I met up with Kevin “Surf” Mitchell at SouthPark Church the day after he held the opening reception there for his new exhibit, The Couch Surfing Expedition. Known for his photography and videography work highlighting local musicians and artists, Surf took The Couch Surfing Expedition cross-country, setting up photo shoots — with dozens of local creatives as collaborators — depicting his subject in front of some of America’s most iconic settings.
I met Surf in 2016 when he was doing product shots for my brother Pat, who owns Armada Skate Shop. We quickly found that we travel in many of the same circles. What I didn’t know is that Surf had already been working on The Couch Surfing Expedition. Having first launched the effort in 2014, the project has evolved in many ways since then. He’s also taken part in other long-term projects like Behind the Ink, which Queen City Nerve covered in December 2021.
The premise of the Couch Surfing Expedition as it exists in its most current form is, typically, 10-15 creative collaborators travel to a destination to set up for a photo that depicts a person, Surf’s wife Kaylin Little, sleeping in onesie pajamas on a loveseat-sized couch. Oftentimes the shoot, which may be in the middle of a busy street or other difficult location, would need to be set up, carried out and broken down in a matter of seconds.
Although the trips were centered around getting the shot, they were also designed as a tool of reflection for the everyday creative.
Surf speaks through people that are in different walks of life and on different journeys, including people that have never been outside of the state and are sharing their first experience through Couch Surfing.
I know Surf to be the busiest of busy bodies, so when he offered to accommodate my request for an interview during his opening reception on July 1, I encouraged him to focus on being present for the party and I would stop by the next day.
Opening night occupied two floors in SouthPark Church: the second floor for the exhibition and the fourth floor for performances, light refreshments and a rooftop view. The ambiance was set with performances by Makeda Iroquois and Nia Zhane, with none other than local hip-hop legend and longtime Surf collaborator Elevator Jay taking over DJ duties.
As one of the many creatives that has traveled with Surf on his Couch Surfing tour, or expedition, as he calls it, Jay gave Surf a warm introduction to the stage to speak on his journey thus far. Not one to hog the spotlight, Surf invited everyone that was a part of the Couch Surfing tour on stage to share stories, testimonies and a few laughs.
Elevator Jay told a story about the most recent Couch Surfing trip to Salvation Mountain, a 28-year-old man-made mountain in the California desert that’s been called a “fantasy world art installation” covered in latex paint. Jay talked about driving through Slab City at night, saying it “looks like somewhere you can die.”
Kenion Sherill, also known as Charlotte rapper Cuzo Key, grabbed the mic and said, “Y’all wanna talk about Vegas?” and everyone on stage shared a different expression — mostly laughter — which made me want to be on the inside of all the inside jokes.
After a few more hilarious stories from some of Charlotte’s notable creatives like Carey J. King and Mariah “Peculiar Hippie” Scott, Surf thanked all the past and present couch surfers with gratitude: “We’ll be able to look back on this for the rest of our lives and that’s the most important thing.”
Upon my return to SouthPark Church on the following day, I was greeted at the door by Sam Nameus, a Charlotte curator and one of Surf’s close friends. We chatted up the elevator to the second floor where Surf was.
Before we started, Surf pulled out an old picture of me at a Couch Surfing photo shoot installation in 2016, which he held during an event at Studio 1212. As it turns out, I have been Couch Surfing before! (Or at least in the room.)
We spoke about his goals for The Couch Surfing Expedition, how it’s evolved, and what it will look like in the future.
Queen City Nerve: I honestly had no idea that Couch Surfing started in 2014. What initially sparked the idea?
Kevin “Surf” Mitchell: It really represents the risk that artists take and the struggles that they go through to get to wherever they want to go. Every great success story starts with a couch. The couch is the representation of the start of the journey.
So, it’s like an ode to the starving artist?
And how is it similar or different from the original idea or concept eight years later? I would imagine it’s gone through several changes.
Well, at first, it wasn’t as refined. Looking back, I think I didn’t really know how to get the message across because I was young and I just wanted to do something. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re doing until you’re in the middle of it.
Why SouthPark Church as opposed to your typical exhibit space?
So, I have over 40 images for Couch Surfing and I wanted to be intentional about space and the layout. I love the exclusivity of the space. I was also drawn to it because of the [fourth-floor] stage, because Couch Surfing creatives weren’t just visual artists, they were musical artists as well. So I wanted to maintain that family element with both.
What were you doing before you were a photographer? I seem to remember you were big into skateboarding at one point.
Man, you couldn’t tell me I wasn’t tryna go pro! (laughs) My early teenage years? Boy! I was off the chain, my mom was probably at her wit’s end!
You brought your mom up last night when you talked about her buying you your first camera.
Well actually, my very first camera was a little Kodak point-and-shoot. My friend sold it to me for $15 and I never gave him the money. (laughs) But the homies started gassing me, telling me that I had a natural eye and it just put a fire in me. My pictures weren’t turning out like the photographs that I would see and think were dope, so I started doing research on how to do things and it just went from there. I had a bug then.
