THOM BENNETT PHOTOGRAPHs
Plein-air artists often chat with passersby interested in their work.
But when New Orleans painter Mitchell Long sets up his easel and oils on the leafy neutral ground of Esplanade Avenue, he needs to do a little more explaining than normal for curious onlookers.
“I’m actually painting behind my back,” Long says. “I found that with the easel in front of me, it got in the way. So now I turn around, look at the scene, then turn back to the painting, doing that again and again. When people come by, they’re a little surprised because what’s on the canvas isn’t the scene in front of it.”
What is on his canvas these days, though, is turning heads on its own. Long’s major focus is on panoramas
of everyday street scenes around New Orleans, made new and unique through his impressionistic style. His canvases are narrow but stretch on, and as the eye tracks along, the familiar buildings, intersections and public spaces materialize inch by inch.
Raised in Winter Park, Fla., Long says he always had an affinity for art, which he pursued first at the Columbus College of Art & Design in Ohio. He later earned a graduate degree from Louisiana State University, and from there he moved to New Orleans for good in 1998. Early in his education, he thought he would train as a commercial illustrator. But soon Long found the most enthusiastic praise came for his fine art endeavors.
“I was never taught how to paint a landscape, which I think helped me,” he says. “I had to figure it out on my own, and whenever you do that, the result is going to be more you.”
These days, Long is painting a flat city from the ground level. He’s particularly drawn to the angular
intersections where the New Orleans street grid pivots. Here, the streets crease into triangular blocks and often support prow-shaped buildings. They come to jaunty life on his canvas, revealing the quirks and personality of the urban landscape. As New Orleans continues reordering itself after Katrina, these scenes sometimes can assume an unexpected resonance overnight.
“The city is changing so fast, especially in the Warehouse District,” Long says. “Sometimes I’ve painted a building, and then it’s gone, knocked down. It’s like these have turned into historic paintings.”