How Dignity Colors a Canvas

DEAN MITCHELL'S paintings are all about dignity. His portraits shimmer with it. Even his landscapes capture nature in its quiet composure - no grandeur, just simple dignity and grace in its light and air, trees and water. In his street scenes, just as in his portraits, Mitchell honors the common men and women (most often African-American) who have achieved or maintained dignity, despite whatever difficulties they have encountered in poverty or social censure.

Mitchell's realist style is often informed by the chiaroscuro lighting of the Old Masters, and his composition, with its clean, refined, simplified power, sometimes reminds me of Edward Hopper. Some of Mitchell's best work is a flawless realism that owes something to Neo-Classicism for precision, but his subject matter is rigorously humane. His is an original American vision.

"I was raised by my grandmother. My mom was the baby - the only one to go to college among her children. My grandmother had great dignity. Society rejects people who are poor and underprivileged. So I have this longing to appreciate everyday life - money and things are not what life is all about. But in our society, we focus more on that, rather than understanding and enjoying the common things in life - and that includes common people. And I guess particularly black people.... People who were giving a l ot, but were not getting recognition. The unheard voices. I was getting recognition because I make images, and people see them. But my grandmother who gave me a sense of self-worth and a strong foundation - the neighbors knew her, but the world didn't."

Mitchell has spent his career giving visibility to those who have been invisible and giving voice to the voiceless among us, whose whole lives have meant something, though the world has not known it.

"Common Dignity" shows an inner-city street scene. Three people wait for a bus in a run-down area of town. Mitchell says he was trying to tell America that it's OK to be considered ordinary. "My grandmother was a common woman. We had very little money, but money does not define dignity. Some of the most wonderful people have been common and have changed the world. And you don't want to be complacent. I have worked and tried to make a better life for myself, and so can you, but there is nothing to feel as hamed about. A lot of times poor people think ill of themselves."

In "Bright Gesture," a woman in a bright yellow dress stands at a street corner, deciding which way to go. Mitchell says he wanted to point out that it takes intelligence to survive in the inner city, so the painting is about a woman who thinks before she acts.

Poverty and prejudice could not hold him back with a grandmother like his. He went to church every Sunday because she took him. And from her he learned about the meaning of life - and consequently the meaning of his art.

"I'm drawn to older people because I always considered my grandmother a wise woman. I watched her work for rich people in Florida. She never complained - and I think she understood - she only had a fourth-grade education. I thought even though my mom had a college education, my grandmother had a lot more foresight in terms of having you dream and believing in what you could do."

Still in his mid-30s, Mitchell has won well over 200 art awards. And while few black artists are represented in museums even today, and collectors still sometimes don't know how to respond to some of his subject matter, Mitchell is seeing slow change. His paintings now go for substantial sums. But it isn't money he paints for - or even awards or recognition.

His taste in art demonstrates the depth of his own abilities. He is drawn to Richard Diebenkorn, Franz Kline, and Robert Motherwell, just as he is to Rembrandt and Leonardo Da Vinci. He speaks of a painting by Kline he saw recently that reminded him of one of his own in the use of negative space and surface texture. Many of the aesthetic problems of nonobjective work are the same problems he deals with in his realistic drawing. He understands their energetic surfaces, their mind's-eye picture making.

He is drawn, also, to all the painters in history who dealt well with issues of light. Mitchell works in several media - watercolor, oils, acrylics, pastels - and continues to learn from each a little more about light. Watercolor, for example, has helped him with certain aesthetic problems in oil, because watercolor demands such precision: Once you put a mark down, it's there to stay. And, too, the creative use of the white paper teaches lessons about light.

He works intuitively, choosing his paints, his brush strokes, his composition on the inspiration of the moment and out of the special relationship he builds with his subject. And he works by inspiration - even the old homes and churches are objects of inspiration. The church symbolizes more than his religious upbringing to him: As he points out, so many of the greatest black leaders arose from the churches.

Mitchell's realism is never bland. Exciting gesture is present in many of the works, while others radiate a profound peace. When I stood before one of his inspired paintings, "Noon Nap," at an exhibition last fall, I was profoundly moved.

The work, in which an old man sits dozing in a chair, was the only one out of hundreds that stayed with me. A certain quality that cannot be explained in terms of composition (which is strong and powerful), color, technique, or subject matter, burned itself in my memory and has not diminished over time.

In "Keep Your Eyes on Jesus," an old woman looks up in prayer, and her face is alive with love, sincerity, patience, and humor. In another painting, a church usher glances out at the viewer with steady solemnity. This African-American man stands against a dark ground, and there's a streak of sunlight across his face, illuminating his collar and white gloves and striking the inside of the collection plate. The title of the piece, "Usher of Hope," tells you as much about the artist as it does about his sub ject matter.

In these two paintings, as in many others, can be found one of Mitchell's crucial themes - the human in the service of the divine. He is not a religious painter per se - and he does not, for example, illustrate doctrines. Nevertheless, religious feeling manifests itself in all his work.

"I'm drawn to the humane. But there is something more there - which I would describe as spiritual. I do believe in God, and I do believe when you create that something else can take over. I've told students this: Ask yourselves, what is the intention for bringing [the work of art] into existence? If that intention is pure - to say something to humanity or to stir something in people - then you are tapping into another source beyond your control. If you are creating for self-indulgence or for gain, someth ing will be lost, and I'm not sure it can be regained."

Teaching a class once, Mitchell worried that many of his students were influenced so heavily by his work. He wanted them to find their own voice.

"The voice has nothing to do with technique," he says. "A lot of times when I read about art, they are talking about technique, application, subject matter - not vision. Vision starts probably when you are a child. It has to do with the artist's whole intention for bringing the work of art into being."

He tells me his upbringing taught him what is really important in life. "And that," he says, "is love. But as simple as that sounds, man has not really understood it. You can just look around and see that. The world would certainly be in a lot better position if we knew what it meant to truly love - and not just man, but environment, and life itself.... Some collectors just love art, they crave it. There is something to be said for love of creation. Love is an inescapable part of being human."

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