Contemplating Mitchell Lonas’ work, the viewer might wonder, “How does he do that?” And Lonas doesn’t sound so sure himself. “When I first started this, I had never seen anything quite like it, so it’s been a challenge to see what works,” he admits.
Carved into a panel of black metal, a nest of horsehair, an ethereal feather, and a cascading waterfall seem to rise above the surface. “The deeper the cuts, the closer they appear to the viewer, because of the way the light hits them,” Lonas explains. “I’m basically drawing the light at all times, and everything else falls into shadow to give it dimension.”
Raised in the Smoky Mountain foothills “on the Tennessee River between Knoxville and Chattanooga,” Lonas studied art history at the University of Tennessee, then kickstarted a successful career as a portraitist with a commissioned painting the client hung in a public space.
“I stayed in the commission world for almost 20 years. But then it wasn’t sitting well with my soul anymore and it was time to make a change.”
He took a break from commissions for a year and made some shifts in his life, including moving from Atlanta to Asheville. “At the end of that year, I discovered the metal.” His canvas is an aluminum panel with a baked-on black enamel finish; his brushes are carving tools, many handmade by his woodworker father; his subjects are nature and natural objects. “The very first piece was of a nest my mother found. I immediately knew I was onto something and an hour into it, called her to tell her. I was so excited I had something new and original. You can practice and learn all kinds of skills, but originality was what I craved.”
After a year or two of nests, he changed focus. “It was a natural progression to feathers. When a mother bird is ready for her young to take flight, she starts throwing out anything from the nest that was comforting to them. Floating feathers were sort of nature’s way of saying it was time for the next step.”
He has a large collection of natural objects in the home/studio he refurbished several years ago from an old government building in North Asheville, and he finds inspiration on walks and hikes. “I feel like my subjects have a lot you can read into them. My work leaves room for the viewer to have their own interpretation, to fill in the void.”
For him, the interpretation can embrace two diametrically opposed feelings, such as his most recent series, “Stillness,” which depicts shadowy forests. One’s senses are heightened in the woods, especially at night, in the dark unknown — but at the same time, the stoic trees provide comfort.
In addition to his own series, he’s received commissions for large-scale pieces from clients such as Nordstrom department stores and the luxury rural retreat Blackberry Farm near Great Smoky Mountain National Park. He works on different pieces simultaneously to stay fresh on each one and not overwork them.
“You kind of have a one shot at this,” he says with a slight smile. “There’s no touch-up paint for this. It’s an unforgiving medium. But living here in Asheville and doing this has given me a lot of healing and peace of mind, the ability to focus on something as small and insignificant as a nest or a feather. The symbolism of small things, they are life lessons.”