Dean Mitchell’s expressive watercolor works have been compared to Andrew Wyeth and Johannes Vermeer, but he didn’t come into the craft with the same social advantages of these men. When Mitchell was growing up in Gadsden County, near Tallahassee, FL the concept of being an artist was as foreign as frog sashimi. Raised by his grandmother in an impoverished, African American community, he started laboring in the tobacco fields when he was in elementary school. “I grew up in the segregated South,” he says. “My mother told me a black man will never make a living in America selling pictures.”
Mr. Joseph Northern, watercolor
But from the moment his grandmother bought him a paint-by-numbers set when he was six, Mitchell found his calling. By seventh grade he was painting murals in neighbors’ bedrooms for $10 a piece. He began entering art competitions, and though there was an interest in his talent, there wasn’t money for art school or supplies. Rather than give up, Mitchell would skip lunch to save money for paints and brushes.
“I have gone further than I ever thought I would,” he says. If he had listened to the advice of well-intentioned friends and family along the way, that wouldn’t be the case. Through entering tough competitions, being admitted into the Columbus College of Art and Design, getting and being let go from a job at Hallmark, hosting his first museum show in Missouri, and self-publishing his first book; Dean was faced with naysayers, and messages of ‘boy, you crazy.’ But the fearlessness, work ethic and sense of determination instilled in him by the characters he grew up around in Quincy, pushed Mitchell to try.
That “just do it” attitude led to Mitchell being the youngest and only African American to ever be awarded a Gold Medal by the American Watercolor Society, selling all 5,000 copies of his first book, winning about 405 awards throughout his career, and now being able to go back to his hometown of Quincy to show at the Gadsden Art Center.
“Quincy didn’t have an art center when I was growing up; there was no access to art in rural areas,” he says. Today he is a proud source of inspiration and role model for kids in rural communities interested in the arts — something he didn’t have. “I love to come back to my hometown,” he says. “The shows here draw people from all walks of life.”
And those are the people reflected in Mitchell’s evocative work. “I am an artist who is interested in the frailness of life, but also in people’s spirit,” he says. “People who might be poor in material wealth, but are rich in knowledge, moral compass, and spirit.” His work portrays the characters of his childhood in old, rural Florida and life in a manner that draws you in the way only the best storytellers can. With a quiet strength — no splashy colors or screaming graphics needed.
Dean Mitchell’s exhibit "Rich in Spirit" opens at the Gadsden Art Center tonight at 6pm, with a talk by the artist at 6:30, followed by a book signing of his children's book "Against All Odds: Artist Dean Mitchell's Story." The exhibit runs through October 29. The opening-night event is hosted along with the Taste of Gadsden County Restaurant Showcase, with 11 of the area’s restaurants offering food and drink tastings from 7 to 9pm.
For more information visit gadsdenarts.org or call 850/875-4866.
Photos courtesy Dean Mitchell Studios