By Frances Figart
In kindergarten in Charlotte, when other kids were using crayons, Mitch Kolbe made his pictures with the Winsor & Newton Series 7 brushes and designers’ gouache he used at home under the tutelage of his artist father. Later, as a senior at South Mecklenburg High School, he was caught gazing out the window during geometry class—“I was trying to figure out what technique I would use to paint the smoke emanating from the giant smokestack on campus.” His teacher politely excused him to join the school’s art class.
“My art teacher, Miss Ethel Guest, was instrumental in helping me to try out for the National Scholastic Art Competition,” says Kolbe. His portfolio for the contest was one of ten chosen nationally for a scholarship to study at the Art Students League of New York. “I spent a lot of time in Central Park painting,” he says. “This is where I cut my teeth learning to paint en plein air.”
Today, Kolbe is a signature artist of the Kessler Collection, a group of luxury hotels developed by community-minded visionary entrepreneur Richard Kessler. Asheville’s Grand Bohemian Hotel in Biltmore Village was the first to use his work to decorate the entire hotel. Kolbe’s monumental-size works are part of the permanent collections of many of the other Kessler hotels throughout the Southeast.
Influenced by Russian art and American masters such as Inness, Wyeth and Rockwell, Kolbe describes himself as “a contemporary artist painting contemporary scenes that affect my life. I try to communicate to the viewer a sense of time and place, in a realistic but not photographic way. I try to suggest the scene rather than to copy it exactly, so as to bring the viewer’s own intellect into the process of experiencing the art.”
Kolbe’s father was a commercial freelance artist and his mother an accomplished pianist who decorated the walls with Rembrandts and Caravaggios. “I got to experience the artist life up close and personal from an early age,” he says. “To sit on my father’s lap and watch him draw a train moving down the tracks was like magic to me.”
The better half of Kolbe’s youth was spent outdoors, “digging clay out of the banks of the creek in our backyard to produce a menagerie of my own creation or exploring the woods well beyond, only to come indoors when our mothers called us in for dinner.”
Now, Kolbe is not only paid to work outdoors, but benefits from a privilege most creative people only dream of—the life of a true Renaissance man. With a patron who supports him in making art, he enjoys the freedoms, exhilaration, demands and challenges that come with an ongoing high-level commission. Having his talent noticed by Kessler was key—and happened quite by chance.
After art school in New York, Kolbe landed a job with Atlanta’s Joseph Hurt Studios, painting realistic backdrop murals and sculpting plants and animals for museum dioramas throughout the southeast. “When Disney built Epcot Center around 1980, they chose our studio to design and build all the plants and trees for the entire theme park. We were known as ‘Tree Fab.’” Among other design jobs, Kolbe created a series of pirates for Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean gift shop—20 years before they franchised the movie series of the same name.
In 1990, Kolbe moved to Florida and opened his own art gallery/ studio in downtown Tarpon Springs. “About this time my work was included in a traveling exhibit of contemporary Florida artists from the Percy/Geiger collection of Tallahassee,” Kolbe says. “They had fortunately used my art for the cover of the book, and when the show traveled through Orlando, Mr. Kessler must have seen it because he asked to bring his wife, Martha, and visit my gallery in Tarpon Springs. I was in the middle of doing these huge murals for Universal Studios and he was impressed enough to ask me if I would do a mural for the back of the bar in a hotel he was building. He and I have had a very productive working relationship ever since.”
Today, Kolbe’s passions are painting in oils and sculpting in clay. “My technique for painting en plein air is still alla prima, or direct painting, wet into wet directly onto the canvas,” he says. “I use a fine-weave oil-primed linen, on stretcher bars or oil-primed linen panels. When doing studio pieces, I am developing a grisaille first—which is a French term for monochromatic underpainting in grey tones. This gives me a full-value drawing in black and white. By doing this I can build up my paint as thick or thin as I want without concern for color, and let it dry, then glaze thin pure oil colors to match the grey tones or restate in thicker paint, scumble, or even scrape and sand the surface.”
Knowing when you are actually finished is one of the hardest things about painting, Kolbe says, adding that it helps to have a wife. “She is my most honest critic and, even though sometimes I don’t like what she says about a piece, she is almost always right.” Mitch and Kathryn married in 2012, and in the fall of 2016, purchased some land adjacent to his cousin’s Highlander Farm in Fairview. “We both love living in the mountains and being part of the Asheville community,” he says. “There is so much that inspires me right here on the farm and surrounding areas that I don’t really feel the need to paint anywhere else.”
From September 26 to October 15, the Grand Bohemian Gallery will debut new works by Kolbe in an exhibition titled Determined by the Seasons, celebrated by a reception Friday, September 29, 5:30–8 p.m. This month’s cover painting was derived from a color study that will be featured in the show, along with several new works with autumn themes.
“It’s a pleasure to be able to showcase Mitch’s work throughout the year, now that he is back home,” says Grand Bohemian Gallery director and hotel curator Constance Richards-Bora. “Mitch’s paintings speak to a variety of collectors; we have local clients who fell in love with his train series and we placed an early-morning sheepfarming scene in a New York City penthouse. We help build our clients’ collections with artwork across all media from the local and international artists we represent. It’s a healthy mix of the familiar and traditional, and the unusual and experimental.”
Kolbe’s work is always viewable in the permanent collection of the Grand Bohemian Hotel Asheville. He encourages the viewer to come see his original art. “Only that way can you see the texture, color and light as it was meant to be seen.”