NORTHEAST HARBOR – Artist Aaron Mitchell makes paintings that are big with in-your-face primary colors and bizarre images that hint of inner chaos channeled into art.
Mitchell paints on anything that comes to hand – old planks, windows and doors from the dump figure large – with acrylics, oils and spray paints wrought in a mix of swirling and jagged figures and overlaid with scratches and scribbles that ultimately, often, resolve into the suggestion of faces and bodies in a style reminiscent of graffiti art, rebellious but cartoon-innocent. His palette is informed by his partial colorblindness to greens, blues, reds and oranges.
“I have to use a lot of bright colors so I can see them,” he said. “I know this is red, I know this is green. And maybe it’s pink or pomegranate, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.”
His studio, carved from a dilapidated toolshed that is on the Northeast Harbor property he owns with his wife, Erika Wibby, is piled high with his works, which range in size from wood scraps to picture windows. The air is filled with the aroma of paint.
All of his figures, backgrounds and semaphores are like the sketchings of a second-grader doodling in his notebook and watching the clock for the end of the school day, except there’s a skuzzy punk explosiveness and merry sloppiness that conglomerates in fun and churning abstraction.
There are oval heads with alien eyes and antennae, multi-legged slugs, shadowy silhouettes, screaming mouths, lopsided globes with slapdash land masses, rudimentary wings that could be scaly or feathery, angel, moth, or bat, large-beaked birds, slumped torsos and the suggestion of bowed heads, splotches that could be flowers or bodily effusions, rampant fusillades of color, X-ed bottles, multi-jointed, square-headed robots, chicken scratchings, graffiti, schoolboy hearts, slashes and smears, frenzied backgrounds.
“That one’s a work in progress,” he says of a six-foot-tall piece washed in off-white and pale blue and containing a red heart on a puddle of yellow and a sloe-eyed blue-skinned head accompanied by a floating smoking cigarette, martini glass, and liquor bottle. There’s an elongated black figure in the lower left quadrant that’s a fish or maybe a pair of “weird knobby legs.” He’s thinking about making the work the centerpiece of his next show.
“This one’s going to be the one that, I hope, people will stop and look at and say, ‘Holy….that guy is good.’”
He really went crazy over the past winter, and he’s into robots this year. There’s a three-foot-tall piece featuring a grimacing robot with rabbit-ear antennae, wearing video-game-style crossed holsters on his chest, and balancing Earth on his finger like a basketball. Little red squiggles signal heat shimmers coming off a nearby two-armed cactus and a red sun overhead. The heat, globe and robot motifs signify global warming. An earlier iteration of the piece had too much yellow and looked too hot and was kind of depressing, so he toned it down by adding a bunch of sky-blue. Mitchell isn’t usually into political statements.
“Mostly I just like to look at stuff,” he says.
Another picture includes a cross, a martini glass whose little red squiggles presumably indicate aroma, and a flailing-armed robot that wears a fez; dotted lines lead from the robot’s oval mouth to the figure of a football, located where a thought-bubble would be in a cartoon.
Robots came to him when he was doodling at work. He was into mermaids for a while, because his daughters like them. He pulls out a couple of desk calendar blotters that are covered with drawings.
“I’m like, I need the exact opposite,” he says.
To make the figures in his paintings, he layers contact paper on the glass, cuts away the negative bits, spray-paints the positive holes, and then paints background over the top. The painted side is actually the back of the piece, unseen by the viewer. The artwork that is seen is the flip side, through the glass. That means that, when he’s applying paint, he’s working inside-out: The foregrounds of the figures are applied first, the middle grounds, et cetera.
Asked to characterize his style, Mitchell says it’s cartoony, and it’s doodly. It’s immediate and there’s not a whole lot of hidden significance. There are a lot of different pieces to look at, but none of them take a lot of thought to decipher.
Creative stuff just comes out, he says; sometimes it’s a doodle, sometimes it’s awesome, sometimes it’s slop.
“I just think the dude who’s the best artist is the guy having the most fun,” he says. “And I’m just having the most fun. And it will come through.”
