Saturday, August 29, 2009

Donald Mitchell

Melissa has shared many beautiful things with me here in Paris. One of them is Donald Mitchell.

A couple months ago, after a heinously drunken Saturday night when I wanted to just pass out on the sidewalk, but instead got sick on my doorstep and dragged up the six flights of stairs by my very forgiving friend Michael, I had plans to meet Melissa. I hadn’t been that hungover in I don’t know how many years, but I couldn’t flake. So I threw on my baggy jeans, added extra blush to look alive, and met Melissa at Galerie Impaire, where she was doing a little consulting work.

Galerie Impaire is affiliated with Creative Growth, an art center in Oakland, CA that’s devoted to mentally, physically and developmentally disabled adults. There are about 150 artists there, and they’re likely to work five hours a day, for several days a week. When verbal communication fails, their art is how they express themselves. How wonderful that Elias Katz, a psychologist with developmental disabilities expertise, and Florence Ludins-Katz, an artist and art teacher, created this place where these artists can work, and that Tom di Maria opened Galerie Impaire to represent their work here in Paris.

Melissa showed me around the gallery, and I was so drawn into the story and the artists. She explained that they mostly fell into one of two categories: they either created these outrageously over-the-top fantasy worlds and characters—an indication maybe of the world as they see it or how they wish it to be. But in any case, very far from reality.

The other camp falls into a repetitive mode, drawing or painting the same thing, shape, person, whatever, over and over. Like Donald Mitchell.

Mitchell grew up in San Francisco. He was a late learner (didn’t speak until he was five) and stuck in special ed classes. When he was a teenager, he was running across the street and hit by a bus. Afterwards, he was diagnosed with moderate mental retardation and schizophrenia, and ran a bit with a bad crowd, leading to stints in juvenile detention as well as psychiatric facilities. A caseworker finally recommended him for admission to Creative Growth in 1975. He’s been working there since.

The more you look at Mitchell’s work, the more moving it is. Some drawings are intricate and feathery. Others are bold and geometric. Most are black and white, created with ink and paper, though he has done some beguiling watercolors. By the end of my visit, I knew I wanted to take one home with me and narrowed it down to four considerations. I went back a few weeks later with my decision and credit card.

The reason I’m writing about him now is I was just cleaning my apartment before leaving for New York and stopped to look at my Donald Mitchell. It makes me so happy.

As Melissa pointed out, mine is a little unusual. It has his trademark human figures, drawn in a repetitive pattern. But it also has some color and words, both of which are rarer for Mitchell. I like that it incorporates some of his dark, hashing marks but still feels light.

His story haunts me a bit. Life is so fragile. And when it’s reduced to such simple thoughts and expressions, it’s somehow more moving. It's bigger, more emotional. So happy I have this.

Thanks, Melis.

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