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A Humble Quest for Greatness

The first time I saw Markell Mitchell I walked right past him. My arrival at the Southside Art Center coincided with a birthday celebration for one of the artists, and amidst the music and revelry I failed to notice the stoic Markell sitting reverently across the room. It was not until John Cameron, the program supervisor and my tour guide for the afternoon, introduced us that I took note of the soft-spoken painter.

As we took our seats in the studio, Markell’s large frame consumed the diminutive metal chair. Resting his backpack between his legs, he leaned back, and scratched his beard, sizing me up. Markell was introduced to painting in elementary school, but never pursued it outside the classroom until a year ago when he moved from Stockton to Sacramento. When asked what brought him north to the capital, he was Dickensian in his response. “Let’s just say that although I had some good times [in Stockton], I also had the bad times and the worst times over there, so I would like to forget about its existence.”

Cameron later informed me that Markell came to Southside via a referral from the Alta California Regional Center, which is one of Southside’s partners as an organization that provides services to persons with developmental disabilities. On my tour, I was impressed with the range of options Southside offers its artists (photography, ceramics, recycled materials, among others), so I was curious what attracted Markell to painting. “I like to mix colors and dilutes, you know? [There are] lots of ways that I’ve discovered to achieve certain effects for paintings.”

In addition to the technical aspects of painting, Markell also admitted that he enjoys the challenges of working within a defined space, and the medium’s potential for communicating ideas. “I try to develop better composition or at least put some thought into the painting itself.”

His free flowing use of art jargon intrigued me. I was curious to find out what, if any, art education Markell had received. Expecting to hear about a mentorship with an instructor, or a book he found in a library, Markell’s answer caught me by surprise but perfectly typified the 23year-old’s generation. “I learned it from this application I downloaded onto my 3DS, and that sort of helped me discover about mixing colors and diluting them. It adds more to what little painting skills I have.”

Markell is being modest. Having seen a few of his works before our interview, I knew he possessed talents beyond the average copyist or paint-by-number enthusiast. Cameron confirmed that Markell came to Southside with many skills already “under his belt.”

Markell’s most defining trait is the diversity of his subjects. Some of his art portrays real life objects such as fruit or animals, while others take on fanciful worlds and characters. I was eager to learn where Markell found his inspiration. Stroking his chin, Markell took a moment to work out his response before answering. “Well, mostly from the things that I’ve read, like Eckhart Tolles The Power of Now. I did this painting of a puzzle piece with a green lamp beside it, and the puzzle piece says ‘ego’, and there are a lot of puzzle pieces everywhere, and even if you put them all together it will just be one big puzzle piece. It’s just trying to say that maybe the ego cannot be completed.”

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Dreams, however, were another source of inspiration for Markell. In his painting of a robed lion reading before a fireplace, Markell explained how he used a dream dictionary to influence the piece’s composition. “The lion represents courage and vitality. The darkness within the lion’s kitchen, behind the door, is supposed to represent the subconscious.”

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The deliberate nature of Markell’s process and his penchant for symbolism were telling signs of his professionalism. But what drives him is an underlying hunger to push the envelope of his artistic abilities. “I at least want to try to make use of my talents and see what I can do with them and how good I am with them. I’m trying to look outside of myself and see what other people think.”

In his quest to realize the extent of his gift, Markell’s current project has him branching out into the world of illustration. “Currently, I am working on a comic book. I know it’s not going to be a complex story, but the reason why I’m doing it is because I just want to further see how good I am. I don’t expect it to be a big success, but I do intend to put my best creativity into this one as well.”

Cameron, a digital artist himself, considers graphic novels the ideal fit for an artist of Markell’s talents, citing his unbounded imagination and natural ability to light and compose frames.

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When questioned about his artistic influences for the project, Markell promptly brought up Jeff Smith’s award-winning comic book series Bones. Smith’s fluid animation style, pacing, and the actions and expressions of the characters were all factors that Markell hoped to incorporate into his own work. Markell had trouble articulating the plot of his comic, but he did reveal that it includes pig-men, treasure, and a hydra. A master of equivocation, Markell wrapped up our conversation of his comic by stating, “Basically, it’s a story about things happening. That’s what I’ll just say.”

Wanting to know if he had a larger plan for his talent, I asked Markell what his goals were as an artist and what he hoped to accomplish with his work. “That’s a tough question.” This time Markell pinched the bridge of his nose as he thought.

“I’m hoping to accomplish at least getting my artwork out there, maybe having it looked at. But I guess I do like trying to see if I could, I don’t know, make some money off of it. But I sort of like my art to be shown, I guess.”

Cameron explained that Markell’s desire to see his art displayed stems from the fact that although Markell’s pieces are shown in businesses and galleries around the area, he has never been present to see the reactions of viewers. Markell was eager to learn what people outside of the art center felt about his paintings.

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Markell’s ultimate ambition, however, to design clothing or commission his artwork for graphic novels or children’s books. Regardless of where life takes him, Markell assured me that he would continue to paint. He likes the ability to make up whatever he wants, and the feeling of control that freedom brings. In addition, creating art keeps his mind busy and allows him to focus. Markell even enjoys the occasional frustrations, because it makes him feel all the more accomplished when those obstacles are overcome.

I concluded our interview by asking Markell what advice he would give to aspiring artists. His answer was simple, but heartfelt. “Be true to your own style. Try to find your own unique look. Try to be you and nobody else.”