This abstract oil pastel artist uses her intuitive knowledge of color to create art that resonates with emotion.
Marianne Mitchell pulled up stakes in her native Philadelphia about a year ago and relocated to Denver. She calls the move one of the best things that ever happened to her. “I had an amazing, grounded childhood and adult life there,” she says, “but my wings needed to spread and fly.”
Judging from her recent work, Mitchell is soaring. In her central Denver studio in the gracious Schleier Mansion, walls display a series of abstract oil pastel works on paper. A few larger, abstract acrylic paintings add to the sublime effect. Even unframed and informally installed, the art draws one in, calmly encouraging closer examination of glowing colors capturing emotions, moods, and balance. Mitchell is adjusting to her relatively new studio in the old mansion. “I’ve just been here for a few months, so I’m making friends with the space,” says the artist.
“I’m knocking out the oil pastels because they’re much easier to do. I’m more nervous about throwing paint around here,” she says with a nod to the handsome, antique wood moldings in the cozy room with painterly light spilling through large windows. Mitchell took up oil pastels after opting out of oil paints while pregnant with her daughter, now a college student. “I didn’t want to go back to oils because the smell bothered me, and I hated the mess,” she says. “I like oil pastels because I can achieve great color and luminosity.”
Mitchell works with oil pastels on dense printmaker’s paper. She lays down the pasty pigment, working it into porous paper. Then, using a razor blade and plastic spatula-like tools, she subtracts or manipulates the oily color on the page. “Printmaking paper is made to absorb ink. It’s very strong. I can push a lot of layers into the paper, and it will hold,” she says. Mitchell’s unique technique grew out of her yin-yang quest for a balance of opposites: light-dark, opacity and transparency, organic shapes and geometric structure. “One of my missions is to create a sense of place: emotional, physical, and intellectual space. That blending is what people respond to,” says Mitchell.
The typical response to her art is one of reassurance in life’s ineffable beauty. “The feeling is like you’re coming home, feeling comfort, feeling at ease, grounded, supported,” she says. “When you walk into a space that is designed in a way that holds you psychically and physically and intellectually, you feel great.” The daughter of architects and also the wife of an architect, Mitchell appreciates nuances of spaces, yet knew that architecture was not for her. “I’m not a 3D thinker,” she says.
Mitchell thinks abstractly: “At times, it’s been challenging to fit into a linear world,” she admits. “But one of my strengths is communicating what it’s like to be in an intuitive thinking place.”
As a mentor, Mitchell teaches intuitive thinking to art students, fellow artists, and also medical students or business people. Intuition, her abstract works seem to whisper, is the key element in art. “All of these pieces are rooted in my intuitive gravitation to color,” says Mitchell. “I can feel which colors are akin to how I’m feeling, but when I start, I have no idea what’s going to come out.” As a colorist, Mitchell understands the power of pigment. “When you look at all these pieces, most of them have a wide spectrum of color from dark contemplative colors to light yellow-orange, so they encompass all emotional states,” she says.
“In a way, so you can travel throughout them and feel comfortable in the dark, deep area and then come out and play in a yellow area. You can psychically go in and travel, and feel rejuvenated by interior energy and exterior energy.” As Mitchell settles into the uplifting energy of the Mile High City, she’s establishing new places for her self, her family, her art. “I really have been feeling very indigo, dark purple, as I’m sinking deep into myself. I wanted to hibernate—not to hide. The colors that help you go deep in are indigo, dark purple, and dark blue.”
Over the past decade, Mitchell faced some of life’s darkest passages. Both of her parents died within a year of one another. Her husband lost his job during the recession. The couple sold their home, then moved to Colorado, where the artist realized that their parachute is all colors. “I had to be so organizational and structured in my thinking to power through tremendous emotional death. Some of these pieces are very dark, but very luminous. I felt like I was submerged, trolling the ocean floor, but could see the sunlight at the surface,” she says, letting a smile soften her serious gaze. “Now the phoenix has risen, and the work is showing that.”
For more about Marianne Mitchell’s art, visit www.mariannemitchell.com.
Colleen Smith is the author of the acclaimed novel Glass Halo, set in Denver, and also Laid-Back Skier by Friday Jones Publishing. A longtime contributor to the magazine, she also writes for The Denver Post.