Dialogue with Beauty - Scotty Mitchell Landscapes

November 15, 2014 - February 15, 2015



Gallery guide text by Alan Petersen and more images



Dialogue with Beauty - Scotty Mitchell Landscapes

by Alan Petersen


The sublime and stimulating environment that pastel artist Scotty Mitchell calls home is the Colorado Plateau, in particular in southern Utah, a captivating region now protected as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Throughout the cycle of the seasons it presents challenges for the artist who works outdoors, en plein aire, as Mitchell does. In spring howling winds can fill the sky with dust and during June it is home to clouds of Cedar Gnats that can make leaving the safety of one's car or home a move of desperation. Yet summer days bring the aromas of sage, fern bush and cliff rose. Autumn skies offer calm, clarity and warm light, and winter months can be frigid, although the light is crystalline and colors are intense.

Scotty Mitchell's route to her home in Boulder, Utah was a circuitous one that initially led through the central Mediterranean. She attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome to study drawing and oil painting and graduated in 1971. She also discovered chalk pastels, which she found herself attracted to because of their ability to function as both paint and drawing media.

Before moving to Boulder, Utah in 1997 Mitchell lived and painted on Crete for more than twenty years. She had sought a home where she could paint outdoors year round, and familiar with the Mediterranean region from her college years, she moved to Crete. Initially, she lived in the small mountain village of Spili near the center of the island for three years. She then moved to Gerani on the northwestern coast. Her pastel Distant Selia (1990) reveals that her emphasis on color, and the abstract nature of landforms was well developed by that time. Exhibiting the same rich color and structural abstraction as Maynard Dixon, comparison with his paintings is common, though Mitchell was unfamiliar with Dixon's work before her move to Utah. She acknowledges the influence on her work from Henri, Pierre Bonnard, Wolf Kahn, and Dorothy Andrews, another American painter living on Crete at the same time as Mitchell.

While she exhibits primarily in Utah, Mitchell has exhibited her work in Emeryville, California and Woodstock, New York. She has also had numerous exhibitions of her Mediterranean landscapes and still-lifes in Greece and Crete.


(above: Distant Selia, 1990, pastel on paper)


While in the United States to visit her family and friends in 1993 Mitchell made a trip to Utah with her sister Heidi. It would be a pivotal experience for the artist. Captivated by the beauty and wildness of southern Utah, especially the Escalante region, she determined to move there.

The town of Escalante and the Escalante River were named for Father Silvestre Vélez de Escalante. Escalante served as the diarist for the remarkable Dominguez-Escalante expedition of 1776-1777, which sought an overland route from Santa Fe New Mexico to Monterey California. Portions of their route would become the Old Spanish Trail. The suggestion to name the town after Escalante was made in 1872 by Almon Thompson, John Wesley Powell's brother-in-law and field director of the 1871-72 expedition, to a group of Mormon scouts seeking a site for a new town site in the region. Settlers from Panguitch arrived in 1876 and began farming, harvesting timber from the Aquarius Plateau, and developing mines. It was from Escalante that the young artist and traveler Everett Ruess departed in November 1934, never to be seen again.

Boulder, where Mitchell moved in 1997, was settled initially in 1889 by stockmen from Escalante who had been running their herds in the higher elevations around Boulder. At 6,700' Boulder lies much closer to the lush mixed-conifer forest and meadows that served as summer pasture. Utah Highway 12 between Escalante and Boulder, one of the most scenic roads in the United States, began in the early twentieth century as one of several difficult routes taken by the cattlemen from Escalante to the higher country. As a testament to the remote location of Boulder and the difficulty of the terrain, the last portion of Highway 12 to be paved wasn't completed until 1971.

Today, at the heart of Mitchell's home region and landscape subjects is the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Encompassing almost two million acres, the Monument was created in 1996 as the result of a controversial declaration by President Bill Clinton who invoked the Antiquities Act because of the high concentration of Fremont and Ancestral Puebloan archeological sites found in the region. Local officials, ranchers, and energy development corporations objected vigorously to the designation and questioned the President's application of the Antiquities Act to such a vast region, and with no local input. Designation of the Monument ended generations of livestock grazing on what became protected lands as well as plans to develop a coal strip mine on the Kaiparowits Plateau. Numerous lawsuits were filed that sought to overturn the designation of the Monument and they were dismissed by federal courts. In the ensuing time families descended from the original settlers continue to practice small scale farming and ranching as the region has become a haven for outdoor recreation.


(above: Farlan's Field, Late Afternoon, pastel on paper, 11 1/4 x 16 1/4 inches)


Working within this inspiring environment Scotty Mitchell creates her works outdoors in dialogue with her subject. With remarkable lucidity she captures the essence of her subject, the atmosphere, and the season. Farlan's Field, Late Afternoon evokes the stillness and clarity of a cold winter's day in Boulder, punctuated with the warm rays of the low sun. Typical of Mitchell's compositions, contrasting shapes of the landforms create strong rhythm and movement that animate the image. While some plein-air painters begin their works outdoors and then finish the painting in the studio, a practice that the painter Winslow Homer called only "half right," the environment and dialogue with her subject is essential to Mitchell's process. Communion with Nature and the sensory experience of the moment are integral in her work. She is a patient artist, seeking and waiting for the right light and conditions, often making multiple hikes to a remote location in order to complete a work.

Chalk pastels, Mitchell's preferred medium, suit the tactile nature of the sandstone and other sedimentary layers so prevalent in southern Utah. The pastels perfectly convey the soft qualities of the rounded forms contrasting with the sharp, fractured edges left by fallen slabs of rock. In her earlier work in Crete and in Utah Mitchell worked in both oil paints and pastels. She has always approached her work more from the perspective of drawing rather than painting and found that the pastels better suited to her style and subject matter. Her early oil paintings were built up of thin layers of paint applied as if drawn on. Pastels have the advantages of the rich, intense color of oil paint, and the incisive nature of traditional drawing media. Within a year following her move to Boulder she had made the switch to working primarily in pastels.

Pastels also offer the artist far greater portability than oil paints. Mitchell will often return to remote sites in all four seasons to create her works. Afternoon Glow, Haymaker's Benchr equired a forty minute hike over slickrock and sand to reach the location. She made that trek ten times in October 2012 to complete the work.


(above: Location for Afternoon Glow, Haymaker's Bench)


When Mitchell can't work outdoors due to extreme weather she will work in her mobile studio, Aphrodite, a vintage recreational vehicle she modified to serve as her studio. With Aphrodite, Mitchell can travel the highways and back roads in comfort when wind or cold would make outdoor work impractical.


(above: Aphrodite in the desert)


About the Author

Alan Petersen is Curator of Fine Arts at Museum of Northern Arizona.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above text was published in Resource Library on December 20, 2014 with permission of Alan Petersen. Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Mr. Petersen for his help concerning Scotty Mitchell's permission to publish the associated images.

See America's Distinguished Artists for more biographical information on certain artists cited above.

Photos courtesy of Scotty Mitchell

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