In 2011, Mitch VanDoff and his son went on a random visit to Gilgo Beach. Walking along the shore, they found some interesting pieces of driftwood and decided to take them home. Later, Mitch sat at his kitchen table looking over the pieces of weathered wood, trying to imagine what he could turn them into. In time, he saw a giraffe and created his very first piece of driftwood art.
Today, he has a menagerie and a furniture line.
A musician and singer, Mitch never considered himself an artist. So, this new hobby came as quite a surprise. “I was amazed at myself. I thought, if I could do that—what else could be inside me?”
Next, he pieced together a few crabs and hung one on his house. A neighbor walked past, admired it, and asked how much to buy it. Figuring out what to charge was a challenge—weighing how much time something took in proportion to what people would pay. Mitch gave him a price and made his first sale.
What put him on the local map was his brilliant green driftwood Statue of Liberty that he placed on the boardwalk by Edwards Avenue. It was the first piece of art he had ever placed publicly—and it was noticed. Social media proclaimed that Long Beach had its very own Banksy! Lady Liberty kept her torch raised on the boardwalk for about a year; Mitch took her down right before Hurricane Sandy for safekeeping.
A short time later he began putting together an “art garden” on a piece of sand adjacent to the foundation block in the center of town. “I just started putting stuff there,” says Mitch. “Rarely will people mess with it.”
Delighted by his art, people started calling to purchase pieces from his collection. One of his well-known creations—The Jolly Surfer—eventually found its way into someone’s private home.
“Sometimes I go down and stand there. People always stop and say I love your work. It’s nice, and cool, that my work is in other people’s homes.”
Collecting wood is a big part of his craft, and Mitch recently found a way to make the job a whole lot easier. Nowadays, he uses an electric bike to go up and down the beach to scout for wood, carrying back pieces in a milk crate he attached to the back. “It’s the best thing I ever bought,” he says grinning. “It’s a pain to carry the wood back. The bike was life changing. It really stepped up my game and helps me get exercise too.” During the summer he often heads out twice a day to salvage driftwood.
But since there’s not much wood on a straight-line beach, Mitch frequently travels to points and inlets (like Point Lookout and Breezy Point) to find his raw materials. One of his favorite spots is on Staten Island. “I found a place that has tons, and I bring my car and load it up.”
The backyard of his Long Beach home is a forest of wood, with every size and shape imaginable. It also has a small workshop with tools, but he tries very hard not to shave or carve any of the wood. “I cut as little as possible so it looks natural. Occasionally I’ll find a piece that inspires me and I’ll build on that. The best pieces come together fast—everything just falls into place.”
Irregular bits of wood that washed up on our local beaches are now boats, scenes, fishes, and birds. “I put it together with screws. I just sort of figured it out, there’s no YouTube for this.” Whenever the mood hits—he’ll paint them too.
One of his favorite pieces was inspired by a local boy named Brendan Carr, who sadly took his life in 2016. Brendan was a drummer, and his mom Julie asked Mitch to design a tribute piece. He made a drum set, which is presently among the pieces placed it in his art garden. “That’s one I’m not willing to sell to anyone.” Accompanying the drum set are several other pieces, including a sea serpent and the aforementioned Lady Liberty.
At this point, Mitch says he’s probably created about a thousand pieces. He finds commissions the most challenging because he’s forced to focus on something specific. He was recently commissioned by one of the Long Beach civic associations to create their The Walks sign.
My favorite piece is the Ohm symbol he crafted for the Love Integration Yoga studio, located across from the train station. It hangs over the faux fireplace for everyone to admire during practice. When co-owner, Elizabeth Dunne, called to commission it, he said, “Sure, I’ll give it a shot.” He visited the studio to see the space and calculate the size, and said he struggled for a while with different pieces to get it just right. “I get obsessed,” he says, “I love doing it.” The yoga studio sells some of his smaller pieces on site—including some rope creations he recently added to his repertoire.
His favorite things to make are sailfish and birds— and he’s now designing nautical tables. “They’re more functional and easier to sell. People ask for them.”
His popularity keeps growing. In 2017, News 12 Long Island did a story on him, and he’s also been featured in Long Beach Magazine.
His sister Lisa (who I featured in my previous blog) gets the credit for giving him the nickname, ‘Driftsy.’ She told him, “You’re like Banksy but with driftwood—so Driftsy!” For her 50th birthday, Mitch made her a piece called Phoenix rising from the Ashes. Strung with lights, it hangs above her fireplace.
When Mitch isn’t crafting driftwood designs he sings and plays acoustic guitar, so don’t be surprised if you see him at Jordan’s Lobster Farm or the Long Beach Hotel this summer.
His driftwood creations have been displayed at Arts in the Plaza and the Boardwalk Festivals. You can get in touch with him via his website if you’re interested in purchasing a piece or commissioning him to create something special.
What’s next I ask?
“I want to make a big horse,” he answers with an excited smile. Giddy up!
Happy Spring Long Beach!