D.C. native and art advisor Chela Mitchell opens up about the purpose and ethos behind her new gallery space.
Inside Chela Mitchell Gallery, the walls are white and empty, a blank slate before the next exhibition. There’s a calm energy to the space, an echo in the openness — and it’s thrilling.
“Power is quiet,” Chela Mitchell, gallery owner and art advisor, tells me.
Mitchell is getting the space ready to feature the work of Siena Smith, a Rhode Island School of Design professor and artist who draws, weaves and collages, always with an ode to her Black ancestry. The gallery in its Union Market space has only been open for a month, but already its ethos seems set in stone.
Their first show featured photographer Nate Langston Palmer, a D.C. native. His exhibition “Song of Sons” shows Black men living joyfully — some doing art together, one kissing his baby, a couple embracing at an outdoor party, and so much movement, dancing and existing in public spaces fading due to gentrification.
“I’m not a mainstream person,” Mitchell says. “How I run my business is very spiritual. I can walk into a room and feel something when I see art, and I can’t even describe the feeling to you. I just know.”
Featuring Palmer’s work seemed like a given.
“This body of work from him is a gift to D.C.,” she says.
Like Palmer, Mitchell was raised in D.C., in Fairfax Village (or Hillcrest Heights to some) in Ward 7. She left to attend Rutgers University in 2003 and spent time in New York in the fashion world where she expressed her art through style. But it was those quiet moments alone in art galleries where she felt the whispers of what should come next.
“I love looking at art alone,” she says. “I like to take my time, to see if I can understand the artist’s intention before I read about it. I don’t have to be right; I’m happy to be wrong. A person’s perception of art is just as important as the artist’s intention.”
She started collecting art and books about art, doing deep dives into the world of artists and galleries. She decided she would own an art gallery by age 40. She’s 38 now.
“It takes a lot to bring something like this to fruition from a thought,” she says. “I moved so fast. I cry all the time. It took me weeks before I could come here and not cry.”
She reiterates that it took her 34 years to know what she wanted to do with her life.
“Once I knew what I really wanted to do, I’ve been coasting — which is what alignment is,” she says. “I’m in alignment for what my purpose in life is.”
It’s an art gallery, yes, but Mitchell has plans to make it a community space too. She plans to give artistic access to people from her community in Southeast D.C. She’s settling into her position of power, redefining what it means to be in charge.
“I know I can call all the shots,” she says. “But those things don’t feed my ego. They do make me feel like I’m balancing the power structures, tearing them down a bit. My artists always tell me I’m so calm.”
She’s been in industries where power was yelling, fighting, screaming. She doesn’t want to waste her emotions in that way when she could be channeling them for good, for problem solving.
“I feel like I’m an alchemist,” she says. “I’m taking a lot of energy that’s hard and masculine, tough and toxic, and I’m morphing it into something soft and nourishing.”
As a spiritual person, Mitchell relies on manifesting, astrology and ancestry for guidance. These are all modern buzzwords, and yet, it doesn’t feel kitschy when she talks about it. She’s welcoming to anything that helps her understand herself and her purpose.
“The best way I can describe ancestral guidance is an intuition or advice that didn’t come from me,” she says.
It’s the feeling she gets when she sees art she wants to feature. It’s the alignment in her choices coming to fruition. It’s the quiet power she’s brought to her space.
Even coming back to D.C. was complete intuition.
“I follow feelings without delay,” she says. “I came back to D.C. because of a dream I had. I can’t think too deeply about how it works. A lot of it makes no sense; you have to be okay with that. You have to trust.”
She’s already manifesting what’s next: a gallery in LA, a furniture line she curates. But for now, her focus is on Chela Mitchell Gallery, bringing attention and opportunities to artists with messages that transcend what meets the eye.
“The work might be aesthetically beautiful to a lot of people, but it’s meant to make people feel something — to create conversations and spark change,” Mitchell says. “Art is unique that way, you can have your own moment with it and have a conversation with yourself and create change within yourself.”
The gallery facilitates that change — in the powerful silence, in the open, in the self.
See Siena Smith’s work at Chela Mitchell Gallery starting September 16.
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