The fence sprung up unexpectedly, a splash of color along a stretch of the Alameda in Menlo Park, a piece of living art. A word would appear and then, as suddenly, disappear. Passersby embraced it, as did the neighborhood (save one disgruntled soul). But few knew that it was the work of artist Mitchell Johnson, who is equally comfortable painting landscapes plein air and abstracts in his local studio.
“The representational paintings that I make are very shape- and color-driven which is the same as my abstract paintings; they, too, are very much shape and color driven,” he said in an interview with UC Berkeley art historian Peter Selz. “So I don’t feel a great leap between the two ways of working and I don’t feel that there is a stylistic message that prevents me from moving back and forth.”
After graduating from Parsons School of Design, Mitchell moved west, taking a job as a studio assistant for noted Bay Area artist Sam Francis. He found love and marriage – to chef/restaurateur Donia Bijan (of Palo Alto’s L’Amie Donia fame) – and finding “a nice little house that suited us,” the couple moved to Menlo 10 years ago, adding son, Luca, to the family.
While he still travels to Europe to paint regularly – he was recently appointed the first artist in residence at Borgo Finocchieto in Italy where he will also serve as program adviser – he treats his studio work as his 9-to-5 “everyday” job. “Like other parents, I need to get my son to soccer practice,” he said during a visit to his light-filled studio. “That structure fits my family life but it also dovetails with the natural light [from the overhead sky lights] I need to paint.”
Mitchell’s paintings can be found in 500 collections including the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the New Mexico Museum of Art, the Frederick R. Weisman Museum at Pepperdine and the Federal Reserve Board in Washington D.C. A collection of his recent abstract work and brand new landscapes from Europe and California is currently on display (through mid-January) at the Flea Street Cafe in Menlo Park.
He describes his studio as “a bit cave-like but a great space – I need all the wall space.” About the art fence, which came down last year: “We really got to know our neighbors, and it was a great vehicle to take us into the community.”
Discussing his paintings he says: “I make them because they make me happy. I know how I feel about my paintings – they are how we make sense of the world, the color and shape and complexity of our visual experience. But everybody pays attention to a particular painting in their own way – we’re all exploring.”
Now that he’s been painting for 30 years, he says it’s the extensive record of shows that may capture a new admirer’s attention, allowing that person to take the time to get further acquainted. But it’s the local following combined with the gallery sales that provides the steady income. “I’m fortunate to live here, and I’m really lucky that people want to buy my paintings.”
Photos of Mitchell Johnson by Chris Gulker; abstract fence photo courtesy of Mitchell Johnson