Barrooms to bungalows

Retired prof devotes time to her own paintings

HOME SWEET HOME <br>Dolores Mitchell with a piece from her “Chico Bungalow” series.

Dolores Mitchell with a piece from her “Chico Bungalow” series.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

During the late ‘60s Dolores Mitchell was a UCLA doctoral art-history student working in England on a project about the social purposes of art. The town of Chico wasn’t even on her radar.

She was in her early 30s at the time. She was looking for a job. Mitchell sent out 25 job requests—one of which was to Chico State.

“I had never been to Chico,” she said. “I found an outdated map in one of the libraries in London that made it look like Chico was in the middle of an Indian reservation. I thought, ‘Well, I could do that.’ “

Mitchell, who began studying art at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago as a teenager, ended up teaching art history at Chico State for more than 30 years until she retired in 2000. During her time teaching, the talented and well-traveled painter team-taught 10 summer travel programs in Italy, France and England.

She’s still active in the local arts community—both as an artist and a gallery director. Mitchell has co-directed the popular Avenue 9 Gallery with fellow well-known local artists Maria Phillips and Giovanna Jackson since 2003. And she currently has an exhibition of oil and watercolor paintings and watercolor collages showing on the walls of Grilla Bites.

Since retiring eight years ago, the bright and bright-eyed Mitchell began devoting time to her own painting, a pursuit she had to abandon during those demanding years of teaching and raising her daughter, Ann, who heads the photography department at Long Beach City College.

Mitchell’s part-abstract jazz paintings are playful and entertaining to look at—spirited eye candy. Her landscapes of the West Coast and Italy are impressive. Mitchell’s capturing of the shimmering light in “Towards Infinity,” oil-painted from a drawing she sketched on an envelope of a scene she saw out the window of a train while traveling through Washington state, is nothing less than masterful.

Her barroom paintings (part of her in-progress barroom and nightclub series, done from sketches of people she’s watched at local bars) capture what Mitchell refers to as “the garish atmosphere and theatricality” of the nightlife scene.

“Dreams and Desires” is based on a scene Mitchell observed at the bar of Nash’s Restaurant. The giclée print depicts two female bartenders painted in red tones standing before two luminescent round mirrors, serving eager male patrons who partly blend into the blue tones of their surroundings. The accompanying description reads: “Patrons leave reality outside when they enter the dark, artificially lit ‘theater’ of desire.”

It is Mitchell’s “Chico Bungalow” series (which makes up the bulk of her current show) that really captivates. Mitchell had been filling sketchbooks with pictures of cozy local bungalows for the past five years “without any particular aim,” before turning them into paintings.

Mitchell just followed her impulse to draw them—definitely a result, she acknowledges, of her coming from a family whose lineage includes Germans who emigrated from Poland to Canada in the early 1900s for the land on which they could build their own modest houses.

The bungalow paintings are all different—done in oil, or watercolor, or a collaged combination of cut-up pieces of her old watercolors or pages from her sketchbooks superimposed over a newly painted background environment.

Her subjects were observed at different times of day and different times of year—some houses are bathed in summer sun, while another shivers delicately in the winter snow.

But each house or artistic conglomeration of houses has those friendly, homey features that Mitchell likes so much—each little house has its two front windows ("like eyes,” Mitchell pointed out), its door that resembles a nose or mouth, a little yard in front, sometimes a picket fence and at least one tree.

“I am not at all interested in big ‘McMansions,’ “ said Mitchell, referring to ostentatious houses in which occupants remain distanced—physically and emotionally—from one another. “They are without character. I don’t like the big scale. There’s no distance in a bungalow.”