Q&A: Mitchell Johnson

Photos by Dona Bijan

The well-known Menlo Park artist shares how he chooses his subjects, the wildest thing he’s ever done and what compels him to destroy his work.

What inspires you to choose subjects for your paintings?
I’m drawn to everyday things or even famous views but in moments of unusual color, shape and scale.

Why do you consider each of your paintings an “experiment”?
I make a painting to find out if something can be turned into a painting. I don’t paint chairs; I turn chairs into paintings.

What surprises people most about your artistic process?
That’s easy: that I destroy a lot of paintings in order to complete the ones I finish. Some paintings are cursed and will never get finished and it’s important to abandon them.

What do you remember most about meeting your wife, author/chef Donia Bijan?
I walked into Cafe Verona on Hamilton Avenue in Palo Alto in April 1994 and Donia was sitting at a table eating a salad and working—making lists of supplies for her soon-to-open restaurant, L’Amie Donia. I remember clearly how beautiful and intriguing she looked. Luckiest day of my life. Love at first sight.

Describe your studio.
I have a large warehouse not far from Facebook’s campus. It has giant skylights for natural lighting and a big roll-up door for good ventilation.

How do you know when a painting is done?
I know a painting is done when it feels like it will be difficult to part with it. How sad if I sold paintings that didn’t meet this test. I don’t sell sketches or abandoned work.

What’s an interesting story behind your artwork?
Reproductions of my paintings have been used in three of Nancy Meyers’ films. Every week, I get an email from someone who is sitting in a plane watching The Holiday, It’s Complicated or Crazy, Stupid Love and recognizes one of my paintings.

Do you listen to music while painting?
I really like Chopin and Miles Davis but also Phoenix, Wilco and Neil Young.

How did you define yourself before you became an artist?
Lost. Frustrated.

What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever done?
I impulsively left graduate school at Parsons in 1989 to move to Meyreuil, France, where I knew no one and had no contacts. I had a hunch I’d benefit from an isolated intense period of painting in a completely new place.

What age would you choose to be again and why?
24-25. I’d like to be able to ask myself how I had the courage to take such large risks.

What’s something people are always surprised to learn about you?
That I make paintings because I need to, for my own sanity, not because people want to buy them.

What do you collect?