And now I’d like to indulge in a purely personal moment. This Saturday marks the fourth annual 4 the Luv of Arts benefit in Lahaina (see this Mauivents post for more info). As always, it’s held in honor of Gianna Mitchell, an artist, surfer and writer who died in a single-car crash in Makawao on Nov. 1, 2009.
Gianna was a friend of mine. I met her in 2003, not long after I started working as MauiTime editor. Back then, the paper’s office was located at 505 Front Street, in Lahaina. One day, Gianna walked in and asked if she could write for us. I was still very new, and very green, but I needed writers and gave her a shot. She ended up writing an arts & entertainment piece on the Rebirth Brass Band, which was then doing shows around the island. Her story ran in our Oct. 23, 2003 issue.
According to our online archives and my memory, that was her only story for us. But we kept in touch, mostly to talk about her painting. Like most transplants to Maui (Gianna was born in Tallahassee, Florida in 1978), she was working service industry jobs when I met her. But art was always very important to her, and she began finding ways to make money painting the waves and seascapes that she loved so much.
In 2007, when she took over the Breakwall Cafe in the 505 Front Street complex, converting it into a combination painting studio and cafe, I wrote a story about her which ran in our Feb. 22, 2007 issue. In that story, I asked her about encounters she had with strangers when painting:
“That’s what I like about painting,” she told me. “Someone will see a painting and talk to you, say something they’d never say to you otherwise. It’s a very cool way to make a connection. I don’t know what it is that gets them to tell me what’s on their mind, but I like it. I get that a lot with the surfers. I painted under the Banyan Tree one time. Even though I was listening to music and had headphones on, people were not shy about coming up and talking to me.”
Gianna ended up not owning the cafe very long, but she stuck with painting, eventually securing wall space on at least a couple Front Street galleries. In fact, I even contemplated purchasing one of her surf images when I was preparing to move to Northern California in the spring of 2009, but moving expenses ultimately kept me from buying anything.
And that was the last time I had any contact with Gianna, until the fall I guess, when I was hanging out a friend’s house in Roseville when I randomly decided to check The Maui News webpage to see what was new. That brought me to a story on how Gianna had died shortly after a Halloween night car crash.
I say all this not because I’m trying to get people to attend the Lahaina arts benefit (though it would be nice) but to show that, for a brief moment, Gianna was able to make at least part of her living doing something she loved–something creative that brought enjoyment to those around her. There aren’t many who can make the same claim.
Photo of Gianna Mitchell in 2007: Pietro Ortiz
About Anthony Pignataro
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He started work as MauiTime's Editor in 2003, took a couple years off starting in 2008, then returned to the staff in 2011. He's the author of "Stealing Cars With The Pros," a 2013 collection of his journalism and the Maui novels "Small Island" (2011) and "The Dead Season" (2012)–all of which were published by Event Horizon Press. In 2014, his one-act play "War Stories" won second place in the Maui Fringe Festival.