Interview by Ruth Grim, Chief Curator and Gary R. Libby Curator of Art
Time-Honored: The Art of Dean Mitchell
Open at MOAS May 8, 2021 - September 19, 2021
Artist, Dean Mitchell
One of Florida's preeminent artists who is in museum and in prominent private collections around the world, Dean Mitchell captures mostly unseen views such as beautifully worn and weathered barns off rural back roads as well as friends, family, and neighbors with watercolor strokes that seem timeless, quiet, and eternal. With his unique and award-winning style and talent, he honors his subjects - be they deserted farmscapes, the historic facades of New Orleans' French Quarter, or loved ones and acquaintances. All are treated with respect and restraint in acknowledgment of their time and place within the human story of our history. And time has honored Dean Mitchell, too, as he is recognized now as one of America's great artistic voices, receiving accolades far beyond the Sunshine State.
RUTH: You've been painting for quite a long time and one of your hallmarks, I think - in addition to your mastery of the brush -- is focusing on abandoned and broken-down structures in America's back county. This is not, of course, your only subject matter because you are known for beautiful portraits and urban scenes, as well. But it does seem that you search out what to most people would be less beautiful scenery to reproduce in your works. Can you address what draws you to such places and scenes? Do you search them out or just happen upon them?
DEAN: I am drawn to anything that is overlooked or felt ugly or discarded because there is a haunting quality, power, and beauty. I was born out of an affair. When my mother became pregnant, she fled her small town of Quincy, Florida, out of fear and shame. I was born in Pittsburgh, PA, and left there as a baby. Months later, when my mother returned home to Quincy, my grandmother told her to go back and get me, and she would raise me. My mother was the first of her siblings to have the opportunity to go to college. If they ever found out she had a child, they would have kicked her out of school, so I was essentially hidden, and my father laid no claims to my existence. I believe I have inherited that sense of abandonment in my soul. I am attempting to give power to my own life and to spaces left behind, used, and unwanted.
RUTH: And your palette tends most often towards muted browns, greys, and other neutrals which help to give your scenes a sense of the "antique," if you will - a sort of timeless, or time-honored quality which is part of how we settled on the title for this exhibition. Can you talk about how you view color in your works?
DEAN: I was told by my junior high school art teacher that I was an abstract painter. I see value and movement first; it's a spiritual interpretation of space through subtleties and value. There is something alive in the greys.
RUTH: Have some artists - past or contemporary - influenced you?
DEAN: Yes, there are plenty. I would say, Rembrandt, Degas, Matisse, Tanner, Lawrence, Diebenkorn, Picasso, Wyeth, Hopper. There are so many... Freud, Kline.
RUTH: Your works have been placed in prestigious collections all over the country -- the world, actually. Can you tell us about some of those you consider to be the most important to you? And can you also speak to some of the highlights of your career so far?
DEAN: The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art has a painting of my uncle who is stricken with lung cancer. Its founder, the late Crosby Kemper Jr., purchased the painting. It's important because he asked me about it because he was moved by it on his first viewing of the painting. I later found out his first wife passed from cancer. It is important because it's a painting of my uncle, who is African American but transcends race and speaks to a deeper part of our humanity. This painting reveals our humanity regardless of the social constructs that have crippled our common frailness.
The Phoenix Art Museum has two of my paintings displaying impoverished reservation structures of the Pima Maricopa Reservation. It is an ongoing series bringing a focus on poverty and spaces in America.
There have been numerous awards, but a significant one for me was the American Watercolor Society Gold Medal Award. The book collaboration with Maya Angelou and Wynton Marsalis; meeting President Obama and the First Lady after being recommended by the National Portrait Gallery to commission their portraits; my relationship with Bryant Galleries in New Orleans that placed me in an international market; the New York Times article in 2002 by Michael Kimmelman.
RUTH: We're so thrilled that we could have the opportunity to show your work at MOAS because you're a busy, in-demand artist. Can you tell us about some projects on your horizon?
DEAN: I have a show coming up at the Margaret Hartwell Museum in Poplar Bluff, MO. It is important because it was the first museum that invited me to have a show in 1989. I have multiple invitational shows at various museums coming up.