Like most artists, Dean Mitchell always painted what he knew.
Cypress trees. Tobacco barns. People. "My uncle Ben and stuff like that."
Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth.
The people he knew and painted in blue-collar Quincy in the Florida Panhandle were black. It wasn't until he started showing and selling his art in high school that he realized his subjects made his work political.
"As my career started merging more in the mainstream, I was getting calls from older African-American artists protesting the Whitney Biennial," for its lack of black artists, says Mitchell. "I always wanted to do art, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into."
Mitchell is 51 now and still painting what he knows.
On Thursday, Mitchell will be at the Cornell Museum of Art & American Culture in Delray Beach for a reception in honor of a show of his work, "Everything's a Portrait: Watercolors of Dean Mitchell," on view through June 21.
Mitchell was raised by his maternal grandmother, who encouraged his early interest in art. She even bought him a paint-by-number kit. Other family members were less supportive.
"My aunt, my mom's sister, said [I was] going to end up on the street peddling pictures because black people don't buy art very much," he says.
He understands now that his aunt was just being practical.
"When you look at it, African-Americans went through the same thing in sports, entertainment and music trying to get paid for what they did," says Mitchell. "The visual arts are no different. It's just the way it is. It's just America."
After graduating from Columbus ( Ohio) College of Art and Design, Mitchell landed a job at Hallmark cards in Kansas City, Mo., all the while entering and winning some of the most prestigious watercolor competitions in the country. He left Hallmark after three years with a goal of doing his own art full time.
In the mid-'90s, Mitchell designed a series of United States Postal Service stamps featuring musicians Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Erroll Garner.
Five years ago, a limited-edition book featuring Maya Angelou's poem, Deep Rivers in My Soul, included Mitchell's etchings and a CD of original music by Wynton Marsalis. A filmmaker is currently raising money for a documentary about the artist.
But mostly Mitchell has been making a "very good living" from his watercolors, acrylics, etchings and oils. He moved from Kansas City to Tampa seven months ago.
"I always tell people that small-town America put me on the map," he says.
Mitchell has been called a "modern day Vermeer" by The New York Times. Others have said he makes the ordinary extraordinary.
"I have this gift to celebrate people who don't have material-type wealth but are another kind of wealthy — a wealth of life lived — which is really rich and endearing to me as an artist."
The show includes a tiny portrait titled Bob. He's a bald guy and looks like someone's brother-in-law or neighbor or co-worker. He's actually an artist friend of Mitchell's from Denver who creates folk art out of found objects.