The master of momentum

Publication Date: Friday Aug 14, 1998

The master of momentum

Palo Alto painter Mitchell Johnson mixes it up to keep his enthusiasm level high

by Jim Harrington

Talk with Palo Altan Mitchell Johnson for more than a few minutes about his paintings and you are likely to hear him use the term "momentum" several times.

Webster's New World Dictionary defines momentum as "the impetus of a moving object, equal to the product of its mass and its velocity." That's fine when we are dealing with a car speeding down U.S. 101 or an apple falling on a physicist's head, but it doesn't really get at what Johnson means when he uses the word--to do whatever it takes to stay passionate about his painting.

He mixes things up in his work, one day painting in his Palo Alto studio and the next jetting off to Tuscany to capture the light on a farmer's field. He doesn't want to hit a rut.

"That element of enthusiasm is really important," Johnson explained. "Because without it, I usually don't get started."

Johnson is an accomplished landscape artist who is exhibiting some recent paintings at Cafe Borrone in Menlo Park through Sept. 5. His paintings command as much as $7,000 a pop, and his credits include a hard-to-get solo showing in New York City.

The painter splits his time between working in his indoor, garage-turned-studio and outside, on location. More dramatically, he divides his time between California and Italy. The 34-year-old painter thrives on variety, except perhaps in one respect: He has been going to the same area in Italy--the city of Buonconvento in the southwest of Tuscany--to paint since his first trip to the country in 1993.

"The reason why I like to go there is because the patterns make it pretty unique," he said. "That's really what takes me there."

Johnson is referring to the fields and the rich and different patterns that can be seen in the landscape, given the right vantage point. One field may have been just cut short, so much so that the brown of the earth simmers through; the next field may be fully grown, with the wheat waving proudly in the air.

Landscape painting, especially when it's of areas like the farmlands of Tuscany, has its own momentum, an urgency that comes from never knowing how a scene will look on the next visit. What is today a field of blowing grasses may be bare land tomorrow, after the farmer has plowed it under. A landscape artist can take nothing for granted.

"Every day you go out and work really hard, (because) it's changing from day to day," he said. "You can't waste your time, because you go back a couple of days later and the colors have changed.

"I think that is one of the things about being over there. It's the urgency."

Tuscany is also thousands of miles from the business aspects related to his art, which allows him to focus more completely on painting.

"When I'm here, I just get caught in doing things like sending slides to people," Johnson said. "When I'm there, I just paint exclusively."

Johnson did not begin painting in earnest until college, but he has always been interested in landscapes. He remembers going to the beach as a child and getting excited just looking around. At the time, he wasn't sure why, but now he knows it was because of what the sunlight did to the colors of the sand and the water.

Johnson, a native of South Carolina, excelled as a student in math and science and majored in computer science at Randolph-Macon, a small private college outside of Richmond, Va. While at Randolph-Macon, he began painting in oils and was so drawn to it that he declared his minor in art.

"I spent less time in the computer building than anyone else who got a computer degree," Johnson remembered. "And I spent more time in the arts building than anyone else who got an arts degree."

He went on to earn a master's in fine arts from Parsons art college in Manhattan, where he studied with some prominent New York artists. He said he learned to paint by seeing others paint every day, all day, for two years.

He moved to Palo Alto in 1990 to take a part-time job as the assistant to Sam Francis, a major California artist. Francis died a few years back, but Johnson still calls Palo Alto home.

One recent highlight of his career: Johnson's first New York exhibition. Earlier this year, the Tatistcheff Gallery showed works Johnson painted on location in Italy, France, California and New Mexico. He compares an artist having a show in New York to a musician getting a chance to perform at Carnegie Hall.

Besides New York, Johnson has had solo exhibits in Milan, San Francisco, Santa Fe, N.M., and France.

At his humble studio, Johnson stores an enormous volume of works--some finished, many in progress.

"I usually have 50 paintings going at once," he said. "That's just how I work. After 15 years of painting, that's just how it worked out."

Johnson says one of his main strengths as a painter is that no matter how tired he might feel at a particular moment, the energy and enthusiasm always return.

"It never fails to surprise me. It always comes back," he said. "That's the thing. That's why I should be doing this."

It's all about momentum.

"Have I said 'momentum' a thousand times already?" he asked.

Yes. But in each case it has been appropriate.

What: "Some Recent Paintings" exhibit by Mitchell Johnson

Where: Cafe Borrone, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park

When: Through Sept. 5.

Information: Call 327-0830. 

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