Although Tolle, owner of Mitchell Tolle Studio and Gallery in Berea Ky., doesn't have an athletic background, University of Kentucky followers may want to consider his latest painting, which depicts the rivalry between the Wildcats and the University of Louisville.
In the past, Tolle's hands have brought good luck to the Wildcats. Tolle's last two works involving a Wildcat preceded a national championship. His first attempt was produced in 1996, followed by another piece two years later in 1998. Both times, the Wildcats were crowned national champions.
"It's an interesting coincidence," Tolle said. Tolle's latest print, fresh off the drawing desk, features a kitten with somewhat of an intimidating attitude. The lower right-hand corner of the painting shows a red feather, indicating a Cardinal had been present in the vicinity of the Wildcat.
Serving as a sequel to his first two Wildcat works, "Go Mean Kitty" was born. It was Tolle's way of putting the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry into a unique perspective. "I wanted to convey that there had been some sort of scuffle between the wild kitten and a bird," he said. "I didn't say anything about who won or lost, only that feathers flew."
Tolle doesn't see the painting as controversial, but took on the project as a way to paint a picture of the rivalry between the two programs to demonstrate Rick Pitino's influence as coach at both schools. "It's all in fun and light-hearted," he said. Throughout his career, Tolle's paintings have followed his literal footsteps, especially in Kentucky. Tolle's work has included paintings of former president Jimmy Carter, not to mention various people and landscapes that have captivated his mind since he was three. Kentucky basketball, he figured, is big part of life for many Kentuckians. It only made sense to include references to the Wildcats through the use of his hands.
"It's hard to ignore the influence of Kentucky basketball," he said. Tolle's first painting of Kentucky's official school mascot came at a time when he was seeking additional revenue to help pay for his new studio in Berea. His son, Mitchell Tolle Jr., suggested that his dad honor the state's flagship university by producing a print of a Wildcat.
"It wasn't the first time he had said that," Tolle said. However, the more he thought about the idea, the more it struck a chord. The project led to what Tolle described as a "miracle from God." "I think God had a hand in all of this," he said. Through the help of a mutual friend, Kenny Davis, Tolle's first Wildcat caught the attention of Pitino and longtime equipment manager Bill Keightley.
Keightley admired the piece and it was later endorsed by Pitino. "That's how the process began," he said. In a matter of a few months, the project provided a financial boost for Tolle, his family and his church. "I had been praying for a (financial breakthrough) and I believe God gave me an answer," he said.
His second painting enjoyed similar success and came during Tubby Smith's first season at Kentucky. Like Pitino, Smith endorsed Tolle's second successful Wildcat. Although his paintings have unique ties to the program, Tolle said the ball is now in Kentucky's hands to deliver an eighth national championship. "I've done my part, that's all I can do," he said. "They've got their work cut out for them."