His job was lighting up other people’s lives and letting them see the world in a new and vibrant way. The great talent that was Mitch Waite is no longer around to share his vision with us, his life cruelly snuffed out at 56, just as his skill and his insight had reached the pinnacle he had striven towards throughout his career as a painter.
The chief guardian of the flame of his achievement is the woman he met at the Red Pear Theatre in Antibes fifteen years ago. She was working backstage, Mitch was painting the scenery, and at an after-show party given by Hilary King the chemistry took over.
“Mitch had spent five years painting in Africa before deciding that he needed to seek somewhere else to find inspiration,” said Hanna when we met in Vence, her husband’s spiritual home.
“In the South of France he found an artist’s paradise. He was captivated by the light and the great tradition of the Riviera as a special place for painters.”
Mitch was always ambitious, both artistically and as a businessman. With the help of a Danish financial backer, he set up the Maison des Arts, guiding would-be artists through his much-praised courses in an eight-bedroom house in La Colle sur Loup, with Hanna doing the catering and admin. They married in late 2000, and within a few years sons Anthony then Elton completed a very happy family.
The Maison des Arts moved house a couple of times before Mitch achieved his long-held ambition and opened Galerie Waite within the medieval walls of Vence in 2010.
“It was his dream, and it really worked,” says Hanna. “Mitch always had a good number of commissions as a result of personal recommendations, but now that there was a lot of interest from people who knew nothing of his work, passing trade was very good.”
Mitch painted many scenes in and around Vence, an endless inspiration.
“Vence, St Paul, Tourettes ... His eyes were always alive, always looking to see how the changing light altered everything around him.”
Success for Mitch didn’t mean taking life at a slower pace. He was working harder than ever. Long days in the studio would run into the night.
“Mitch was quite obsessive,” says Hanna. “High energy, always planning the next step. I sometimes missed having the kind of guy who would stay in bed with a cup of tea at the weekend. Having said that he was definitely capable of taking time out and Sundays were always spent with the family. His art was very important but we always came first and towards the end, all he wanted to do was enjoy the simple pleasures in life with us, like having a hot chocolate together in the middle of the night.”
Towards the end of 2012, Hanna started noticing some worrying changes in her inspirational, energetic husband. “He started losing things, becoming disorganised. That was totally unlike Mitch. He always kept things in order.”
On Christmas Day Mitch collapsed while playing a football match. He was diagnosed with a brain tumour. It was an appalling shock, but there was plenty of room for optimism. “The doctors treating him at the wonderful Antoine Cassagne hospital in Nice were confident that this type of cancer would respond to a special kind of blood cell replacement chemo,” explains Hanna. “But the treatment failed twice and it wasn’t until September when the cancer came back that we knew he had very little chance. By the end of October we were told the illness was fatal.”
How like Mitch to want to take life and his family forward rather than buckle under the weight of a premature death sentence. The Waites announced that they were selling the gallery – Mitch could no longer work – and moving to Sweden. Hanna is half-Swedish, an accomplished mosaic artist and instructor in her own right. A teaching centre would be set up.
“Mitch spent his last months fulfilling as many of his dreams as he could. We went to Venice where he painted nine paintings on the bridges and in Piazza San Marco. We took the boys to Disneyland and spent the summer in England where the whole family came together to see him and he walked barefoot on the sandy beaches near his hometown on the Lincolnshire coast.
Hanna and Mitch decided that their boys, now 11 and 9, should know the truth. The huge dark eyes in Hanna’s elfin face for a moment lose their deep sadness, and she remembers a striking, happy scene from the last days.
“Mitch wanted to pass on the songs he remembered from his childhood, so when he was in bed at home we sang to him a song the boys particularly liked called She Wears Red Feathers by Guy Mitchell. We felt so together. It’s my loveliest memory.
“It was so like Mitch to want to do something like that. Not a moment in his life was wasted. He enjoyed every minute of it.”
On November 10th last year Mitch Waite died peacefully at home. For Hanna now there is the feeling of a big empty space where her man used to be. “The sad times come at night.”
She has been deeply touched by the tributes that have poured in from Mitch’s former students, some have told her how he transformed the way they look at the world.
“Then there are the owners of Mitch’s work who speak of ‘the daily ray of sunshine in my sitting room’.”
An insight into an artist who never stopped evolving is provided by this recollection from Hanna.
“A customer commissioned a landscape of Vence, having seen an earlier painting displayed of the same subject in the gallery. Mitch produced something that seemed to me to show the way he had found a balance between abstract and figurative painting. The client wanted a picture much more like the one he had originally seen – down to the last twinkly light – and naturally Mitch obliged.
“So now I have that very special painting with its beautiful loose brushstrokes, Mitch painting with more freedom.”
Hanna, determined, honest, clear-sighted and not yet 40 years old, will now build a new life for herself and the boys in Uppsalla, although she is likely to return to the South of France to teach the occasional course.
“Mitch achieved what he wanted to achieve. I don’t know if he would have done that without me. Someone close said to me the other day, ‘There’s only ever room for one artist in a family. Now it’s your turn.’ This is exactly what Mitch wanted for me, too.”
“The most important thing for me is to connect to something in the subject that touches my emotions. That becomes the driving force of each painting: the light and atmosphere of a dramatic landscape or a busy street or the character and sentiment in a portrait. A painting can reveal so much. I never cease to be amazed, and I can’t imagine that I could ever lose the desire to keep searching for more and to go deeper.”
Mitch Waite, 1956–2013
Mitch Waite, 1956–2013