As a child, Jim Ostlund loved illustrations by 19th-century artists and would spend hours copying their work. “I remember feeling frustrated because … without guidance, one tends to draw the same things over and over,” he says. So, when he was only 12, Jim tried to enroll in classes offered by the home-correspondence company Art Instruction Schools — only to be told he was too young. He had to wait two years, but his interest never waned.
When he finally got to art school — the American Academy of Art in Chicago, to be exact — he met Michele Mitchell. It was 1981. “He was 23,” says Mitchell, “and I was 22. We both took a summer session of watercolor and became friends.”
Returning from her first travels through Europe, she looked Jim up again; at the time, he was painting at the Palette & Chisel Academy of Fine Arts in Chicago, and she acquired a studio across the hall from his. “He was quiet, hardworking, and I had a great respect for his art,” Michele remembers. “We had a common ground of seeking out truth through our craft and reaching toward excellence in our picture-making skills. As friends, we journeyed on this path.”
From 1988–1992, they both studied at the noted Atelier Studio Program of Fine Art in Minneapolis, led by Richard Lack for 80 years. “[Lack] taught us to first learn to ‘see’ what is in front of us without any preconceived ideas. Any attempt at creating a certain ‘look’ would block what is truly before you,” Jim recalls.
Following his time at Atelier Lack, Jim took a teaching position at the Florence Academy of Art in Italy. Meanwhile, Michele stayed stateside to help care for her sick parents. After they passed away, she too moved to Italy, “with the intention to heal and immerse myself in learning.” She describes it as “a magical time,” absorbing the inspiration provided by abundant Renaissance and Venetian art.
Later, she and Jim became reacquainted when they both found themselves on the West Coast, and eventually, years of kismet deepened and they got married and started a family, moving to Asheville in 1999 with daughters Olivia and Maria Isabella.
“I hoped for my girls to be raised in a beautiful place, to run on the rocks over the rivers, see the majesty of the mountains … rather than a major city dictating and defining their experience,” says Michele.
Leading up to their mutual desire for the rural life, the couple hewed to a remarkably similar life path. But that doesn’t mean they create the same kind of work.
“I am an Impressionist,” Michele declares. “Mr. Lack once said to me, ‘You’re an Impressionist whether you like it or not.’ I see differently than Jim, who is very linear and approaches picture-making through shapes. I am drawn to the large spotting of color value and then shifting to a more disciplined way of seeing.”
Jim is less apt to define his oeuvre. “I can’t really explain it,” he says. “When I’m in the act of recording nature, I feel a powerful connection to a great, creative force. It’s humbling.”
Naming off “clarity, humility, courage, hope, and trust,” Michele states that “painting requires all the angels of presence to be accounted for.”
Jim Ostlund and Michele Mitchell-Ostlund, Marshall High Studios #202. For a tour, call 828-335-9103. (Jim is also represented by Grand Bohemian Gallery, 11 Boston Way in Biltmore Village, 828-398-5555; grandbohemiangallery.com). The couple will host a Plein Air Landscape Painting workshop for all skill levels July 26-28, 9am-4pm. For pricing and more details, visit michelemitchellfineart.com and jimostlund.com.