By Gina Malone
Michele Mitchell attributes how she sees and the artistic path she chose to an early openness to nature and a realization that she did not want life to fall into a habitual pattern. “I remember being a very young child and feeling profoundly that it was very important for me to be open and to trust the experience that nature is derived from,” she says. “I saw that so many people were caught in consequences, not living the life presented to them, and I knew that for me, too, that window would close as I became older. I believe my focus began to shift at that point to be more aware and to appreciate the knowledge imparted to me from that depth.”
Hand in hand with art in her learning years was a love of music. In college, she made a demo and was pursued by producers, one of whom had produced Crosby, Stills & Nash. She sang and played guitar in clubs. “But at one point, I knew I had to make a decision,” Mitchell says. “I couldn’t commit to both. I chose art.”
She grew up the youngest of seven children in Oak Park, IL, an area that afforded her access to the Art Institute of Chicago when a scholarship was offered. A subsequent program at the University of Illinois–Champaign that prioritized abstract art almost discouraged her from pursuing art altogether. She left her studies there prematurely and worked briefly as a consultant before enrolling at the American Academy of Art. “It was my stepping stone upon reentry to the Fine Arts,” Mitchell says. “I learned many different skills in picture making in various mediums, primarily in oil, as I entered my final years painting, working with a figurative focus.”
She met Jim Ostlund, her future husband, in her first year of study at the Academy. The two would reunite two years later when they took studio space at the Palette & Chisel. There, an introduction to the working methods of Atelier Lack led to a meeting with artist Richard Lack, who, on a documented lineage of masters to students, could trace his atelier training directly back to the French painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825).
“He [Lack] was teaching a higher level of craftsmanship and depth in the works than I had ever seen,” says Mitchell. “My aspiration at that time was to capture ‘truth’ of nature without obscuring it through ‘style’.” She foresaw the possibility of achieving this by an intense course of study at Atelier Lack. Fortunately, for her and Ostlund, though Lack was rumored to be considering retirement, he accepted them as students in a four-year program reintroducing the basics—based on seeing and craft—that predated the 17th century: working in charcoal on paper, then moving on to still life and figurative painting. The study encompassed both the French Academic tradition, based on accuracy in drawing, and Impressionism, with its emphasis on seeing truthful color value masses. “I was tireless and ruthless in my questions and my intense desire to grow,” Mitchell says of her time spent working with Lack, who would say later of her work: “Her portraits are among the best ever produced over my long career as a teacher at Atelier Lack.” During her last year of study, she returned to Chicago often to care for her parents, both battling cancer that would, eventually, claim their lives: her father first, and then her mother.
“Upon their passing, I left to heal—and to begin,” Mitchell says. She moved to Florence, Italy, immersing herself in the music and art of the old city. “My time was spent in a microcosm of the Renaissance,” she says. “I painted in my studio and visited the museums almost daily. My evenings included composing music, playing guitar and singing with an Italian maestro of opera and a choir. I was very happy living there.” She studied notable works, including paintings by Titian, Veronese, Turner, Constable and Rembrandt.
When she returned to Chicago for a friend’s wedding, she and Ostlund reunited. Married, the two would eventually find their way to Asheville, where they share space in the River Arts District (RAD). They have two daughters: Olivia, 24, and Bella, 21. While raising them, Mitchell traveled around the country painting portraits for individuals and corporations. “Portraiture as a means allowed me to be with my girls and to raise them in beautiful areas of WNC,” she says, “including Bat Cave, on the top of a mountain living in a log cabin off the grid, then in Fairview on a wonderful farm with horses and sheep and cattle close by.” That setting was inspirational when she was commissioned in 2003 by Universal Studios to complete drawings for Lord of the Rings. Around this time, she also discovered a love of plein air painting.
Her RAD space is set up as a gallery of her work, and it’s her Marshall studio where Mitchell produces most of her paintings. “It’s on the island,” she says, “a large studio with north light windows looking over the French Broad River, a beautiful place to work.” Artists often work in isolation, so the pandemic has not changed her life drastically, she says. She continues to work in her studio and to seek out beautiful places for plein air painting.
“I always feel privileged to stand before nature, whether it is a portrait, still life or landscape, and I always feel inadequate, but I feel such a kindness that companions my effort,” says Mitchell. “Just experiencing nature and walking in quiet company. And I always feel gratitude if I’m able to transpose what I have seen and experienced to canvas.”