Jesse Cool and Mitchell Johnson share art, food and admiration for each other

by Linda Hubbard on April 17, 2015

Think of them as bookending the stretch of the Alameda in Menlo Park between Sharon and Walsh roads. One a restaurateur feeding the body. The other a painter feeding the soul.

Jesse Cool, owner of Flea Street Cafe, and artist Mitchell Johnson are joined together in what has been a mutually beneficial partnership for about five years with the restaurant serving as a de facto gallery for his paintings.

“One couple, who are clients, mentioned to Jesse that I lived just down the street from the restaurant,” recalled Mitchell.”That kind of got the ball rolling.”

“We used to rotate local artists on the walls of the restaurant,” explained Jesse. “We changed the artist with the season, just like we change the food. I saw one of Mitchell’s paintings at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. It was a huge piece in the hallway.

Jesse and Mitchell in conversation“I knew he was married to Donia [Donia Bijan, the chef who owned L’Amie Donia in downtown Palo Alto]. The first time he hung paintings here I felt completely at home. Both the paintings and the restaurant have the same sense of movement, a mix of contemporary and tradition.

“There was a time when I’d get upset when he’d come in and change the art. Now it’s something I look forward to. Mitchell is the only artist we feature.”

This winter and spring have been particularly significant times in artist Mitchell’s life. When we visited with him at the restaurant, he had just returned from Rome where he’d taken part in the American Academy‘s Visiting Artist and Scholar program. A short documentary, The Artist of Silicon Valley, was recently completed. His April sales will help support the Menlo Park-based non-profit, Art in Action, and there is a 25-year retrospective of his work opening at the Bakersfield Museum of Art in May.

“I have no idea what my paintings mean to other people,” he said. “The painting finds the right person, and the right person finds the painting.”

For her part, Jesse admits to being attached to different paintings. “For me it’s often a place where I’ve been. But I love to hear how customers are drawn to Mitchell’s work. It’s more about how they feel. They connect with a sense of emotion.”

“I’m grateful to have Flea Street in my life,” said Mitchell. “Talking with Jesse about what her customers say about my paintings is amazing.”

Concluded Jesse: “I think the fit is what it’s all about. We’ve had to grow together.”

Photos by Irene Searles

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