15 Minutes with Louis Mitchell, Who Brings Sesame Street Characters to Life
“My purpose in life is to encourage people to seek the things they love to do,” says Louis, “not what they think they have to do.”
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Sesame Street’s Sesame Street
Sesame Street Sesame Street
Louis was born in Newark, New Jersey, and raised in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. Though his father left the family early, Louis had a largely happy childhood with his mother and two sisters. He credits his mother with giving him a “wonder world of a childhood” where she encouraged him to pursue his love of art and drawing. Louis found the focal point of his dreams at age six, when he first saw Jim Henson’s Muppets on The Ed Sullivan Show. He was transfixed; the puppets were unlike anything he was used to seeing on television. Louis attributes his fascination to a divine catalyst, believing that God planted the attraction to the Muppets in his heart to inspire his journey to Sesame Street years later.
“From that point on, I never stopped studying [the Muppets],” he says. “When you study something you love so much, it becomes part of you. That’s why, however I have to communicate through the characters, it just flows out of me now.”
Beside me at his workstation, Louis sketches Cookie in a confident, happy pose. With his favorite red pen clutched loosely in his right hand, Louis languidly draws in the details: Cookie’s fur, his round belly, the googly eyes.
Louis smiles down at his handiwork, pleased. “You must’ve brought some magic with you. I’ve been working these curves all day, and they just now came out right.”
It’s easy to be charmed by this enthusiasm now, but for much of his life, Louis’s passion for the Muppets and art were a joke to his siblings and his neighborhood. In a world where racism and structural injustice regularly barred African Americans from economic security and social advancement, Louis’s community believed practical trades with dependable paychecks, like plumbing, were the responsible routes for a young black man. A passion for art was not. They said Louis’s love for cartoons and drawings was an indulgent waste of time. He was discouraged by his siblings, friends, and even teachers. His father in particular was a naysayer who felt his son was better off joining the US Army.
“My dad really wasn’t interested in me,” Louis recalls. “He left the family when I was four or five years old.” When he was fourteen, Louis wrote his father a letter forgiving him for the abandonment, to which the elder Mr. Mitchell responded with a tearful phone call. While their relationship did not meaningfully change afterwards, the experience was freeing for Louis. He believes it was yet another divine intervention, God acting to remove an emotional and spiritual blockage that would have made his future struggles in building a career in art even harder.
The one person in Louis’s life that he could count on for support as he pursued art was his mother. Whenever Louis faced a setback—unemployment, having to work jobs outside of the arts—she was the one he turned to.
“My mother told me to just keep going,” Louis remembers. “She was the rock of my life. She never let me give up.”
“Competition is a distraction to me and I excelled when I focused on my own work.”
When he was seventeen, Louis landed a job as an illustrator for a respected comic book artist named Neal Adams. The two met at a monthly gathering of local New York City comic book artists where Louis showed Adams some of his sketch pads. Adams, who was known to be tough on the artists who worked for him, was impressed with Louis’s ability to create both realistic and “cartoon-y” work. It was a skill he hadn’t found in any of his prior assistant illustrators. Adams hired Louis on the spot, and Louis found an important mentor.
“He taught me how to believe in my work while I strived to get better and better, not competing with others but growing to be the best I could be,” Louis explains. “Competition is a distraction to me and I excelled when I focused on my own work.”
Louis has held many non-art related jobs over the years—hospital maintenance worker and accountant, to name just two—but he learned to view those as “fundraising” for his art career. That shift in mindset made the work bearable. In between those fundraising jobs, Louis pursued freelance design work to build his portfolio, skills, and reputation.
It was through such a gig that he got his first brush with Sesame Workshop, designing shoes. That was the first step in the long path to working full-time for the organization. He started out as a character artist correcting the work of outside artists on licensed products and children’s books. Then, after displaying his talents in sculpture, puppet building, music, and writing, Louis was promoted to several directorships, one after the other. Now, in his role as Creative Director of Character Design, Louis oversees many of the uses of Muppet art and photography globally. Today, the little black boy who fell in love with the Muppets on his TV screen is breathing life to an ever-widening cast of lovable characters.
Louis has designed and co-designed new Muppets throughout his career, including Abby Cadabby’s mother Maggie, a fairy godmother who is divorced from Abby’s father; and Kami, the first HIV-positive Muppet on the South African edition of Sesame Street. Louis is especially proud of the work he’s done in creating Julia, as his personal volunteer work with autistic children informed her design.
A few years ago, a friend suggested Louis volunteer in an afterschool program for autistic children in Staten Island. There, Louis worked with children with motor skills challenges, encouraging them to persevere in difficult tasks like puzzles and spelling their names with alphabet blocks. One child in particular touched his heart. She was nonverbal, but Louis remembers she communicated with her eyes and movements, welcoming him into her world.
“Julia doesn’t look like that little girl, but I based Julia on how she made me feel,” Louis explains. “So much joy and gratitude flooded through me when I worked on puzzles with her. I worked with other kids, but she was my star.”
One of the design stipulations for Julia was to show a child who didn’t engage easily with others or didn’t look you in the eye. Louis’s own childhood, bereft of relatable role models, inspired the feeling and sensitivity he brought to Julia. He works to provide for kids what he was denied when he was one.
Louis rises around four or four thirty in the morning and starts the day with his devotional (praying and reading the Bible) before watching a sermon. He draws as he listens to the preacher, which he likens to a form of meditation. Faith has been the constant catalyst in Louis’s life.
“My faith is my everything, it’s what I draw upon to do everything. Before I do anything, I pray.” Each prayer for his day ends with the same mantra: Father, I can’t wait to see what You do through me today.
After a quick workout, he hops the bus to the office. During the commute, he carefully observes the world around him. The real-life characters and contours of Manhattan are fuel for his imagination. He’s always the first person in the office. After dropping off his things at his desk, he spends about twenty minutes playing the piano in the music room before beginning his day. In addition to the fiftieth-anniversary work, Louis is also designing some new characters—a top secret project he can’t wait to get into the office each day to work on. Louis juggles multiple projects every day, such as logos, storyboards, and brochures, but he’s never late on an assignment.
“It has nothing to do with pride,” he insists. “It’s all about gratitude. It keeps me grounded. I’m grateful for my job. It’s my dream job.”
Verdell is a corporate warrior but writing is her first love. Passionate about social justice issues, she runs the “Black Ally Resource List”, a curated collection of resources geared toward educating potential allies as well as the “Forever February” platform which celebrates lesser known African American greats. If Verdell's not writing, she's reading. Find her on Twitter with @verdellwalker.