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Crowd hails artist Dean Mitchell's opening

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By Alice Du Pont

"Dean Mitchell wants you to look, to closely study his work, so that you may understand the people and places he lovingly portrays. Take time to enjoy each painting, with its several layers of beauty and meaning but also notice the quiet detail of his subjects and the care with which he painted them," wrote Gadsden Arts Center curator Angie Berry.
    Mitchell's new body of work, entitled "Dean Mitchell: Rich in Spirit" opened to a standing room only crowd July 29. The Gadsden County native, who has won critical acclaim worldwide, said this body of work on exhibit through Oct. 29, expresses a belief in doing what is right with a moral compass with or without material possessions.
    "This material is important now as we wrestle with fairness in our societies throughout the world. In my opinion, a person can have both. Material, sometimes in the hands of a wise person,lifts us all but in the hands of a fool can lead to hurting huge numbers of us in the physical world as we know it. For me trying to express these  feelings requires thought with words and symbols. Feelings are very abstract and can change as we experience life with a balance," Mitchell said, as he spoke to more than 400 people opening night.
    Mitchell talked about his grandmother, Marie, who believed in his talent and bought him his first paint-by-numbers set. He talked about her deep roots in the church, Mt. Zion Christian Methodist Episcopal, and how her spirituality was the grounding force in her life.
    Looking around the room, Mitchell said he was happy with what he saw. As a child, he said, working in tobacco fields he could never have imagined one day returning home to talk about his artwork to black, white, rich and poor in the same audience.
    "That is what 'Rich in Spirit' is all about. The richness of a person's soul. All of use are rich but in different ways. We have to share our richness, we have to help others and it doesn't always mean money," he said, adding, "the faces of the people I paint have a richness about them," he said.
    "The exhibit is entitles "Rich in Spirit" for a reason. It's about the moral fiber one senses and a respect for each other. I didn't just paint a barn, I worked in tobacco so I know what a barn is. I named one barn "Giant" because that's what it was to me at the time," he said.
    He told the audience of childhood memories of visiting relatives in St. Hebron who had a outhouse and his his Aunt Dollie who had a farm outside Quincy and how she killed chickens for dinner by wringing heir necks. His interpretation of those early years were God's way of conditioning him for what was to come in his life.
    "When I go through a challenge. I have to pull back on how I was raised and how it interconnects in what I'm doing. When I look at these walls," he said pointing to his work, "It's Gadsden County history. Richness in spirit is about love and it was created by a man who loves people," he said.
    Mitchell said his work is about real people. Like "Mr. Nathan" a man he met from Greensboro who invited him into his home. "He lived in a little cabin but it was immaculate, he had the whitest hair I have ever seen and it was like the sunlight bounced off it," Mitchell said.
    Other people like the painting he calls "Rowena" touched is life more personally.
    I would not be standing here if it were not for people from my hometown. They encourages me. Rowena was the woman who, after my grandmother died, pulled me through," he said.
    Many of the works in the exhibit are readily identifiable by local people. "Mr. Willie Ward's Body Shop" on West Crawford Street  was torn down years ago but the cement slab remains or "Quincy Church" which is First Baptist Church on West Washington Street and "Pepper Hill's Wilson House" still sits on 11th Street although it is now boarded up.
    In the show, Mitchell has a mixture of mediums which include watercolors. oils and acrylic. He sys, however, he has no specific style.
    "Mitchell has developed his talent over the years to create a style and voice that are uniquely his own. Mitchell's style of realism captures an ethereal moment in time that is sure to evaporate in the next moment, preserved in paint for eternity. This realism is infused with passages of abstraction and rich layers of color and texture that are like patina of an ancient Greek sculpture. His paintings are so beautifully composed that they tell their stories without the viewer's conscious thought, automatically speaking to each of us on a soul-level" said Grace Maloy, executive director of the GAC.