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Joni Mitchell's Unseen Art: Friends, Lovers, And A Rock And Roll Life

Icons | November 9, 2019

Left: Joni Mitchell in Amsterdam, 1972. Right: A detail of Mitchell's portrait of of Neil Young in 'Morning Glory On The Vine.' Sources: Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns; hmhbooks.com

Here's a rare treat for fans of classic folk-rock and Joni Mitchell: a book of her paintings previously seen only by friends and fellow musicians. Morning Glory On The Vine: Early Songs And Drawings (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) gives us all an eyeful of the "Big Yellow Taxi" and "Both Sides Now" singer's visual art. Though these images, including portraits of James Taylor, David Crosby, and Georgia O'Keefe, will be new to most of us, we've seen Joni Mitchell's work before -- she painted the covers for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's So Far (1974), and most of her own albums, including Clouds (1969), Ladies Of The Canyon (1970), Court And Spark (1974) and The Hissing Of Summer Lawns (1975)

'Morning Glory On The Vine' Is Nearly 50 Years Old

Source: hmhbooks.com

In 1971, Mitchell pressed 100 copies of a book of watercolors and poetry she gave to her closest friends for Christmas. The book has been whispered bout in fan circles for years, but when it was finally published as Morning Glory on the Vine in 2019 people finally got a look at the other side of this relentlessly creative artist.

Joni Mitchell never set out to be the voice of her generation, or even a singer-songwriter; all she wanted to do was paint. A young Mitchell attended the Alberta College of Art in Canada until she dropped out at the age of 20 in 1964. She left school because she felt that the professors were more concerned with teaching students to be technical rather than creative.

Self Portrait, Not So Blue

source: hmhbooks.com

Her search for creativity over technical prowess continued into her guitar playing and songwriting, which mixes open tunings with jazzy chord combinations in order to form something wholly unique. As a self described “painter derailed by circumstance” Mitchell has continued to paint since dropping out of college to become an incredibly successful singer-songwriter, but she doesn’t really see writing music and painting as being all that different. She told the New York Times:  

When you are writing, you need to have a kind of chaotic mind for stimulation… Painting is a completely different mental process. It completely clears my mind until I get to the point where I have no thoughts. I get the same charge from juxtaposition of colors as I do from juxtaposition of chords.

Neil Young And His Shoulder Of Gold

source: hmhbooks.com

Neil Young and Joni Mitchell were contemporaries in the Laurel Canyon scene of the ‘60s, and while they worked together briefly (they can be seen singing together in The Last Waltz) it’s clear that they had an effect on one another. Both Young and Mitchell are mercurial artists who do things their own way, which is likely why they were drawn to one another.

Mitchell’s portrait of Young shows the singer-songwriter at his most stunning, dappled with a setting sun and palm tree. It’s clear that she feels that Neil Young is a major part of the California sound of the 1960s in spite of the fact that he’s a Canadian just like her. 

Mitchell Paints The Audience

source: hmhbooks.com

Mitchell has always had a love for performing, her music is lovely on an album but there’s a kind of magic that she weaves while on stage because she gets lost in what she’s doing, and according to Mitchell that’s what happened while she was working on this audience sketch. She says that she was meant to be playing in Central Park, and while waiting to perform she started working on this piece. The story goes that she became so enthralled with what she was doing that had to be pulled away from her work so she could play for the very people that she was sketching. 

James Taylor At His Piano

source: hmhbooks.com

Out of all he troubadours of the era, it makes the most sense that Mitchell would find herself in the same orbit as James Taylor. Not only are they both soft spoken singer-songwriters with a penchant for heartbreaking melodies, but they have a deep love for the environment. In 1970 Mitchell and Taylor hosted a benefit concert on October 16, 1970 at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver that made it possible for Greenpeace to protest the proposed nuclear weapons tests by the US Atomic Energy Commission at Amchitka, Alaska. Aside from being musically and ethically simpatico, the two were lovers for short period of time, with Mitchell saying that she was head over heels for him:

He wasn't very well known when I first met him, but the things I did hear were a bit conflicting. But I fell for him right away because he was very easygoing and free-spirited. We shared a lot of similar interests and common ground.

In turn, Taylor referred to Mitchell as “a goddess of love.”

Abigail Haness Cascading Down The Page

Source: hmhbooks.com

Abigail Haness may not be as well known as her contemporaries in the ‘60s Los Angeles music scene, but in her time with the band Jo Mama she became fast friends with performers like Joni Mitchell and Carole King. This stunning portrait of Haness was created right in front of her by Mitchell, who wanted to show the singer a new technique she was mastering. Mitchell explained:

This is a portrait of Abigail Haness, although it really wasn't done so much for her likeness. I drew it to show her this technique of line drawing where you draw somebody and don't look at the paper. Later when I began to color her the coloration started to go like a sunset so I decided to make her the sky and put in the bay at Matalla, on the island of Crete, as I remembered it with the fishing villages and boats.