If you think of the creative process as a job, “then you can be the definition of the coolest guy on earth,” he says. “He loves his fucking job. The guy who goes to work and says, ‘Fuck you, I’m going to work. Whoo hoo!’ That dude rules. I love that guy.”
On first impression, Mitchell is the image of the family and professional man. Dressed neatly in a checked button-down and trousers, wearing thick-framed glasses, his hair cropped short, he works in the managed assets department at Bar Harbor Bank and Trust. He and Wibby have two young daughters, Olive and Geneva, and a third child is on the way. Wibby is a real estate agent with The Swan Agency Sotheby’s International Realty, and a fiber artist and talented cook. Their home is decorated with several of Mitchell’s paintings and a handsome display of cookbooks that Wibby owns, with the covers facing out to the viewer. There is an unmistakable sense of life, art and family.
In 2011, Mitchell was getting ready for his first-ever show down the street from his home, at Shaw Contemporary Jewelry, which makes space to hang artworks. Afterward, he was psyched to learn that one viewer had bought two of his paintings, a weird one of a big chicken and a weird one of a guy holding a bottle, for a fair amount of money. He and an old school buddy stopped by while the dude was buying the paintings. Gallery owner Sam Shaw put Mitchell on the spot. “’Hey, Aaron, why don’t you tell him about your process?’” Mitchell recalls. “And I’m such a poser. ‘Ooh, well, you know, first I come up with an artistic vision. I’m a genius.’”
Lately, Mitchell has been working on pieces for his second-ever show, coming up at Atlantic Art Glass in Ellsworth, in July. On a warm, spring day, he leads the way from the house to his studio and puts a Miles Davis recording on his CD player. The small space is cramped with a workbench, easels, card table, paintings stacked against every surface and piles of weird and normal stuff. There’s a photograph of Mitchell and Wibby early in their relationship, a time when all Mitchell did was “fool around, tell jokes and stuff.” There are bundled dropcloths, jars of brushes, jumbles of rollers, a pristine box of crayons in 36 brilliant colors, spray cans of glass cleaner and solvents, scrapers, rolls of paper towels, screwdrivers, glue guns, small canvases, coasters he’s made with images such as a skull and a martini glass, coils of twine and rope, rags, speakers for his sound system, cans of spray paint, needle nose pliers, dinnerware used as palettes, used pastels, random rocks painted with smiling faces and clawed creatures, lots of coffee mugs, stacks of CDs, a joke pack of Handz Off: Anti-Masturbatory Gum, a sticker book, and a couple of dolls, one of whose heads is spray-painted shiny silver. It was Erika’s doll from her childhood.
“After I spray-painted it, I said, ‘I probably shouldn’t have done that,’ so I hid it,” Mitchell says. “And then the kids saw it and they were like, Oh my god, that’s robot baby. And Wibby said, ‘What?’”
“I got a lot of stuff I want to do,” he says. “A lot of stuff. I want to spray paint, I want to use my new pastels, I want to work with brushes. Yeah, I got a lot of stuff I want to do.”
He picks up a painting that depicts what looks like a sock monkey.
“Yeah,” he laughs. “It’s funny because it took me a while to figure it out, Is that an earthworm? It is a sock monkey.”
Bosun, the family dog, noses his way through the doorway.
“Beat it!” says Mitchells, then asks, “Would you like a glass of wine?” He pours white wine into a couple of juice glasses.
Mainly, Mitchell paints at night, when the light in the studio is cooler and the kids are in bed.
I observe that, since his imagery is rooted in grade-school sensibility, his kids must love it. They do, he says, and they love to paint and draw with him.
“They look in here and say, ‘I like your new painting, Dad,’” he says.
Mitchell picks up a can of the blue spray paint he used to tone down his global-warming robot desert. He wants to get more of that blue, he says, because it’s awesome and sparkly. Wibby is a good judge of his paintings, he says. He did a painting that he didn’t even like – well, he liked it but he definitely was going to do more to it or scrape some of it away. But Wibby said, Oh, that one’s all done; I’m taking it to the framer. The painting sold for a thousand bucks.
“So she knows, somehow,” he says. “Yeah, so I trust her.”
