Mimi Mott-Smith’s new exhibition at Fresno City Hall, titled “Views of Fresno,” offers an intriguing perspective on this place we call home. Mott-Smith’s style is fiercely minimalist, and in her paintings of Fresno buildings in particular she’s able to home in on the way this region’s brilliant sunlight washes out colors and creates a pale, creamy ambiance. Yet the artist maintains her critical eye, offering a visual commentary of aspects of the city she finds pleasing, amusing and sometimes appalling.
I caught up with Mott-Smith, who had an extensive medical career before she shifted to painting, for an email interview, portions of which I distilled into my Sunday Spotlight column. Here’s the extended version.
Question: You’re calling this show “Views of Fresno.” Is there a double meaning?
Answer: Very perspicacious question: Yes, there is a double meaning in most of the images. Dualities like personal: impersonal, seriousness: satire, literal:ironic, serious: humorous. For example, the small house with the very large flag that covers a third of it, speaks to the literal in that it shows the strength of people’s feelings re patriotism here, but ironic to me because I see it as a “doth protest too much” type of thing, the insecurity that underlies the over-the-top-flag show. I have not seen this kind of thing elsewhere either in the US or in other countries, but I admit I have not been everywhere in the US either.
Also the jail and the bail bonds place — in the paintings they look interesting, even attractive — but it references the fact that a large area of downtown is devoted to managing crime — about 12 bail bond agencies and huge buildings to house criminals — seldom have I seen a downtown so defined by this “industry,” and just what does it say about us here? (I have been to 42 countries, lived in other countries, and in quite a few California cities.)
Have you ever used the city as a theme before in earlier works, or is this new territory for you?
This is a new subject for me. It arose when we bought a second home about a three-hour drive from here, and I confronted the fact that we might eventually leave here. (Now it looks unlikely because we have to stay here to maintain our health benefits.) So in 2010 I realized I could make something out of the small things I see that please, amuse, or puzzle me here. I did not grow up here, I came from Seattle, then the Bay Area in 1977 — I continually saw things that I had never seen before! A lot of it amusing and pleasing, some of it appalling — and I strongly appreciate the cultural diversity here. I have learned a great deal because of it.
There’s a flat, minimalist feel to these works, with vivid colors that seem bleached by the sun. The images seem deliberately empty, with many details left to the imagination. Can you talk a little about your style?
I intentionally used a minimalist approach because I wanted to reveal the beauty of shapes and colors in a clean, uncluttered way. My principal interest in art is in fact color, and here we have such brilliant light, and as you so well describe, that light washes everything into soft colors. I have lived in places where it is cold, foggy, cloudy, etc, and found that it had a negative effect on me. The light here lends me a strong feeling of well-being — to me it is one of the great things about this place.
I intentionally sought out and chose places where this light and these clean shapes showed to best advantage (which is why I did the back side of Fresno High, for instance, because the colors, light, and simple shapes are superior to the front view). Previously my painting style was more free and less precise. I don’t feel obliged to stick to any one style. As I said, I’m primarily interested in color.
Palm trees, power lines and on-roof air-conditioning units are prominently featured in some of these paintings. Are these part of the “Fresno look”?
Definitely — I had never seen AC units until i came here. I am impressed by their size and noise. To me, Fresno is a noisy place. Sirens, motorcycles, trucks, police helicopters, freight trains, muscle cars, flowmasters, air guard jets (every morning!), barking dogs (including mine).
I’m intrigued by your work “Bleak House,” which through use of color immediately conveys a sense of abandonment, even foreboding. (I guess the dead lawn is a giveaway.) Can you speak to this?
“Bleak House” is an idea I borrowed from Howard Statham, who did a very fine painting of a house in Clovis that conveyed the idea that whoever lived there was very closed off from the larger world. All his colors were somber. I was intrigued by so many houses I saw that appeared to be totally static: no real sign of life, dark windows, dead lawn, shut in on itself. This was a bit different than the closed mindedness that Howard was showing. I thought either someone who is always gone, or someone who is a shut-in lives there and may be even barely surviving, or a misanthrope who does not want anyone to come by — a mystery house. When I was a kid, such houses were scary.
Do you work from memory, photographs, or plein air?
I almost always use photos as a starting point — I need them for shapes, proportions, and to remember some details, but I freely change things too, particularly colors, and I eliminate details that I don’t like.
Tell us a little about your career as an artist.
My art career began when i was a child; we had no TV til I was 8, so I would read and draw. When the TV arrived, I just kept drawing while watching it. I was in a school district that had very good art curricula in junior high and high school — and my high school art teacher, who practiced her art as well as teaching, lived next door to us. She had classes in her home, in a converted garage. She was the real deal, and I learned a lot from her.
At UC Berkeley I majored in English and took art courses as well, 5 or 6 semesters/quarters. I lived in Europe for a while, did some work there. I worked for 40 years as a nurse practitioner, as a clinician and as a member of the faculty in the department of family medicine, UCSF Fresno.
In the mid 90’s I had a sort of crisis, realizing that I had left art behind and felt like a rather dry one-sided person. I set up a studio in my home that my kids could not destroy, and started in. I joined Fig Tree Gallery in 1995 where I participated in group and one person shows, and learned a great deal from my fellow artists. In 2005 I joined Broadway Studios, where I have shown my work since then, and kept in touch with our many local artists. I like to do oil painting and assemblage/collage.
How long did this current show take you to complete?
If someone had never been to Fresno and looked at the images in your show, do you think he or she would want to move here — or be scared away?
I think my paintings show some of the beauty of Fresno. I don’t think they would scare anyone away. I do think that a look at our air quality, summer temperatures, crime stats, poverty index, unemployment rate, school performance, meth problems, and so forth would scare people away.