The Transformative Power of Art, with Dean Mitchell by ANTRESE WOOD originally published by Savvy Painter
Can you think back to a point in your career where you started to appreciate the transformative power of art? Maybe for you, it was the first time you went to an art museum or that one art class that opened your eyes to a whole new world of possibilities. From early childhood experiences to forging his own path in the art world – my guest, Dean Mitchell, came prepared to explore the whole spectrum in our wide-ranging conversation. I know that artists like you will really appreciate Dean’s valuable and seasoned perspective!
Early influences matter
As you look back on your start as an artist, was there an individual who encouraged you along the way? How did your early influences shape your journey as an artist? For Dean Mitchell, two key influences changed the course of his career and his life. The crucial first influence for Dean was his grandmother – not only did she raise Dean, but she also encouraged and empowered him on his journey to becoming an artist. The other key influence for Dean was his junior high school art teacher who wouldn’t let him drop out of art competitions. While we often shrug off these early influences in our lives, the truth is, they matter more than we care to give them credit for!
How art can make you feel
One of the most amazing aspects of art is the ability to evoke an emotional reaction out of the viewer. From sculptures that draw you closer to watercolors that transport you to another place entirely – art has the power to take you on a deep and personal journey. In our conversation, Dean was kind enough to open up about what he hopes to accomplish with his art. Beyond painting what most people want to see, Dean has been able to position his career in a way where he can challenge people with his art in ways they never thought possible. When was the last time artwork on an emotional level moved you?
Dean Mitchell will be the first person to tell you that the road hasn’t been an easy one throughout his career. From growing up poor and isolated from many of the opportunities, his peers outside of the south had, to institutional roadblocks that are all too real for many black artists – Dean knew he was in for a challenge. To overcome these challenges, Dean needed to take some risks that most people would shy away from. Facing rejection and defeat at an early age would crush most budding artists, but Dean was determined that all these risks would eventually pay off – and he was right!
Looking beyond social constructs
What hope do you have for our society? Do you think things are getting better or are they getting worse? Let’s face it – headlines and news stories often push and pull us toward confirming our biases and keeping our culture compartmentalized. Imagine what it would look like if we started peeling away and tearing down harmful social constructs like the idea that one group of people is inherently superior to others. Dean Mitchell is convinced that art exists to play a definitive role in growing our imaginations and our expectations of how the world should work. What can you learn from Dean’s fascinating perspective? I hope you enjoyed getting a peek inside the mind of this talented and renowned artist!
Outline of This Episode
[2:15] I introduce my guest, Dean Mitchell.
[4:20] Dean talks about what led him to his career as an artist.
[10:50] Family dynamics and growing up poor in Flordia.
[17:00] The value of early childhood art education.
[26:50] Beauty in the midst of pain.
[31:30] How art can bring hope.
[38:00] Going to college and taking risks.
[45:30] Dean explains how he became financially stable.
[57:00] An insight into the mindset of many art collectors.
[59:20] Dean opens up about his experience entering art competitions.
[1:06:30] How art can grab you on a visceral level.
[1:20:00] Why we need to see beyond our social constructs.
Join us to celebrate our One Year Anniversary at Marie Brooks Gallery. On this special occasion, Dean will be featuring a poster of his work “After the Hurricane” 12″ x 18″ poster will available for sale beginning November 3rd. All proceeds from the sales of this poster will go toward Hurricane Michael relief efforts. We would love to see you all come out and support the local community. http://deanmitchellstudio.com/one-year-anniversary-at-mari…/
Dean Mitchell paints deeply personal visions of life’s fragile side
by Norman Kolpas
Tumbledown homes in barren landscapes, vibrantly lit by the blazing sun. Inner-city streets, their old buildings worn yet elegant. Humble, hardworking people, their gazes relentless, their faces quietly proud. Such is the world as Dean Mitchell sees it. “I paint the human condition—desolation and hardship,” he states matter-of-factly. His compositions are arresting and his works impeccably executed, some in watercolor and others in oil or acrylic. “I am drawn to anything that is overlooked or felt to be ugly or discarded, because there’s a haunting quality, a power, and a beauty to it.”
