Charlotte photographer Surf Mitchell exhibits years-long travel photo exhibit inspired by family roots

By Cameron Lee

July 28, 2022

When Kevin “Surf” Mitchell, a West Charlotte native first came up with the idea to set up a living room in Uptown for a photo shoot, he probably wasn’t thinking it would become a part of his life’s work. The photographer has created some of the city’s most iconic images through his work with artists like Lute, Deniro Farrar, The Ton3s (formerly The Hamiltones), Mavi, and Devn, a budding R&B artist and Surf’s twin brother. Mitchell’s traveling photo series, simply titled “Couch Surfing,” has allowed him to see the country with several of his friends, reconnecting him with the nostalgia of childhood family trips organized by his aunt Rudean. 

Kevin “Surf” Mitchell in front of his Las Vegas Couch Surfing photo at a showing. Photo: Mark Pendergrass

Mitchell, a Northwest School of the Arts graduate, had a creative instinct one day in the wee hours of the morning in 2014. The idea resulted in him packing a makeshift living room set into a Toyota Camry to recreate an image he had in his head. 

“It was just an idea. Just flat out being like, ‘Hey, let’s put this couch out on the road and like call it ‘Couch Surfing,’” Mitchell said. “Essentially, I had in the back of my head that I wanted to see this in other places, but that was so far-fetched for me at the time.” 

Focused on dance and theater while in high school, it wasn’t until Mitchell started hanging with skateboarders at Black Sheep in the golden era of South End that he picked up photography. With many creators in his circle already documenting skateboarding in the city with video, Mitchell had his eyes set on capturing images for skate magazines using a cheap point-and-shoot camera he got from a friend. Though he didn’t study photography in high school, he utilized a lot of the skills learned at Northwest School of the Arts for his Couch Surfing photo shoots.  

Surf Mitchell’s Couch Surfing photo from Chinatown in New York City. Photo: Surf Mitchell

“So it’s kind of like sculptural art with photography. And then the way it’s lit, it’s all top-lit, like it’s theatre. So a lot of those creative aspects came from the things that I studied at Northwest,” said Mitchell. 

With the idea lingering in his head, it wasn’t until he hosted his own small art show at The Joint off 36th in 2014 called “Uncategorized”– an ode to the famed hip-hop photographer Chi Modu’s book, Tupac Shakur: Uncategorized— that he fully conceptualized the idea. In 2015, while working at Armada Skate Shop in Plaza Midwood, he saved up enough money to take his first “Couch Surfing” trip with several of his friends in tow and a well-worn black couch. Riding through D.C. on the way to New York City, the trip was reminiscent of the family vacations he had been a part of as a kid led by his aunt Rudean, a longtime restaurateur (Rudeans) from 1957 to 2016 and a pillar in the West Charlotte community.  

“My Aunt Rudean would take the whole family to South Carolina, but we would all travel in, like, a big RV or a big van. So I grew up doing that stuff every year,” Mitchell said. “That’s all I really knew. My Aunt Rudean did it with the whole family for years.” 

Mitchell’s aunt Rudean, a longtime restaurateur (Rudeans) and pillar of the community, inspired his Couch Surfing photo trips. Photo: Courtesy

After taking some epic shots at the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument (across the waters of the Potomac River) under close security watch, Mitchell and company hit Times Square, Wall Street, Coney Island, Chinatown, Soho, Little Italy, and the famed Apollo Theater in New York City. 

Reflecting back to the simpler times, Mitchell recalled the early days of the project. “It was fun. It wasn’t too much to worry about. We were just kids skating and taking pictures,” he said. “I was hype, there was a lot of community engagement, like, people were seeing the photos on Instagram going crazy…you know, just to have the results, ‘like yo, I did that.’” 

While still buzzing off the New York and D.C. experiences, Mitchell set his sights on bigger goals. When he first discovered the renown international art fair, Art Basel, which takes place yearly in Miami Beach, he decided to make the trek. Learning more about the business of art at the vast annual spectacle, Mitchell planned the next “Couch Surfing” expedition for Art Basel the following year. This time Queen City rapper Lute was at the helm of the sprinter van, not long after he signed to Dreamville. While the Miami trip was admittedly unfruitful as far as actual photos, it was another learning experience that would guide Mitchell through several more voyages to piece together his vision. 

Couch Surfing photo from Washington, D.C. Photo: Surf Mitchell

He explored New Orleans next, photographing landmarks like Bourbon St., Piazza d’Italia, and Louis Armstrong Park. It was the following trip to Austin, Texas for South by Southwest where Mitchell would confront real calamity when the RV he had rented broke down in Alabama. Harassed by the cops who stopped to search their vehicle, Mitchell questioned himself and the purpose of the project, especially after the original couch utilized in the photo series fell into disrepair. 

“I was just like, you know, I’m beat, I’m defeated, I’m tired. I’m exhausted. Just got pulled over, I just missed a whole day, I just lost hella money, like, I was like ‘you know what? This might be the last Couch Surfing trip I do.’” 

Taking a break and distancing himself from the project after that failed excursion, more crummy luck would follow. In August 2020, only hours after bringing home his newborn son, Kai, Mitchell found himself back in the hospital after being shot by ricochet bullets from an altercation in his neighborhood in front of his house in West Charlotte. While the injuries weren’t life threatening, he noted he spent 14 days in the hospital. 

Surf Mitchell’s Couch Surfing from the Grand Canyon. Photo: Surf Mitchell

After becoming a father, surviving the pandemic, and a near-tragic situation, Mitchell’s perspective on Couch Surfing has developed into something more all-encompassing. Finishing up the western portion of the photo series in March of 2022, he flew to Albuquerque, New Mexico, venturing through the Petrified Forest in Arizona, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Joshua Tree, Venice Beach, Beverly Hills, and Hollywood. Mitchell now envisions Couch Surfing to be more generational for aspiring young artists. 

“A lot of people do art, but some people probably never get the opportunity to go somewhere, travel and do art,” said Mitchell. “Especially with a group of other artists, I think that’s like a very different experience. And I want to see that continue.” 

In the same way his aunt Rudean’s restaurant became a hub in West Charlotte for nearly 60 years, Mitchell wants to provide opportunities for young aspiring artists from the city and encourage group traveling. He wants Couch Surfing to be that hub. 

Artists participating in Surf Mitchell’s Couch Surfing exhibit opening on August 6 at VAPA Center.

Mitchell will be exhibiting his work on August 6 at the VAPA Center, hosted by The Light Factory, along with several talented Charlotte artists who were involved in the expedition. Just like the childhood trips that emboldened him to start the journey, Mitchell foresees a lot of familiarity and good nostalgic vibes at the event. 

“I want them to feel like they came to a family reunion, and met family members, like, they didn’t know they were related to.” 

Surf Mitchell‘s Couch Surfing exhibit will open at the VAPA Center on Saturday, August 6 located at 700 N. Tryon St, Charlotte, NC 28202. The opening night party and the exhibit will be free to the public.

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