The picture with the cross was inspired by a photograph in a magazine that showed a painting that looked like a stained glass window but wasn’t.
“It had real straight lines, but it was some old Biblical scene, like icono…” he says, trying to figure out the right word. I suggest “iconography.”
“I was thinking I should paint some iconography,” he says, stumbling over the pronunciation a couple of times and laughing. But the execution of his new-found image was pathetic, he says, because he couldn’t commit to it.
“I was mostly committed to robots and martinis, and I was like, Oh, I was going to do that lame-ass cross. I felt like such a poser. I had this idea in mind and rather than commit to it, I added it later.”
When I visited earlier in the day, the robot was wearing a fez.
“I scraped the fez off that he was wearing this morning,” Mitchell says. “It always changes.”
With all the painting, scraping and repainting, I ask how he, or Wibby, I guess, know when a painting is finished.
“Just the final result,” he says. “I know some of them suck. A lot of them do, but it doesn’t really matter.”
Some paintings might suck, but he likes to look at them. He hated the robot-desert painting two days ago, but then he added the sparkly blue. Another painting, he knows for a fact sucks ass, but it’s got a base that’s nice and he can work on top of that. Another one he likes because it looks like Tron, a video-game-turned-film warrior figure.
“I don’t know. It’s hard for me to say about quality because I’ll have another glass of wine later, and I’ll be, Holy shit, I’m a genius. This one’s great, that one’s great!”
For tonight, he decides to paint a double-paned window. It’s propped up by an undersized but sturdy table easel on his workbench; he already prepped the window by cleaning the glass and doing an overspray of green paint that covers the frame and edges onto the glass. The spray-painted side is the backside. Now he’s got to figure out what to draw. He’s pretty hooked on religious symbols. He tries out the word “iconography” a few more times.
“I don’t know. The world’s our playground,” he says, generously pulling me into the process. “Brushes, spray-paints, it’s all here.” He jiggles a jar of water. “Water’s here. Don’t want to look like a chump without water.”
When he’s doodling, figures develop that will give him ideas for what he wants to paint. He tries to get an idea of facial stuff.
He reaches around me and pulls out a sheet of contact paper.
“Am I in the way?” I ask.
“You’re going to probably always be in the way,” he says. “It doesn’t bother me. I never had anyone hanging out. Usually someone comes over and gets involved in the process. My buddy John came over. I told him to come down and spread some paint around. He lives up the street. So yeah, it’s kind of crowded.”
He layers the contact paper on one of the panes, then cursorily smoothes it with a scraper. There are still plenty of bubbles, which don’t matter, he says.
“I don’t like to do crispy work, real tight, scientific work,” he says.
Staring at the panes a bit, he decides that it would be good to have matching figures, maybe an angel on one half and the devil on the other, but only the basic outlines. Maybe they’re in some kind of struggle with each other.
He draws the outlines on the contact paper with a marker. Something like wings appears on the angel.
“Now it looks like butterfly guy,” he says. “If you were looking at it from the other side, you would know they were wings.”
It’s time to excise negative, or maybe it’s positive, space. He opens a new box of razor blades, contemplates the difference between bathroom razors and utility knives, then eyeballs my recorder.
“You’re going to listen to this recorder and be, like, ‘What a bullshitter,’” he says. “’He didn’t even paint. All he did was talk about his new, stupid cutting tools.’”
There would be yellow and red and scary fire colors on one pane and, on the other half, cool colors, he says. Because of his colorblindness, the number one question people ask him is – he puts on a goofy voice – “What color is this?”
Grabbing hold of the marker, he sketches the two figures, creating torsos, arms and hands bent to hold things, round heads. The figure on the left might be a businessman, he says. The devil’s probably just chillaxing, robbing the world blind and laughing about it.
The sketch lines don’t matter because it’s all going to get cut out anyway. Sketching is just part of the process that helps him decide what he wants the picture to be about. He has a sense of the signs and symbols he wants to stick in, and lets them evolve as he goes along. If things suck, he just scrapes them off.