Mitchell uncovers and portrays the innate beauty of his subjects so deftly and powerfully, in fact, that a critic writing in the New York Times was moved to describe him as “a virtual modern-day Vermeer of ordinary black people given dignity through the eloquence of his concentration and touch.” Another writer, covering a show of Mitchell’s work for the Hartford Courant, dubbed him “an assured artist whose mature style merits favorable comparison to the likes of Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper.”
Flattering though it is to point out such similarities of style, Mitchell’s art stands securely on its own. Having lived a dramatic personal journey of his own, the 62-year-old artist possesses a formidable talent that needs no comparison.
“You can’t make a living as a black man painting pictures. That’s white-people stuff.” Those were the words Mitchell’s mother spoke to him when he told her, during high school, that he hoped to go on to study art.
Dean Mitchell, Isolation, acrylic, 17 x 17.
Dean Mitchell, Gordon, oil, 30 x 40.
Dean Mitchell, Dry Rot, acrylic, 20 x 30.
Dean Mitchell, Maricopa County House, oil, 24 x 36.
Dean Mitchell, Napoleon House, watercolor, 15 x 11.
Dean Mitchell, Florida Cypress, watercolor, 15 x 10.
Mitchell had been conceived during an affair his mother had while a college student. “She fled our small town of Quincy, FL, and gave birth to me in Pittsburgh,” Mitchell recounts. When he was 11 months old, his mother visited home and, not knowing that her brother had tipped off their parents, was greeted by her own mother with the words, “Where’s the child? Bring him home.”
Mitchell’s grandmother raised him in Quincy, first in a humble dwelling that was “almost like a slave shack of a house, with nails sticking through the boards.” After his grandfather died of a heart attack a few years later, a life-insurance policy made it possible for them to move to a less rickety home in the same town.
Mitchell’s talent first showed itself when he was about 5 years old. “My grandmother bought a paint-by-numbers set for me,” he remembers. “I did the first one following all the numbers. The next one, I painted freehand.”
A love of drawing took hold in him. On Saturday mornings, he’d sit in front of the TV watching cartoons and faithfully rendering Mickey Mouse, Mighty Mouse, and other cartoon characters in pencil on paper. Eventually, he progressed to live subjects: “When I was 10 or 11, my uncle would sit in this green reclining chair and fall asleep after a day’s work, and I would draw him and then do his portrait with these little tubes of oil paint I had.”
His skills, and his dedication to art, progressed through junior and senior high, which included a three-year family sojourn in Philadelphia from 6th to 9th grades. “Instead of eating lunch, I would keep my money so I could buy art books,” he remembers. He drew his own pictures to illustrate reports, and his talent even began to win him his first commissions. One neighbor asked him to paint two murals for her children’s rooms, paying him $10 apiece. Another forked over $25 for a scene featuring Mitchell’s original cartoon characters painted on a fence.
Back in Quincy at Carter-Parramore High School, he continued to find fulfillment in his artistic talent. That led, in turn, to his decision to apply to art school—and the declaration by his mother, whom he “maybe saw once a year,” that art was not a wise career choice for a young black man.
Dean Mitchell, Code Red, acrylic, 11 x 17.
Dean Mitchell, Butter Dish, Spoon, & Tea, acrylic, 8 x 7.
Dean Mitchell, Broken Wealth, oil, 19 x 20.
Dean Mitchell, Bob Ragland, acrylic, 10 x 8.
Dean Mitchell, Ybor Corner, acrylic, 15 x 10.
Dean Mitchell, Windows & Doors, acrylic, 10 x 8.
Nonetheless, he applied and was accepted to Ohio’s Columbus College of Art & Design on a work-study scholarship. He found the transition difficult. “I was kind of a small-town kid. It was a tough, frustrating time for me trying to figure it out. I lost almost 60 pounds from the stress and almost dropped out. When I went home for Christmas, my grandmother said, ‘That boy can’t go back. He’s as thin as a rail and just looks ill.’” But Mitchell rode the Greyhound bus back to Ohio, thinking to himself, “Oh, man, you’ve got to give this your all if you’re gonna have even an inkling of a chance.” He applied himself all the more diligently to his studies. “Mostly I was a self-motivating kind of individual, just trying to survive and stay in art school.”
Mitchell achieved his first professional fine-art success back in Florida during his first summer home from college. Zoltan Bush, a Hungarian immigrant and political refugee, saw his work and offered him a show at his Bay Art & Frame in Panama City, almost 90 miles away. “I rode the bus there, and people were lined up for three blocks to buy my work for $20 or $25 apiece,” Mitchell says.
