Charged Dramas: The Story of St. Louis Painter Metra Mitchell
In an era when much of the visual art world has turned away from figurative painting, St. Louis-based artist Metra Mitchell paints the human figure with classical precision. Inspired by Balthus, Paul Delvaux, Sylvia Sleigh and Edvard Munch, Mitchell’s character-driven work is infused with drama and a surrealist edge that simultaneously discomforts and draws you in.
Although Mitchell uses both herself and others as models, the narratives present in her work are always deeply personal. “I got into painting as a survival mechanism,” she says, explaining that her art practice was a way to sustain herself while growing up in an abusive family in Paducah, Kentucky.
A longtime instructor at St. Charles Community College and Maryville University, Mitchell shows work regularly around St. Louis and has an exhibit at the Sager Braudis Gallery in Columbia, Missouri, through Nov. 23.
Below, Mitchell candidly discusses using art as escape, processing trauma through painting and how audience interpretation of her work can differ from her own intentions.
ALIVE: When did you start painting?
I’ve just always been a painter my entire life. From first grade or even kindergarten, I always knew that I wanted to be a painter. I was totally ostracized when I was in school because my mom was a Muslim who had migrated to America from Tehran. My dad was a Southern Baptist Christian. I had the unfortunate experience of growing up in the state of Kentucky as a child and all of my public school teachers were Sunday School teachers, so there was no separation of church and state in the schools that I went to. I basically always made paintings about how horrible my life was. I ran away from home when I turned 17 and graduated from high school. I have not spoken to my family since that age. My household was also very physically abusive. I had broken bones, and I was emotionally abused, too, as a child.
I don’t know anything other than painting, if that makes sense. It’s the only way for me to comfortably express myself. My actual existence was always crap, so I had to live in an alternate reality. Or I actually like to interpret it as a parallel reality.
ALIVE: Is it difficult to present such personal artwork to the public?
I can talk about it, but it’s so loaded because I’m talking about religion, child abuse, physical abuse and other types of abuse. All this stuff is my life, but a lot of people can’t handle that. I’m aware of that, and that’s why I don’t put those things in my artist statement. It’s in my work, but I don’t explicitly say these things at my art openings. If someone candidly asks me, then I speak about it. I’m OK with it, but I don’t know if other people are. It’s what happens with the public.
It’s strange, because a lot of my work is about the psychic space of trauma, but people tend to be uncomfortable with that. They might like the colors of a painting, or think the subjects are in a really cool pose. They like the artwork if they put their idea of rainbows, unicorns and butterflies on it. Of course I’m OK with them doing that, because whatever people want to feel is OK. But when you ask what a painting means to me, it’s something totally different. I’m aware of that and OK with that. Obviously that’s part of making any kind of artwork. There’s always a vulnerability to interpretation.
ALIVE: Did you have access to art and art museums growing up?
I was always a part of Kentucky’s gifted and talented program growing up. I couldn’t control my home life, but I could always control my brain. I would always try to be perfect in school—the perfectionist OCD thing that kind of comes along with trauma. So, although Kentucky ranked 48th out of the 50 states for education, through that gifted and talented program we did get to take trips to smaller cities like Nashville to see art. But in the town itself—in Paducah—there was some art along the riverfront, but I mostly made it from my mind. I had books and checked out library books and imagined a lot, but I didn’t have a privileged upbringing with a lot of exposure and culture.
ALIVE: In your artist statement, you describe your paintings as psychologically charged dramas. Where does that sense of drama come from?
When I was a child, I painted, but also I played with Barbie dolls into high school. I have a younger sister, whom I also haven’t spoken to since I was 17. I used to depend on her to play Barbie dolls with me. When she got to the “proper” age when she outgrew dolls, she wouldn’t play with me, and it would get me crying. So my father actually took my dolls. I kept them in these popcorn tins and have a very vivid memory of him stealing my dolls and lifting the plastic lid of the trashcan and dumping them in. I was crying and hanging on his bicep, pleading him not to throw out my Barbie dolls. He beat me with a belt over it.
I’m sure this is the type of thing where if most people heard this they would think I was totally stunted in my psychological development. They would tell me to “grow up,” “put away the childish things,” “become a woman and have children of your own,” yadda yadda. [Laughing.] But I always projected these psychological dramas onto inanimate objects and painted images. For me, they are are allusions because they’re dramas—they’re a reenactment. But they feel very real. They’re very loaded.
ALIVE: Are there certain archetypal characters you’re most drawn to?
Yes! I realized I was painting archetypes after years of psychoanalysis. I’ve explored about 12 different archetypes since then, but before I realized I was painting archetypes, there were three I focused on. Usually there was the artist and the girl next door. They each have what the other needs, and in a way they’re both each other’s shadow side stories. And then the warrior is always there for me. There are others who have been in my work, but in general those three are always there.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. All artwork courtesy of Metra Mitchell.