lines, dude. That’s one of the scariest things a painter can deal with. I’m up there by myself, nobody’s watching, nobody’s working with me. I hit that power line, somebody will come find me six, seven hours too late. A lot of painters, statistically, get killed by power lines. It’ll blow a hole right through you, bruh. This is what I do for a living. This is the life of a contractor. It ain’t no joke. You deal with it, you keep moving, if you don’t you can’t pay your bills. Then you got to go report to your wife.
What’s the coolest job you’ve ever done?
The coolest painting job I’ve ever done— ush, you got my brain scrambling, man.
The coolest job I’ve ever done is my dad’s house, out there in Powhatan County, because it’s my father, and it’s a pretty house, and I’m doing it by myself— I don’t know how to describe it— I’m up there, man, I’m surrounded by woods on three sides, out in God’s country, making this house look really nice, for my dad. It’s a personal thing.
If I’m gonna do anything for anybody, I’m gonna paint these people’s homes as if it were my home. But this being my father, it makes you wanna go one-up on it. Oh, I was busting my butt at my daddy’s house.
What’s the hardest job you’ve ever done?
Putting on epoxy at the University of Richmond. You can’t breathe, man. You wear a respirator, but you still gotta go in there and paint one wall at a time.
Epoxy is like putting glue on. You mix two parts together to make the paint. It’s very durable, very expensive paint. It’s what a lot of these people want. Trying to get through the day putting it on— you go in there for twenty minutes at a time.
That’s another thing about being a painter— the chemicals you breathe in every day. It wasn’t because I had to lift a big ladder and go up ninety-five feet. It’s tryna just breathe. To get that fresh breath of air that you want. It was horrible, man. You go by OSHA standards, and it’s still rough.
Will you ever retire?
When I fall off a ladder.
Have you ever fallen off a ladder?
I never fell off a ladder, but I slid off a two-story roof and cracked my coccyx bone and was out of work for two months. Knocked the air out of me. I thought I was gonna die, man, oh, I did. I wasn’t but twenty-one or twenty-two. I had a real struggle with my back for about four or five years after that.
Do you still enjoy painting?
I love it. I wouldn’t know what else to do. I’ve thought about getting out of it, but I can’t. I don’t want to do nothing else, man, I don’t.
Good people man, I always end up working for them again. Quality work at reasonable rates, just like my business card says. Just trying to stay busy, man, carrying my old body through life. Sooner or later I’m gonna slow down. I’m not gonna be able to roll like this forever.
But I can still get down, man. I can go out and knock two offices out in one day. You roll up to a job and they look at you like, “It’s just one person?”
They have no freaking idea what I can do in a day. I’ve been doing this for thirty-five years. Get out of the truck, knock it out. Lay the cloths out. Get it done. If a man’s got a brain, he can make it work.