Mitchell graduated in 1980 and, like many talented realist artists leaving college then and now, was recruited and hired by Hallmark Cards in Kansas City. Gradually, he began to supplement his income by entering art competitions, in which he often won top prizes—$2,000 from a show in London, another $1,500 from one in New York, another $2,000 from the National Watercolor Society. As his reputation grew, a local publication in Kansas City featured him in an article. Hallmark, he says, wanted him to stop entering shows. In November 1983, they let him go.
Depressed by this turn of fortune and by the tiny apartment he was forced to move into as a result, Mitchell found the situation worsen when he learned that his beloved grandmother had died. “I was just a mess,” he says.
Then, one morning while languishing in bed, a soft voice seemed to drift into his head—his grandmother’s voice. And he clearly heard her say, “Baby, ain’t nobody gonna give you anything in this world. You’ve gotta work for what you want.”Mitchell pauses while telling the story, still moved by the memory more than three decades later. Then he succinctly continues: “And I’ve been working hard ever since.”
He pulled himself out of bed and headed straight to a bookstore, buying himself a copy of the annual Artist’s Marketguidebook and another guide for small-scale investors. Soon he found a greeting-card company looking for freelance artists, “and they commissioned so many cards from me that I was making money like crazy.” He gained commercial illustration clients as well, including 7 Up and Budweiser.
Dean Mitchell, Tobacco Barn Shadows, watercolor, 22 x 30.
Dean Mitchell, Rustic West, watercolor, 10 x 15.
Dean Mitchell, New Orleans Roof Tops, acrylic, 20 x 30.
Dean Mitchell, Desert Light, acrylic, 16 x 20.
Dean Mitchell, Carolyn, acrylic, 5 x 7.
Dean Mitchell, Urban America, acrylic, 11 x 16.
Meanwhile, Mitchell began entering fine-art shows as well, though he felt uncertain about whether his race would negatively influence his chances. His solution? “I didn’t go to the openings, so they didn’t know what color I was.” Soon, he was earning $30,00 to $40,000 a year on his winnings. Success led, in turn, to the first national magazine article about him.
Then one morning in 1990, he got a call notifying him he’d been nominated for the prestigious Hubbard Art Award for Excellence, an annual $250,000 purchase prize at the Museum of the Horse in Ruidoso, NM. He flew to El Paso and drove north to Ruidoso for the black-tie awards event, and found himself rubbing shoulders with the likes of contemporary greats like Jamie Wyeth and Howard Terpning. Though Terpning won the big prize that year, while Mitchell came in sixth place, the Hubbards themselves personally paid $25,000 for his entry, ROWENA, an oil painting of an elderly black western settler.
Since that time, Mitchell has continued to earn prestigious recognition. He’s the only black artist to win the American Watercolor Society’s Gold Medal twice in its 150-year history, most recently in 2015. Just a few of his many other accolades include the Thomas Moran Award from the Salmagundi Club, the Best of Show Award three years running in the Mississippi Watercolor Society Grand National Competition, the William E. Weiss Purchase Award at the 2014 Buffalo Bill Art Show & Sale, the Donald Teague Memorial and Robert Lougheed Memorial awards at the 2014 Prix de West Invitational, and the Autry Museum Award for Watercolor at the Masters of the American West show, which he’s won a staggering eight times.
Mitchell now lives and works in Tampa, FL, with a studio in the Channelside district about a mile from the Harbour Island home he shares with his wife Connie and their 9-year-old fraternal twins. Despite his impressive success, he still relentlessly holds true to an artistic vision that has never bowed to commercial expectations. “I like my work to have commentary and to create discussions about the plight of people. I want people to look at my work and think not that it’s typical or obvious or romantic, but that it’s real, that it enlightens them and reminds them that life is fragile. If people are just looking for nice, pretty pictures, I’m not the guy.”
Meanwhile, despite the personal challenges he overcame through talent and hard work, Mitchell adamantly resists one label. “I didn’t tailor my work around being a black artist,” he states. “I tailored it around being an American artist who’s trying to capture the human condition. I’m not talking about being black. I’m talking about being a human being.”
