The same kind of intimate grace that emanates from Michele Mitchell's portrait paintings, executed in the tradition of the Old Masters, permeates her tranquil household. She, her portrait-artist husband, James Ostlund, and their 7 month-old daughter Olivia share a coach-house in the city where every corner breathes timeless art. In addition to their serene yet dramatic paintings, simple antique furniture shares space with thick art tomes stacked to the ceiling. Tables are covered in brocaded Florentine linens. Classical music adds to their home's embracing aura.
Mitchell, born and raised in Oak Park, Illinois, aims to carry on the exacting traditions of such boldly insightful European portraitists as Titian, Vermeer and Rembrandt. She and her husband combine the intricate craft of fine picture-making with a desire to unleash the depth that rests quietly within their subjects' souls.
As members of the American Society of Portrait Arts, they recently attended the organization's Portrait Arts Festival in Montgomery, Ala. - considered the premiere international event in the field of portraiture. Out of about 300 entries, Mitchell and Ostlund received an unprecedented joint "Best of Show" award. They pointed out that the judges did not realize the artists were husband and wife. Mitchell was also awarded a "People's Choice" honor.
Their winning entries are displayed side-by-side on their dining room wall. Mitchell's oil rendering of a virile, bare-chested elderly man with stinging gray-blue eyes reveals an uncanny sense of mystery and internal enlightenment. It is appropriately titled "Moving Toward the Light." Ostlund's pensive "Portrait of John," a young, studious gentleman displays extreme sensitivity and precision. Their styles stand alone, yet complement each other.
"Michele possess so much trust and openness as a human being," said Ostlund of his wife. "She can truly let go when she paints. Her great passion is color. Mine is line. I'm more structured and keep my feelings inside."
Together, they are staunch proponents of perfecting the basic fundamentals of drawing and painting, while transcending the idea of merely copying a figure. In the process, they seek to explore the rich tradition of portraiture that has saturated Europe for centuries.
"My priority as an artist is to paint the soul," explained Mitchell. "The mortal and the immortal live within us. So the timelessness that shines through a portrait really reflects the timelessness within us all. The connection and trust I establish with live models is very important. When I paint them, it's as though I'm reaching into their heart and holding it."
More specifically, she stress that finding a common ground with a sitter is rewarding when the model has an aspiration of self-discovery. The two can then travel together through the process, learning while jointly creating the final product.
An obvious example of this symbolic journey radiates softly from her oil on canvas titled "Cecilia." A sensuous, but subdued-but-fiery young Italian girl with enigmatic green eyes and lush black hair gazes confidently, with a hint of elegant abandon, toward the viewer as the Tuscan landscape recedes in the background.
Mitchell harbored a desire to paint since a very young age. After attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Chicago's Academy of Art, Mitchell traveled extensively through Europe-working with a team of planners and architects to revitalize the Greek city of Arta, and studying the masters at the Uffizi in Florence, the Louvre in Paris, and London's Tate Gallery. Upon her return she realized that her capacity for articulating nature was still limited. She and Ostlund attended the Atelier Lack in Minneapolis, Minn., for four years to "learn and see where expression did not obscure the truth."
"I needed to see the whole," said Mitchell. "And to see the whole, you have to be very simple. Richard Lack (director of Atelier Lack) brought us back to doing charcoal on paper, then we moved on to still life and figurative painting. You begin to see all of these shapes as one unit.
"Seeing whole is a language of the eye. Art is no longer intimidating because it becomes responsive, not conceptual. You are not just copying a figure. You are escorting the work into being. It's an unfolding process that fuses through you."
Their training at Atelier Lack directly links the artists to an unbroken lineage of classical painters predating the 17th century. In a letter, Lack praised Mitchell's unique talents by writing that "Her portraits were among the best ever produced over my long career as a teacher at Atelier Lack."
Representationally trained via the Boston Impressionist and the French Academic traditions, Mitchell provocatively unites Impressionism and Realism in her work. She and her husband have tracked a resurgence in portraiture, which parallels the overall return to tradition and family values. In addition to being represented in galleries in New York and Lost Angeles, she is now accepting commissions for portraits.
Mitchell and Ostlund shared their views on artistic integrity while playing with their cheerful infant daughter. "Olivia has given me pure joy!" enthused Mitchell. All three became a living portrait.