Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell paintings
A surprising number of well-known popular musicians, particularly among those who rose to prominence in the 1960’s, went to art school or or majored in visual art in college.

Among them are John Lennon and Stu Stuttcliff, his band’s original drummer, David Byrne, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Bryan Ferry, David Bowie, several members of Queen, Grace Slick, Gerry Garcia, and the Who’s John Entwistle. I’m sure someone else could provide a more comprehensive list.

Many of these, and several more latecomers, continue to dabble in painting as celebrity artists, whose work sells primarily because of name recognition. (Someone famous sneezed in this hankie! What am I bid?) Though I have a fondness for John Lennon’s Thurberesque cartoons, most of the rock star art I’ve encountered is pretty lackluster. You can see why most of them seem happy to have left their art school days and unexplored artistic career behind.

There are exceptions, like Ron Wood, and another standout, Joni Mitchell. Mitchell has pursued her role as a painter unflaggingly throughout her musical career, and has been quoted as saying she thinks of herself as a painter who does music more than the other way around.

You can find her work on the covers of many (if not all) of her albums, from the first one on.

Musically, Mitchell was typecast as a “sensitive singer-songwriter”, but she was actually a restless experimenter, gradually moving from folk to rock to jazz and back through, pulling the strands of all of her influences into a new whole. Similarly, she has explored several avenues of visual art over the years.

There is a section of her official web site devoted to her endeavors as a painter. The images are frustratingly small, but you can use the links at page right to browse through her work by year or by style, and then browse in your local music shop to look at some of her actual work as reproduced on her CD covers.

I think she is most successful as a landscape painter, in which she falls into the “painterly realist” school and can have a rich sense of color and tone (something that’s a little hard to tell from the small images on her site). Her figurative work, including many self-portraits, varies more and she seems unabashed about having some of her weaker work posted on the site along with the stronger pieces. Lately she is leaning more toward her occasional forays into manipulated photo-collage, which is my least favorite of her styles.

You can also see her copying from painters she admires, as most artists will do as they continue to learn, including some of the “American Impressionists”, members of the Ashcan School and even Bouguereau.

If anyone comes across a significant number of larger reproductions of her paintings on the web, I would be interested to know. In the meanwhile, even the small images can give you a hint of this artist/musician’s experiments, improvisations and formal compositions, in which she occasionally plays a clunker, but often hits a high note.

13 Replies to “Joni Mitchell”

  1. Thanks for the links and info, David.

    Mull tells a great story about being able to say that he exhibited at the Boston Museum of Fine Art by dint of the the fact that he snuck in and hung his work in the mens room.

  2. Charley, it’s amazing how many artists are the mirror image of the syndrome you describe: they wanted to be musicians but ended up as painters. Bernie Fuchs was a professional jazz trumpeter who earned a living playing in nightclubs. Al Parker was a drummer. Saul Tepper, Dean Cornwell and many others were serious musicians. There must be a real connection between visual and auditory art.

  3. I think you’re right. I’m a small example of this myself. I stopped doing visual art for a few years (an emotional response to a divorce and other unpleasantness) and during that time led a reasonably successful semi-professional musical group, playing local clubs and bars.

  4. Dear Charley,
    There is definitely a crossover between the visual and performing arts.
    Scratch an animator and you’ll often find a talented musician – a la Ward Kimball, Harper Goff, Frank Thomas n the Firehouse Five Plus Two jazz band. Groups seem to form in the studios and are often darn good. The wisdom is that both pursuits require a keen sense of timing, rhythm, and all that.
    And just wanted to say how very good the blog is – please keep it up!

  5. Don’t forget Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke! He still co-designs the band’s album art (with Stanley Donwood) using the alias “Dr. Tchock”.

  6. This is a wonderful article about Joni Mitchell’s artwork. I think she’s one of the most brilliant homen in the history of the 20th Century so far.

    I also wanted to point out that other musicians who studied at the Academy of Arts were Edgar Froses of Tangerine Dream, Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider-Esleben of Kraftwerk, and Brian Eno.

  7. Sorry to be pedantic, but only Freddie Mercury of Queen went to art school. Adam Ant did and was part of what was called the ‘art school punk’ movement so there are probably quite a few more British artists who also went. Thanks for the link to Joni’s work.

  8. I’ve always liked your songsbuthad no idea you were an artist. My favorite so far is the self portrait in the upper left corner, it looks like you sat for Van Gogh. I have explored art all of my life and am still never bored.
    groundhogger

  9. I am as much a fan of Joni’s art as her music. Personally, I find her most emotionally resonant work is that which is introspective. I enjoy her earlier, more personal songwriting, especially her 1971 “Blue” album, and likewise really enjoy her self-portaiture and the symbolism it encompasses.

    Like many others, I wish there were higher-quality images of her work on the web, or a way to purchase prints!

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