Kimowan Metchewais, a former UNC art professor, died July 29 at the age of 47. I saw his work for the first time last week and am truly sad at the loss of such talent.
Metchewais was as modern as this week's T shirt, as steeped in his Native American culture as anyone who lives on the reservation and as local as the Lucky Strikes he painted and probably smoked. He is a painter of stories and uses the traditional stretched canvas to tell them one way and rectangles of treated tissue paper to tell them another. According to Cindy Spuria, gallery director, the tissue paintings represent the power of the blanket and are, therefore, decorated with a particular theme and can be folded and laid on a table.
Blankets are deeply woven into the traditions of Native Americans. Besides providing warmth, they were media of exchange, a form of artistic expression and were important elements of tribal ceremonies. An example is "Moth Wall," which measures 108 x 96 inches, and is an assemblage of rectangles of browned tissue paper, attached with tape or glue. He then used photocopied, drawn or taped images of winged moths to decorate the surface.
"Moth Wall" hangs open on the wall and is beautiful. Others that hang use digital imagery or collaged elements. Some are folded like blankets and lay on the table. The fragile material counterbalances the strength of ancient customs, but sends a clear message; customs are fragile and must be nourished to survive.
Matchewais' large canvases also tell stories, most about the connection of the Native American tobacco crop with the modern cigarette and, by extension, Durham's cigarette industry. In one, he painted the red Lucky Strike logo on his signature tissue paper which he then attached to a more solid canvas. In another, a myth about magical fire is threaded with tobacco. Even in his small images of a Bible, which belonged to his grandmother, a faint outline of a cigarette has center stage.
While I was looking at the paintings, one of Metchewais' students, Katie Fronbose, came in. She told me: "He was one of my best teachers. He was very down to earth. I was lucky to have him as a mentor." The artist had returned home to Cold Lake First Nations reservation after a debilitating operation. It was there he died.
Different from the quiet strength of Mechewais' paintings are Mitchell's flashy cars; the two exhibitions offer lessons in the flexibility and diversity of art. I sat down at Piola's to talk with Mitchell. He paints full time. Does he make a living with his art? Not right now, he said, "But I have saved up from the job I left in the corporate world and have enough to ride it out for a couple of years."
Mitchell loves cars and trucks. When he is looking for inspiration, he takes his camera and walks the streets, so "Bluey," parked on Morgan Street, shares the canvas with other vehicles and familiar buildings. In another painting, we look into the window of a truck and there, floating through the sky, is a reflection of the Lucky Strike water tower. His favorite painting is "Gap," where a girl in jean shorts, walks away from the viewer and past a shiny truck. In other paintings of familiar places there are a car sitting on a platform high above the road, advertising King Auto Parts; Red and White grocery with customers' cars out front; and the pink hulk of a truck that covers all but a tiny bit of the roofline of Daniel Boone antiques shop. "Some of these places actually disappeared while I was painting them," said the artist.
Mitchell is a disciplined painter; he prepares his canvases in the classical manner of sketching first and then underpainting and then applies the oil paint. This is super realism with an underlay of the formal elements of art -- form, color, light and shadow.
The artist's love of cars began when he went to a boy's trade high school in Massachusetts. "I didn't like the dirt attached to fixing cars, so I moved over to the drafting side and learned how to paint machinery and cars." He said he continued learning about art at the public library where he found the photo-realists of the 1970s. At one point, he worked for the schlock art house, United Art Galleries, and their assembly line paintings. "When the canvases came back from a store or Holiday Inn lobby, I learned how to repair the smudges and tears and how to match color," he said. For 20 years he edited manuals for tech companies, putting enough money aside to one day quit and just paint; that is where he is today.
"Maybe it's a guy thing," he said about cars. "They have personalities. I never wanted to do portraiture, but I think they are stand-ins for people." Cars are endlessly fascinating, he said. He talked about their reflective surfaces, especially the trucks with lots of chrome, which he said they do not use anymore. According to Mitchell, calling the show, "Human Nature," is about us and how we must produce cars. "I don't take a stand about this, about pollution or too much gas, I just report on what is," he said.
Blue Greenberg's column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, P.O. Box 2092, Durham, NC 27702.