Personalities

A Creative Union

By Sheryl Nonnenberg

He’s a painter; she’s a writer. Mitchell Johnson and Donia Bijan prove that two successful
(and independent) artists can maintain a happy, long-lasting marriage.

Photo by Spencer Brown.

The house in the West Menlo Park neighborhood is distinctive for its sunny yellow exterior, sky-blue front door and pastel-striped fence. It’s a fitting home for two creative people: Mitchell Johnson, a painter, and his wife, Donia Bijan, a writer. They are each successful in their own right but also noteworthy in that they have a supportive, loving relationship of 20 years — not an easy feat for anyone, let alone working artists. 

Bijan was born in Iran but was sent to the U.S. when she was just 15. She lived with a family in Michigan, then attended UC Berkeley. When she decided that being a chef was her calling, she relocated to Paris to attend Le Cordon Bleu. After working her way up the culinary ladder, she ran a very successful restaurant, L’Amie Donia, in Palo Alto for 10 years before hanging up her apron to try her hand at writing. Although she had never written before, Bijan says that the challenge of a new career was entirely in keeping with her personality. 

“I am known for seeking out something difficult and doggedly pursuing it,” she explains. The risk paid off and resulted in two critically-acclaimed books: Maman’s Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart in an American Kitchen, a memoir, and The Last Days of Café Leila, a novel. Writing about food comes easy, but writing fiction was a new challenge. Bijan recounted that her writing process, which has to be done in quiet solitude, was like “going into a room with my imaginary friends.” Once she has given a character a name, she says, “the rest is golden.”

Bijan’s 2017 novel, The Last Days of Café Leila, about an Iranian woman’s return to her native country after living in America.

Johnson followed his own path with similar passion, committing his life to art. After first taking up painting in middle school, he went on to earn a graduate degree at Parsons School of Design in New York City. His color-and shape-driven paintings reflect an interest in both abstraction and figuration. Johnson admits to an appreciation for the calm, quiet geometry found in the work of Edward Hopper and Giorgio Morandi. These influences can be seen in his landscapes and seascapes of Cape Cod. But he is also fascinated by the power of color, as Hans Hoffman described, “the push-pull” impact of placing deeply-saturated colors against each other. When working in his Menlo Park studio, “I make the paintings the way other people might meditate or write a song. Sometimes it feels like you are finding the painting.” 

Whatever his technique, Johnson has been unusually successful for a visual artist, especially considering that he has never been part of the gallery system. He has also never had to teach in order to support himself and his family. Thanks to inserts in the New York Times (done years ago) and ads in the New York Times Magazine (ongoing), Johnson has found a receptive audience for his work. His website is his primary sales vehicle and, as he explains, “People see the work, send me a check and I send them the painting.” His philosophical take on the whole process: “It’s like a message in a bottle that you release into the world and you never know who is going to open it.”

A vibrant painting by Johnson, who keeps a studio a few miles away from their Menlo Park home.

So how do their individual careers, interests and passions mesh? “We support each other but not in the way that people might expect, or is easily described,” says Johnson. “It’s about an unwavering faith in each other, knowing that we both really need to do this, we want to do this and, hopefully, have found a way to make it work.” Bijan works at home and Johnson has a separate studio a few miles away. The separation is necessary “for structure,” she observes, adding that she rarely goes into his studio. 

For his part, Johnson never reads her work until it is published. “We talk about work but we don’t help each other in a direct way,” says Johnson. And although they express themselves in different media, they both noted a commonality in their respective approaches to their work. “It’s about observation,” Bijan muses. “I am observing human nature and he is observing colors and shapes.” Johnson agrees, saying, “It is about sustained observations — sustained looking.” Another point of intersection is travel. Along with their 17-year-old son, Lucca, they have enjoyed annual trips to Europe and Asia, where they strive to find places where all three can pursue their own interests. They frequently travel to a small town in France where Mitchell can paint, Bijan writes, and Lucca attends a language camp.

Marriage between two artists — with the potential for clashing egos and artistic temperaments — has informed countless books and movies. But in this sunny yellow house, with Johnson’s Cape Cod seascapes on the walls reflecting the warmth and humor expressed by Bijan and Johnson, contentment abounds. This is a couple who clearly love what they do — Bijan is writing another book and Johnson is working with museums that want to collect his paintings — but love each other even more. Says Johnson: “You have to be pretty lucky to fall in love and also to fall in love with someone who supports what you do.”

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