“But lately,” he says, “I’m just trying to go with it, and not be such a critic of myself. And the ones I hate, rather than get pissed at them and scraping them off or painting right over immediately, just set them aside and come back later. ‘Cause some of it maybe you want to keep. The key is knowing when to stop. They’re really good at one point and then it’s like, Oh, maybe not, I’ll do one more thing. And then you wreck it and it’s destroyed.”
The details of a work come out when he applies paint, not in the sketching, he says. He uses stencils rather than painting directly on the glass because he’s experimenting, and because his first go at the method, with the big chicken, came out so well.
“So I said, Oh, maybe I’ll just big chicken it up. And, like, the cactus, that stupid cactus, I loved it so much when I did it, just the way it came out so smooth and even. I don’t know, that’s kind of what I’m going for.”
Mitchell says he used to be a knucklehead, by which he means unfocused, with no particular purpose in life, and kind of a bad boy who liked to party. Now he’s “captain family guy.” He and Wibby are still wicked in love, he says.
“She’s awesome, so awesome,” he says of his wife. “I’m totally lucky.”
From the house, he hears the girls call to him. The family is backlit from an upstairs window under the night sky. The girls wave goodnight to him.
The CD mix switches to hip-hop.
Mitchell and Wibby met at their friend John Ho’s party.
“She was sitting at the kid’s table, and I said, ‘Oh, can I get your plates?’ Just being a nice guy. And she said, ‘Oh, thank-you.’” He demonstrates what he thinks is a coy smile. “I thought, Oh, so cute! She was really pretty. I was just doing what anyone would do. She liked it. I asked my buddy John, ‘Does Wibby have a boyfriend?’ He was so funny. He said, ‘Oh, she needs one, dude! Oh, my god, I can see it now! Yes, yes!’ So I kind of stalked her around. I got her number to call her. I didn’t know about caller ID. I called her number. She’d gone to Baltimore. She got back and she said, ‘Oh, I saw you called.’ I said, ‘What?’ She said, ‘I have caller ID.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ She goes, ‘You called 31 times.’ I couldn’t play it cool anymore. I was so stupid. We went on a date and instantly, you know. We spent like 31 straight days together. It was crazy. It still is crazy. It’s like the Jets and Sharks in West Side Story. We’re like that. She needed me to relax her a little bit. I need her to get me not so loose.”
At the time, he was still recovering from his childhood.
“It took a long time to buck up, to let go. ‘Get tough, stop being a sissy.’ I hate to see someone my age still holding onto shit.”
Originally from Augusta, Mitchell grew up with a mother who “had a bad case of being crazy and being addicted to drugs and alcohol.” She hauled him between Maine and Alabama where, for years, they were on-and-off homeless or at most living in a car. He had no siblings and there was no father. It was just him and her until he was 18.
“I grew up as poor as you can grow up,” he says. “I mean, until I was 16, we never lived in any house longer than a year, ever. We moved in the middle of the night with trash bags. I lived in a car. Maine-poor and Alabama-poor. I think that’s where some of that stuff comes from, for sure.”
Mitchell got himself through school. After his high school graduation, 20 years ago, he headed back to Maine, where he worked his way through a series of jobs and eventually lost contact with his mother until a few years ago. He took a summer job at Sugarloaf, then moved to Mount Desert Island to bus tables at the Bar Harbor Inn. He bounced back and forth between Bar Harbor and Florida, waiting tables.
Eventually, he settled on MDI when he started to work on in commercial fishing. There were some other jobs, and then he landed in banking, married and had children. His mother died last year. He treasures what he has now.
“Yeah, more than anyone I know,” he says. “I’m all set. I definitely have aspirations, I want my kids to have nice things, and I want life to continue to get better. But if I die today, I’ll already have won. Compared to a lot of my friends, things didn’t really work out for everybody. So I’m really super-lucky.
His professional persona is more conservative than his artistic and family self. He probably learned how to suit personality to circumstance when he was traveling around and going to so many different schools as a kid.
“I’m captain frigging chamelon. But I don’t have all the answers,” he says. Then he babbles off a heap of contradictory self-assessments. “I’m just super good at making friends and stuff. I’m the dude everybody wants to get rid of. I mind my own business. Nobody messes with me. I don’t know anybody. Well, I do, but I know enough to say hello to everybody. It doesn’t take me an hour to walk down the street because I don’t talk with everybody.”
