I first became aware of the watercolor art of Dean Mitchell several years back when his images garnered recognition in regional and national watercolor shows.
I found his figurative and architectural pieces thought provoking, well drawn and possibly not from photographs.
In 2019, Mitchell was the Gold Medal Recipient at the Portrait Society of America conference. I saw the tall, now middle aged African American as he mounted the stage to accept his award from our founder, sculptor Ed Jonas.
The occasion to write this essay prompted a further investigation of the man, his art and his career path.
Born in 1957 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Dean Mitchell was reared in Quincy, Florida.
Mitchell’s earliest encouragement in his youth came from his grandmother, who was raising him. Mitchell states that it was she who gave him his first paint by number set at age 5. She also allowed him to put his first paintings on her wall in a ‘home gallery’ and proudly directed family and friends’ attention to her grandson’s current creations. Mitchell’s artistic inclinations met with a stoic assessment from his mother, who consistently advised that a black man could not make it in life making pictures.
He recalls the assassination of JFK and the unsettled time for race relations when he was about 6 years old and recounts another fact of life lived in poverty: that everyone including the children worked every day. The life that he lived while working in tobacco fields, collecting and preparing the plants for drying and the tobacco barns he worked in were vivid experiences. He painted tobacco barns because he knew them and pondered the dichotomies that they represented. Structurally magnificent, the concept of the barns were conflicted with complexity–how he felt about working there, poor while other people became wealthy, the beauty of the fields in the swelter of summer, the fragrant drying tobacco and the danger of rattlesnakes in the barn. He became aware of people and family members who died from smoking the tobacco products.
This subject matter was dictated by his world and Mitchell wanted to escape the confinements of that world. With these experiences, how would I feel about the world? How do you maneuver out of poverty? Who gives you the tools–books, paintings, music, the HOPE to find another way? Mitchell reasoned that race was the constant barrier to his ascent. So he sought a way to neutralize this issue and maneuver his work before a mainstream collecting audience. His pivotal decisions were education and finding recognition through competitions.
Mitchell’s work took a direction that is not about realistic accuracy. His decision was to connect with emotional content by painting representationally and delineating the human condition in its truest form. He developed an explorative visual process, believing that seeing the world with eyes fully open will change the world through a broader perspective. In his paintings, local places and ordinary people are discovered with dignity through the simple eloquence of his approach to painting.
Consider his painting with the white picket fence. Rocked back in a spare straight chair, an elder of many years is resting on a porch. Dark diagonals of the hand-nailed sheltering construct slash the open sky. Before this austere abstract, Mitchell paints the profile of the old man leaning against the backboard wall, his weathered arm resting on the whitewashed chop-top picketing. His skull is crowned by haloed hair and if his mind runs ruminatively, we cannot know. The pictorial projection of a long and storied memory which the viewer cannot breach, is the emotional content of this image.
In another work, the portrait of an aging worker, perhaps a field hand, confronts the viewer. From the shadow of the grey brimmed hat, an up -turned face with faded gray eyes searches unflinchingly in the brilliant sunlight. The lips part as if about to speak: as if there is a question. The man’s simple attire, rendered with economic means, underlines the life in the expressive facial rendering.
In another portrait, an elderly woman poses in a domestic scene on the edge of an aged padded brown chair. Though bejeweled with silvery rings and bangles, her hands are clenched in anxiety on her knees. Her attentive expression and the tilt of her head denote a listening attitude which immediately involves the viewer as participant in a continuing conversation.
Couching these works in the abstract and the psychological, Mitchell’s approach succeeds as a search for the genuine human condition in contemporary terms.
In reacting to current events, Mitchell makes two statements: with friction, there is growth and that history does matter. Mitchell’s perspective and success are the result of education and cultivation of his artistic interest with tenacity and perseverance.