Students from all disciplines at Mississippi School of the Arts recently received an opportunity to chat with renowned watercolor artist Dean Mitchell in an open forum. Mitchell, a visual artist from Quincy, Florida, visited Brookhaven for the first time to be a part of the unveiling of an art piece acquisitioned by the Lincoln-Lawrence-Franklin Regional Library.
The body of working that will be on display at Ethnic Arts in Kansas
City is a mix of both urban and rural settings. The rural scenes deal
with isolation and poverty in the modern world. The paintings are of
people, places and spaces of the working class. They are the backbone
of our nation who’s voices and spaces are often rarely looked upon as
places of beauty and power. The romantic myth of the America Dream,
fragmented in despair, has become even more visible through the daily
lives of those seeking a better tomorrow.
Dean Mitchell announces the Grand Opening of the Marie Brooks Gallery in downtown Quincy, November 11, 2017
~ Named for his grandmother who inspired him to become an artist ~
Internationally-acclaimed artist and Quincy native Dean Mitchell announces the grand opening of The Marie Brooks Gallery, located at 11 West Jefferson Street in historic downtown Quincy Florida, Saturday November 11 from 10:00am to 5:00pm. The gallery is named for Mitchell’s maternal grandmother who inspired him to become an artist.
Mitchell often walked downtown with his grandmother, under the shade of her umbrella, to the local fish market located where the gallery stands today. Across the street was McCroy’s, the five and dime store where she purchased a paint-by-number set for him when he was five. She knew nothing of art other than her grandson had found something he loved to do. That simple, historic purchase changed the course of his life forever.
“My grandmother’s love, dignity, and respect for others have shaped my life,” said Mitchell. “Her moral and spiritual influence gave me a sense of self-worth, pride, and the inner strength to pursue my dreams. Family, community, and a place to feel safe was important to her. Education was always stressed along with hard work. My grandmother would often say, ‘Baby, ain’t nobody gonna give you nothing.’ You gotta work for what you want in life.’”
Mitchell’s hope is that the gallery and his story will inspire others to work hard and follow their dreams, and to bring hope to all who cross through the doors.
Dean Mitchell was born 1957, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and reared in Quincy, Florida. He graduated from the Columbus College of Art & Design in Columbus, Ohio.
Mitchell has been featured in numerous publications, including the New York Times, American Artist, Artist Magazine, Fine Art International and Art News.
His art can be found in corporate and museum collections across the country, including: the Library of Congress; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri; Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson, Mississippi; Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis, Missouri; Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri; Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri; Beach Museum of Art, Manhattan, Kansas; The Autry National Center, Los Angeles; The Arkansas Art Center, Little Rock, Arkansas; Gadsden Art Center and Museum, Quincy, Florida; and the Canton Museum of Art, Canton, Ohio.
He has received hundreds of awards in his lifetime including the American Watercolor Society Gold Medal, Allied Artist of America Gold Medal in Watercolor and Oil, Thomas Moran Award from the Salmagundi Club in New York, Remington Professional League, and for three years in a row the Best in Show Award from the Mississippi Watercolor Society Grand National Competition. In 2004 and 2007, he received the Autry National Center Award for Watercolor at the Masters of the American West Fine Art Exhibition and sale. Mitchell is a member of several professional societies, including the American Watercolor Society and the National Watercolor Society.
New York Times writer Michael Kimmelman once said “Mr. Mitchell is a virtual modern-day Vermeer of ordinary black people given dignity through the eloquence of his concentration and touch.”
Mitchell has come full circle to give back to the place where he and his grandmother, Marie Brooks, both called home. The Marie Brooks Gallery will exclusively feature works by Dean Mitchell.
Marie Brooks Gallery objectives:
The gallery will feature rotating exhibits by the artist Dean Mitchell.
Workshops and drawing classes will be offered by Dean Mitchell.
Lectures on art and culture will be presented to encourage business development in the area.
Work with Gadsden Arts Center and Museum to encourage a love of art, promote and support scholarships in the area.
Work with local business and community leaders to educate and inform the role of arts in a culture, how art affects our everyday lives, and the importance of art in a thriving community.
Watercolor artist Dean Mitchell is well known for his figurative works, landscapes and still lifes. In addition to watercolors, he is accomplished in other mediums, including egg temperas, oils and pastels. His works is an intelligent blend of craftsmanship with a rare understanding of visual magic that transcends what seems apparent to an understanding of what is real.