Portrait of the artists as young parents
Bat Cave couple pour energy into artistry and two daughters
"The Call" by Michele Mitchell was not a commissioned portrait but the result of a spontaneous sitting by a baby sitter while Mitchell was working on a still life.
BAT CAVE - It has been said that creativity is spawned in childhood, and is helped along by parents who, if not permissive, are at least disinclined to put the kibosh on their kids every time they try to express themselves.
If that be the case, everyone reading this should mark their calendars 25 years hence with these names: Olivia and Maria Isabella Ostlund. They are the little girls who had the good fortune to be born to Michele Mitchell and Jim Ostlund, husband and wife fine artists who are every bit as dedicated to raising self-fulfilled children as they are to painting the portrait.
"Olivia is a project girl," Ostlund says of his blonde, bedimpled 3-year-old, who at the moment is making "snow petals" out of hydrangea for her spellbound baby sister, 1-year-old Maria Isabella. Moments ago, Olivia was working at her own easel with her own brushes and watercolors, wearing her own miniature smock.
"She's very creative, which is exciting to see," says Mitchell. "Whether she's picking flowers or painting, she always has a wonderful little expression to make. We support her adventure and her discovery and her openness and her delight."
Jim Ostlund's "Portrait of John," a classical radio announcer, tied for Best of the Show with Mitchell's "Moving Toward the Light" in the 1997 Americal Society of Portrait Artists International Competition.
Mitchell and Ostlund have recently moved to Western North Carolina to be closer to their clients. Commissioned portraiture as an American tradition is most common in the South.
The couple made some time for the Citizen-Times on a recent afternoon when they were doing their usual parent-and-painter juggling act and preparing for the 2001 Portrait Arts Festival in New York City. Both were invited to be judges and instructors.
The family lives in a solar-powered log cabin several miles off U.S. 74 in the remote hills of Bat Cave.
A more unlikely spot for an art gallery is hard to imagine, and yet the walls of this rustic retreat are filled with exquisite art: their portraits, landscapes, still lifes, charcoals and watercolors.
If you didn't know the curriculum vitae of the residents, you might think someone like Jesse James had robbed an art train and stashed it all in this hillside hideaway.
Michele Mitchell and Jim Ostlund say they are equally talented, equally passionate artists. Only a year apart in age and soul mates for almost 20 years, it's as if they're the falstaff and distaff incarnation of the same gifted being.
They never work jointly on the same painting, but sometimes they paint the same subject. When they do, an untrained eye can't tell whose is whose.
"He's more linear and I'm more impressionist," says Mitchell, calling attention to a charcoal drawing and a black-and-white oil of a nude painted by her husband.
"See how meticulous they are? Mine lean a little bit more toward a softer palette."
Ostlund's "Daffodils" is a still life painting within a painting. On the wall behind the fruit and flowers Ostlund's "Tuscany" appears, painted while he was studying in Florence.
"Drawing is the crux of what we do," says Ostlund. "It's the drawing that we're constantly trying to get: the likeness, the proportions, the composition."
Mitchell: "But there's also the shades of color value. That's the music. That's where the harmony of the whole comes together in one strong statement."
Olivia: "Mommy, I want to put tights on."
Ostlund: "And that's her strength. For me, it's getting all the lights and darks properly placed. It's like a symphony, where if one instrument was off, out of key, you'd be able to hear it."
Olivia: "I want to put tights under my dress, Daddy."
Ostlund: "One moment, honey."
Olivia: "Mommy will you put tights under my dress?
Mitchell: "Are you cold, honey?"
The fountain of youth
As they prepare for their trip to New York, the artists have stood some of their paintings on the floor. Ever the exploratory 1-year-old, Maria Isabella toddles up to a finished portrait and puts her hands on it.
"She loves to look at them and feel them," Mitchell says, delighted. But when the baby toddles away she leaves her fingerprints behind. Mommy removes the smudges from the oil painting while Dad carries Maria Isabella to the sink and washes her hands.
"I've never seen her do that before," says Mitchell. "Finger painting on Mom's painting!"
In a home with two intensely serious professionals and no nanny, where some modern couples would insist that an electronic babysitter is a must, there is no TV. No TV, no candy, no fast food and no nap time.
The artist-parents say they don't want to create an appetite for television and unhealthy food, nor artificially impose naps on their children for their own convenience. Both were swamped with siblings growing up - Ostlund in Minnesota and Mitchell in Oak Park, Ill. - and describe themselves as extremely sensitive children.
"I would come home in tears almost every day," says Mitchell. Ostlund coped with his feelings by drawing everything in sight.
He marks the official beginning of his career as an artist at age 14, when he was finally old enough to be admitted to a correspondence art school.
Mitchell says she was about the same age when she drew a picture of Christ on the cross and gave it to her mother for Mother's Day.
Mitchell was commissioned to paint "Mother and Children" in Jackson, Miss.
"She said, 'Why are you giving me this?' She didn't really see it appropriate as a gift because of the excruciating look on his face. Months later, I found it crumpled up on the upstairs porch, and I brought it downstairs. My mother's cousin was visiting from the West Indies, where he was a missionary, and he thought it was the most beautiful drawing he had ever seen. Next thing I know, that crinkled drawing was framed in my mom's living room. From that point on she embraced my talent and was extremely supportive."
Mitchell and Ostlund first crossed paths in the summer of 1981 at the American Academy of Art in Chicago, where they had enrolled in the same watercolor class.
They spent seven years, as artist compatriots, each with a more mercantile lover, until destiny got impatient.
In 1988, they both committed to a four-year program at Atelier Lack in Minneapolis, and to each other. Whether it was the arduousness of studying with Richard Lack, whom they describe as "in line with the masters," or simply the propinquity of the workshop, something happened.
"When your aspirations are the same, the dialogue is very intense," Ostlund explained. "We aspired both in our work and in our lives in the same direction. It was burning passion when we were together."
From 1992 to 1997 they were often apart, but always together. Their work would take them to opposite ends of the earth - she to Malibu to fulfill commission, he to Italy to teach at Florence Academy of Art - but their hearts held on.
Just about the same time Ostlund decided his career commitment would never allow him to marry and have children, they learned Olivia was on the way.
"It's really wonderful," he says of family life. "We're totally happy."
Struggling, but not starving
Six days a week, the artists take turns working in a back room they call the studio while the non-painting parent supervises the children.
On Sunday, they rest and go to church.
At the end of each long day, one or the other parent will lie down with Olivia and tell her stories until she falls asleep.
To witness the children's sunny dispositions - and to watch a baby eat salmon and asparagus off her high chair tray - is to believe that this method of child-rearing can work. But there's a price to be paid, called exhaustion.
"Physically, it's very hard because we're trying to do so much," says Mitchell.
"We're taking on incredible amounts of stress, which literally starts attacking our bodies sometimes. But the children are so beautiful, and they bring us so much joy."
"The difficulty is that we are poor financially." Ostlund says explaining that the agents who find clients for them take 40 percent of the fees.
The couple does not own a home, and may soon have to vacate their Bat Cave house, as the property was recently sold.
"We will not compromise our work," says Ostlund, who could be referring to either his paintings or his children.
"We put so much into each piece, and we will continue, continue, continue. The refrigerator might be empty, but we will not let a painting go until it's finished."
By Jennifer Holmes, Staff Writer -Asheville Citizen-Times
Article featured in Asheville Citizen-Times, 10 June 2001