Graham Nash, Mountain Man

Source: hmhbooks.com

This startlingly beautiful image of Graham Nash, one of Mitchell’s best-known beaus, is both surreal and impressionistic, a perfect encapsulation of Mitchell’s work. Nash and Mitchell lived with one another in Laurel Canyon in the early ‘70s, after meeting in Ottawa following a performance of Nash’s band the Hollies. While Nash clearly had an effect on Mitchell (he wouldn’t be immortalized in this work if he hadn’t), Nash was equally as besotted by Mitchell, so much so that he wrote the song “Our House” about their domestic bliss. He explained:

I think everybody's had that moment where you settle down with a new partner and you've got pets - the two cats, you know? Everybody's had that moment I had of falling in love and creating a song out of love for this woman. Who the hell is not in love with Joni Mitchell?

Georgia O’Keefe, A Testy Old Bird

source: hmhbooks.com

For all of the ink that’s been spilled on Joni Mitchell people rarely discuss her friendship with painter Georgia O’Keefe. Mitchell has said that the two had a lively friendship based on cussing and discussing the art world, and that O’Keefe found Mitchell’s ability to flit between painting, music, and writing admirable. Mitchell said:

She was a testy old bird. She reminded me of my grandmother. When I first visited her, I left her a book of my drawings. She didn't like that and threw her head back like, ‘Oh for God's sake’ and left the room. Months later, I was reading an interview with Georgia and she was saying, ‘In another life, I would come back as a blond soprano who could sing high, clear notes without fear.’ I visited her many times afterwards. She confided in me, ‘I would have liked to have been a musician too but you can't do both.’ I said, ‘Oh yes you can,’ and she leaned in, like a little kid, and said, ‘Really?’ They gave her a hard enough time as it was as a woman painter! She told me that the men said she couldn't paint New York City and she did anyway.

David Crosby Still Thinks Joni's The Best Songwriter Out There

source: hmhbooks.com

To say that David Crosby and Joni Mitchell had tumultuous relationship is an understatement. Crosby discovered Mitchell while she was performing at the Coconut Grove in Florida in 1967 and he immediately shuttled her back to Los Angeles so he could produce her first album. They briefly dated, but he’s said that being in a relationship with her is “a bit like falling into a cement mixer.” Even so, they were able to remain friends and mutual fans. Crosby has stated on numerous occasions that her musical and songwriting abilities are otherworldly. He said:

She is the best songwriter alive, easily as good as Bob [Dylan] and ten times the better musician. When she was my old lady I'd write something and go, 'Listen to this!' She'd say, 'That's lovely, Dave,' and play me three new songs of hers that were far, far better than mine… I liked all the complex chord inversions you hear in jazz, but I wasn't good enough to play them, and then Joni showed me how to retune the guitar. Suddenly I was writing 'Déjà Vu' and 'Guinnevere.'

Dining Room, Laurel Canyon

source: hmhbooks.com

A huge chunk of the rock scene in the 1960s and ‘70s was based out of Los Angeles, with most of the rockers and singer-songwriters living in Laurel Canyon - a small neighborhood of maze-like streets in the Hollywood Hills off Sunset Boulevard. Mitchell didn’t end up there on accident; she says when she first moved to the city a friend pointed her in the direction of the neighborhood that would change her life:

When I first came out to LA [in 1968], my friend [photographer] Joel Bernstein found an old book in a flea market that said: Ask anyone in America where the craziest people live and they’ll tell you California. Ask anyone in California where the craziest people live and they’ll say Los Angeles. Ask anyone in Los Angeles where the craziest people live and they’ll tell you Hollywood. Ask anyone in Hollywood where the craziest people live and they’ll say Laurel Canyon. And ask anyone in Laurel Canyon where the craziest people live and they’ll say Lookout Mountain. So I bought a house on Lookout Mountain.

'Hunter' Isn't On 'Blue,' But It's In Joni's Book

source: hmhbooks.com

This painting, titled “Hunter,” carries the same name as a song that’s never made it onto a studio recording by Mitchell. It was initially slated to appear on the landmark album Blue, but was removed at the last minute with no explanation. However, she has performed the song live numerous times and it even made its way onto the live album “Amchitka” that catalogues her 1970 benefit performance with James Taylor. Mitchell has never spoken about why the song was left off of Blue and never picked up again, and it’s likely that the intensely private artist never will. 

Tags: Art | Books | David Crosby | Graham Nash | James Taylor | Joni Mitchell | Neil Young | Rare Facts And Stories About History

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.