Mark Pendergrass, local photographer and photography instructor, mentored Surf and helped guide what was the beginning of Surf’s photography career.
Marc taught me business and everything I know. Because of that, I developed a backbone and I had to unlearn everything I learned growing up because sometimes, in Black households, you adopt that broken mentality.
I can relate to growing up looking at the world a certain way and then getting older and gaining perspective, then shaping your own world and identity because of it.
Yeah, and even after working for UMG [Universal Music Group], I appreciated those experiences and people from my past because it definitely shaped me. The original couch from older Couch Surfing photos was the couch in the studio [at UMG]. That was my couch in the studio and they gave it to me because they were moving and bought all new couches. I slept on it so much, six or seven days straight at the studio, no sunlight, just grinding it out. I remember the first Couch Surfing photo I posted, I saw a tweet from UMG that said, “That couch looks real familiar.”
What would you say was your most eye-opening Couch Surfing trip to date?
Definitely Salvation Mountain. It was the first time I realized what I was actually doing. I didn’t have a couch, I didn’t even know where we were gonna get one.
Surf saw a sign that said “God Never Fails,” which he took as his prompt to not give up. Fellow photographer Carey King pointed out a Goodwill nearby that ended up having the very couch he wanted.
I think that’s a perfect story to capture the Couch Surfing experience, literally and figuratively, because in a struggling artist’s journey, sometimes there isn’t a couch, or sometimes the couch is different, like a car. Things happen the way they’re supposed to even if it’s hard to see.
Man, everything that’s happening has already happened. You just have to follow your intention and listen to your gut.
We first connected through your work with my brother over at Armada, who’s known for his sayings and motivational expressions. Did he drop any on you?
I remember one time I went to the shop and Pat was listening to The Alchemist on audiobook. (laughs) You know how somebody would pull up to an event to flex, and they play their favorite part in a song loud when they pull up? It’s like Pat knew I was coming to the shop, and had it playing a certain part that caught me … basically it was, “No matter where you go in life, the universe will conspire with you if you let it.”
Surf spoke candidly about his hardships during the past eight years, sharing stories about him and his wife Kaylin counting up change to split meals when times were rough. He was even shot in August 2020, the day after his first son Kai was born, in the height of the pandemic.
That wasn’t scary for you or like a turning point moment? I would’ve been like “What the hell, life? Universe?”
No, not at all. I mean, I could see why people would think that. If anything it was very inconvenient (laughs), but I never had a thought like it was over or that I was gonna quit.
How long before you started working again?
As soon as I could limp good! (laughs) It’s funny because I actually put photography to the side. When Kay was pregnant with Kai, I wanted to provide stability for us. I even told [photographer] Marc Prosper the year before at Dreamville Fest that this was my last year doing photography. It’s funny how things work out. God has my sense of humor for sure.
Yep, because it brought you right back to your purpose.
So, to shift gears back to the opening reception, you had visitors download the Artivive app on their phones to experience an interactive aspect to the series. I loved it, but what made you take that approach?
I worked on a documentary in 2018 called RCLM 37 that the Levine Museum and Johnson C. Smith [University] partnered on and wanted me to direct. It was a documentary on the west-side corridor, which is Beatties Ford [Road], a historical reclamation film to highlight what Beatties Ford is and artists from that side of town were a part of it. One of those artists was Marcus Kiser. He introduced me to augmented reality and I bookmarked that as something I wanted to do one day. People thought that these were photoshopped photos so I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to use it.
People thought it was photoshopped? Really? I guess I could see that … What was the trickiest shot? Which city?
NYC and [Washington] D.C. Wall Street was tough.
I had to act like I was Spielberg or somebody to get the shot. (laughs) It was a defense thing because of the police presence. I was thinking “I’m about to look like the biggest asshole ever,” but people thought it was performance art so we just went with it. I felt like if I didn’t scream and yell, I was gonna go to jail. (laughs) The original images had cops lined up just watching and waiting but I actually think they enjoyed it.
What other places would you like to visit that you haven’t been?
I definitely want to go international. Japan, Moscow … I want to photograph landscapes now. Nature.
So you’re done with the U.S.?
I still have a couple of [U.S.] places in mind, like I wanna go to Seattle but mainly because I wanna go fishing. And the market where they throw fish? Yeah, I wanna do that. I’ll use Couch Surfing as my excuse. (laughs)
Where do you see Couch Surfing going? Like how far do you want to take it?
Hmmm, maybe turning it into an art residency and/or a platform that provides grants for the starving artist — big enough where I’m not there but creatives can travel and partner with art galleries. I see it being a lot of things. Bigger than me.
You can check out The Courch Surfing Expedition showing at The Light Factory in their new space at the VAPA Center in Uptown through Aug. 6, when the venue will host a finale showcase and Q&A session from 6-8 p.m.