Michele Mitchell - An Artist's Journey
Michele Mitchell is a classically trained and internationally recognized artist. Recently, with her husband Jim Ostlund, they have opened The Art Atelier in Asheville, North Carolina. She spoke with Amanda Apostol about her early training and artistic journey as well as her new role as a mentor and teacher.
Can you discuss how your early training shaped your future artistic endeavors?
At the American Academy of Art in Chicago I witnessed Fine Art and Illustration side by side. I was able to explore all mediums: watercolor, pastel, pen and ink, and oil paint. The strength of very good art teachers in a focused environment of learning that was confined to fine art was an invaluable experience. After my study at the Academy was completed, I chose to explore Europe's resources in the major museums. I tried to unearth a deeper perception, perspective, to be exposed to the rich antiquity of europe in its art as well as in the lay of the land and culture. I returned with a deeper conviction to synchronize with the voice that has always been the same throughout every painter who aspires for that excellence within them.
Can you talk about the experiences at Atelier Lack that you feel were most pivotal to your artistic development?
Mr. Lack invited me to visit his home and studio. Our visit was filled with a sense of integrity and tradition... and I was moved by his ability to create an environment of understanding and accessibility. He accepted me into his atelier upon seeing my portfolio. I then embarked upon a path of unlearning. Mr. Lack introduced me to "seeing the whole." He taught me, as many before him, how to see nature truthfully. I came to a quiet, simple place of "not knowing," to being informed by "seeing," and with the age old craft of picture-making. I was invited to respond with the openness of transparency to articulate nature truthfully. I began as a child would begin.. I learned to see line, shapes, and color value in relationship to the whole.
Your work has been described as fusing "Impressionism and Realism into a unified language of the " Can you discuss what is meant by this?
The History of Art could be described as the advancement of seeing. (Impressionists) were seeing color value as it related to the whole, but the problem was that many of them lost the drawing, or they leaned too far in the direction of seeing color value without establishing and reestablishing the infrastructure of form in its proper proportion and location with the subtlety of modeling the light. If you lean too far in the other direction, you lose the impact of the unified impression, of light impacting form. Bringing these two together is very challenging and requires a very sophisticated way of seeing. There have been successful painters who have achieved this balance, such as Valesquez and Veronese, who have captured strong design and well articulated form within an environment truthfully stated of color value relationship. Degas was quoted as saying, " I cannot paint outdoors like my contemporaries. I cannot be unconscious as I work." To me, this simply states the challenge of bringing the two together.
What are you ultimately trying to articulate through your artistic voice?
To be a vehicle for life's voice. I wish to be in a place where I am open and capable of being truthful to nature, of continuing the song that resides in every breath. An artist is given the opportunity to be a communicator, to being a continuum of something that already exists in incomprehensible completeness. I am very fortunate to be a part of this tradition that has set very high standards to articulate beauty in is essential form.
I understand your passion is color. How does color influence your work?
Color is an instrument.. a tool in the tool bag of picture making. When an artist has been able to paint truthful color value in relationship to the whole as nature dictates, the painting sigs. Color is an intuitive language. It is intrinsic with nature. It calls and one responds. Color is a means and not an end.
I understand your husband is also an artist. How has being married to an artist affected your work?
As an artist, I have a deep respect for his strengths, compassion for his weaknesses, and understanding for his struggles. I have a deep respect for his untiring aspiration to know fulfillment and remain unchallenged in his integrity and honesty in his pursuit of making great art. I learn from his strengths and am challenged by them... he is a constant reminder of balance. Where my sight is no longer, his is, and where his sight is no longer, mine is... our relationship allows me more breadth.
I understand you and your husband have an atelier. As the product of what is a "wonderful lineage.. from Master to Apprentice," how would you characterize this experience, and what are some of the most important lessons you impart to your students?
It is very difficult for an individual to create a finished drawing or finished painting from nature without a master walking them through - one who has been there... this time honored tradition has passed through some of the greatest painters who have ever lived. In being allowed to companion someone in learning to see, it is a privilege. I have the opportunity to witness individuals take baby steps in self discovery, and in time, learn to fly. I have had the honor of witnessing students learn to "trust their eye," and with their heart open with the desire to articulate simple profundity, they carry on the age old craft of picture making. This is a privilege.
What guidance can you offer to artists who work with the figure?
One must be well informed when approaching the figure. There are no shortcuts to study. One must know the figure very well, as form. Just as in painting light, form precedes the relationship of light on form. First know the figure.. then draw, draw, draw.
What have been some of the greatest challenges you have faced, that once addressed, you feel helped you break through to another level in your work?
When I enrolled in the Atelier Lack, I needed to unlearn.. to become very simple and unassuming so that I may appreciate the craft of picture-making that was being extended to me. Learning to see whole rather than piecemeal was a great obstacle that Mr. Lack taught me to circumvent. Another obstacle that will challenge me throughout time will be to reach a high standard of draughtsmanship that has been reflected in the great painters of and preceding the 19th century. Finally, I continue to try to stand before nature with the objectivity of a scientist and the heart of a child, and not be entertained (and carried away) by the play that unfolds on canvas.
What artistic goals have you set for yourself?
I would like to live abroad for a portion of the year. I feel Europe's rich tradition and the beautiful resources in their museums are a priceless treasure available to us. Many works are yet to be painted...They exist in my heart, as of yet unavailable to canvas.. As an artist; one's fare is to live in the moment with the challenges that face us. High standards have been set by great painters who have predated us. It is important to me to provide a balance between artistic goals and being a mother of two (who is) married to an artist. It is important I am capable of providing for my children while maintaining integrity in my artistic efforts and remaining a part of that tradition that is not compromising.
What indispensable advice could you give to young artists just beginning their career?
Follow your heart. Be true to that which is within you, true to you. As every breath comes and goes, we have an opportunity to say thank you.. Remain a student. Be surprised and behold this great gift of life. Unfold int he process of knowing what is most important, and stay true to that thirst within you. It will guide you. Be inspired before you paint, (and) find the inspiration deep within you. It exists as you exist. You cannot clothe yourself in the suits of others (predated painters), but they can point you in the right direction. Your committed aspiration, however elevated, will dictate the path available to you You must take it. Find the balance. Find the opportunity.