A Portrait of The Artist at Work

Bente Mirow is currently working on a novel centered around the theme of free speech and its connection to art.

Bente Mirow is currently working on a novel centered around the theme of free speech and its connection to art.

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How would you paint a self-portrait if you couldn’t depict your face? A popular portrait technique of the 18th century asks artists to paint their life in a composite, unrealistic image, but when Bente Mirow was given this assignment in graduate school, she didn’t know where to start. She ended up with an image of a classic “dumb blonde”, which she felt represented what people assumed that she was: a bland stereotype she was trying to fight. When it came time to share their portraits, the class was brought to tears by the powerful emotions hidden within the most mundane of pictures.

Sitting among the instruments of her craft at Riley Street Art Supply, Mirow recounts the experience: “One man, he had no artistic talent…and he painted a cat. Basically like a stick cat, upside-down. He could not explain what it was, he could barely get the words out and when he finally did, he said it was him overcoming his drug habits and that painting that cat had really helped him feel it on another level.” The transformative emotional power of art has become a theme of Mirow’s own life, making up a big part of her present-day ‘life picture.’

Today, that painting would be far different than it was back in graduate school. At the top of the portrait might be a replica of one of her favorite creations, a testament to the lesson of art as a tool for self-healing. It depicts two monsters made up of bits of sky, engaged in a playful battle among the clouds. She painted it when she was going through a divorce, and she explains that “it was two friendly monsters in the clouds, so I think I made peace with the divorce that way like it’s not too bad, we’re just in the air, just moving air around.”

The emotional ease Mirow seeks in her art also stems from another interest: emotional or life skills curricula. These books and programs help people develop emotional and practical skills such as decision making and patience. While working for a company that made life skills books for elementary school students, Mirow had the opportunity to see her work in practice in low-income classrooms in Oakland. She was honored and amazed by the power her work could have. After seeing countless customers at Riley Street struggling with the same skills she had taught countless children, she began to develop her own curriculum for adults. The newly-finished program, called ‘Inner Weather’, would certainly be tucked into the corner of her self-portrait, alongside an image of her other passion: Riley Street itself.

The artist-run store is a special place for Mirow, and she describes her ten-year span of work as “connecting the dots” between artists and the things they need. She’s been instrumental in helping people get started in artistic careers and figuring out the technical problems they’ve been struggling with. In her opinion, the borders between her own art (mainly watercolors and creative writing) and her life skills work are fluid. She believes that “life is an art. I almost see each of us as a blank canvas, and making decisions is a life skill, and that way we can create our own lives, make them colorful and make them interesting and it’s all about the decisions you make.”

Mirow admits that she had not always made perfect decisions herself, and does not promise to have all the answers when it comes to life. Her self-portrait would also include risk-taking, faltering, and failing. Like all artists, she must constantly balance the practical and the artistic, looking at the bottom line and tending to her creative life at the same time. It is a constant battle, and she does not pretend that she has always been successful. But that’s not a bad thing, Mirow adds, with a bright smile that will hardly ever fade during our interview, “that [her challenges] would probably be in there because that’s how you discover yourself, that’s how you know who you really are.” As we try to imagine what her present self-portrait would look like, I keep coming back to the idea of blending and balancing.  

At her core, she is a watercolorist. This fluid art form embraces the mixtures of paint and water and paper in a way that other types of art simply do not. Watercolors are not for the micro-manager: they defy any attempt to keep everything carefully separated. Back in the same graduate program, Mirow experimented with the same idea in creative writing when she tackled a young adult novel about the elusive “art spirit”. She broke down the barriers of time and space to allow famous artists such as Andy Warhol and Frida Kahlo discuss their art with each other. For Mirow, this breaking down and blending was essential to getting a grasp on what the spirit and the purpose of art really is.  The truth could only be found when things ceased to be separated. The novel she produced continues to be an important part of her identity, earning a place of honor on the colorful canvas of her life.

As we sat on the children’s art table in the midst of Riley Street, I tried to imagine that canvas, trying to separate the bits of her life into some sort of story. But try as I might, they continued to overlap and mix together until I saw the picture for what it really was: a watercolor-inspired life, where no one knows where one thing ends and the other begins. And although it may not be perfect, and although it may be complicated, I know that it is beautiful, and I know that it is just the way she wants it.