Color and form

Dolores Mitchell’s life of learning, teaching and making art

Recently Dolores Mitchell, shown here in her Chico studio, has been applying her colorful expressionism to paintings of San Francisco.

Recently Dolores Mitchell, shown here in her Chico studio, has been applying her colorful expressionism to paintings of San Francisco.

photo by robert speer

Melding Culture and Nature
Paintings by Dolores Mitchell, ceramics by Chris Yates, showing March 14-April 19. Reception Friday, March 14, 5-8 p.m.
Avenue 9 Gallery
180 E. 9th Ave.

When Dolores Mitchell was growing up in Chicago, her fifth-grade teacher, noticing her natural talent, obtained for her a scholarship to attend the Art Institute of Chicago on Saturdays. It was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with art, first as a student, then as a teacher, painter and writer.

Mitchell has been a fixture in the local art community since 1970, when she arrived here with her freshly minted doctorate in art history from UCLA to teach at Chico State. “I came here sight unseen, and they hired me sight unseen,” she said during a recent interview in her cozy, art-filled Avenues home. “That doesn’t happen anymore,” she added, shaking her head in bemusement.

She wasn’t a painter then. Teaching art history, which she did for 30 years, took up her time, as did being a wife and mother. (She and her husband, Al, who died four years ago, founded Chico’s Pageant Theatre, which he managed for several years; their daughter, Ann, runs the photography program at Long Beach City College.)

Mitchell did draw—“all the time,” she said. She liked to sketch paintings in museums because it helped her analyze them in the classroom.

When she ended her teaching career, she suddenly had time to paint, though it didn’t come easily at first. “I was very rusty,” she explained, and it took her two or three years “to get back a feeling for painting.”

She’s been retired for 12 years now, and that feeling for painting has been in full flower for some time. She’s more enthused about her work than ever, inspired in part by her attendance at last year’s David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Hockney, she said, is an artist who continues to be highly productive and open to working in new mediums even at the age of 76.

She feels growing confidence in her work and wants to see what she’s capable of doing, which means, she said, “I’m just going to have to work longer and harder.”

She’s also eager to try new mediums. She’s been working in oil for many years and has become masterful in her ability to take advantage of its rich color palette, but she plans to begin experimenting with water mediums such as gouache and watercolor.

For the past seven years she’s been painting landscapes set among the rice fields south of Chico. Her method is to find a scene she likes, sketch it and take some photos, and then do the painting in her studio. She doesn’t aim for realism, but rather for an imaginative expressionism that combines a profusion of brilliant colors with a sense of the geometry of field and furrow, silo and sky.

Lately, she’s been applying that same colorful expressionism to paintings of San Francisco, though often in an even less realistic manner. It’s as if she’s chopped up the city into parts—bridges, the bay, lit-up signs, stairways, hills—and reassembled them in a way that expresses the not altogether unpleasant dizziness that comes from driving in the city.

“I’ve painted San Francisco’s tilted perspectives,” she has written, “a dream city that’s more than a little tipsy, with architecture that celebrates excess.”

Avenue 9 Gallery will be showing a selection of Mitchell’s recent paintings beginning Friday, March 14, with a reception from 5 to 8 p.m. She also has an exhibit of earlier works at the Upper Crust Bakery & Eatery through March 31.

The Avenue 9 show, titled Melding Culture and Nature, will also feature ceramic works by Chris Yates. A Paradise native, Yates for many years operated a wilderness camp in the southern Sierra. He’s been working in porcelain for more than 40 years, creating mostly vessels, but also nonfunctional pieces, such as a “horsehair basket” he demonstrates in a video on the Avenue 9 Gallery website.

Yates’ pieces contain images taken from nature applied to variations on classical forms. In that sense they, like Mitchell’s paintings, illustrate the theme of the show, which is how nature and culture can blend rather than be in opposition.