Art always figured in his life. He’s been sketching since he was a kid. In recent years, he graduated to colored pencils, then sharpie markers.
A few years ago, he went to a craft store in Ellsworth and bought some canvas.
“I started painting on that and it was all terrible,” he said. “Then I started painting on glass, and I started refining my skills. And now I’m using a lot of spray paint.”
He started to “like this stuff.” Before he and Wibby cleared out the shed, he would put a dropcloth on the ground outside and paint there. The shed is better, but still freezing in the winter and his paints “goop up.” One day, they plan to install a heater.
“All this stuff is so crazy-looking, but when I’m out here at night and listening to Miles Davis, it’s really soothing, believe it or not,” he says. “It seems kind of crazy but, for whatever reason, I really feel relaxed when I’m doing this.”
Sometimes when he’s painting at night, he goes outside and looks at his painting through the open door.
“I like to do a lot of stuff that’s big, that hits you,” he says. “At night, when it’s dark out, with a light behind it, it pops. It smashes you and it’s awesome.”
On the right-hand, devil side of the two-paned painting, he’s thinking maybe he’ll put in that shiny super-blue that he loves, for that automotive, super-metallic sheen. He’s thinking the guy on the right is wearing a vest; he’s casually strolling. He has a huge ball sack. He’s actually resting his arm on his giant penis. He’s the bad guy.
He sounds like a happy sinner, I say.
They’re both happy, Mitchell says.
On the left, the angel is holding a pole that’s sort of a sword. I’m thinking the angel is too righteous and probably not happy.
“Yeah, I like what you’re thinking,” Mitchell says. “I think he’s a little bit sad, even.”
He draws a sad face on the angel and whines: “’I’m not having a good time. I’m sad.’” He sketches jots on the figure’s chin. “And he’s got a little soul patch.”
“Yep,” says Mitchell. “Now he’s chilling. I like it a lot. We just got to know where to cut it, you know what I mean? And figure out what we’re going to do with the other guy. Lot of math involved, you know what I mean? Get out my calculator.”
He sketches mothy wings onto the devil, which make him look more like a grandma in a babushka.
“You know what’s funny?” he says. “The Cold War, all they ever showed were pictures of Russian women like giant grandmas with babushkas on. And then the Cold War ends and they all come over here for the summer to work. And they were all six feet tall and beautiful.”
I say that, with the angel and his banjo, I like the mix of iconography with the worldly.
“Yeah, those were the words I would have used!” he sputters. “Yeah, totally, you can attribute that quote to me.”
He offers to let me cut the excess contact paper. I balk.
“Okay, I’ll let you be in charge of what you think should be cut in this section,” he says. “You decide where the lines are. I don’t usually color this much detail. You be like a fricking surgeon.”
Cut to take out the inner space, not the outer space? I ask.
“No, we’re going to peel off the outer space, unless you want to peel off the inner space and work from there,” he says, agreeably. “Oh yes, you’re right! Good call. We want to cut the inner space. We’re going inside, ‘cause our inside is going to be the silhouette. The angel and the devil fighting in silhouettes.”
He makes a small slice along a wing and hands me the razor.
“Now it’s your move,” he says.
I’m befuddled. How do you cut along the body when the banjo is on top of the body?
He heads outside.
“I’ll give you some space,” he says.
I hesitantly cut further along the wing, trying to figure out the inner/outer space logistics and not at all understanding what he’s visualizing.
He comes back.
“Yeah, awesome, now you just gotta make a head, neck, chest, hips, legs, and bottom of the wings decision,” he says. “We gotta free some of that space up.”
Soul music is blasting.
“You know what I mean?” he says. “It’s so fun. None of it matters. It’s fun as shit. And it makes us, I don’t know, what is it called if you’re just another fucking shmuck who tricked himself into trying to be an artist?”
He stands back and studies my mite of work.
“You’re cutting off his wing right now,” he says. “How do you feel about that?”