Beacon Online News: Mellencamp On DeLand: ‘Wow’

By Pat Andrews - Beacon Online News

Social media in DeLand buzzed Oct. 8-9 with photos of locals taken with John Mellencamp. The painter and singer-songwriter of hits like "Jack & Diane" and "Our Country" was in town to help open an exhibit of his visual art at the Museum of Art Downtown DeLand gallery at 5 p.m. today, Friday, Oct. 10.

Fans spotted Mellencamp on Downtown DeLand streets, in a coffee shop and at restaurants.

During a press conference Oct. 9, Mellencamp talked about art, music, life and politics.

He said he likes DeLand. Before arriving, Mellencamp wondered why anyone would want to live in the middle of the state, away from the beaches.

"But I drove into town, and wow," he said.

Mellencamp called his girlfriend "Peg," better known as actress Meg Ryan, and told her, "You wouldn't believe this town I'm in."

Mellencamp fell in love with DeLand’s architecture and the people.

Mellencamp grew up in Seymour, Indiana, a small town. He said it's the small towns that produce artists and musicians, not the big cities, though artists sometimes end up there.

"New York and Los Angeles got nothing to do with America," he said.

The entertainment produced in the big cities only contribute to the dumbing-down of the country, Mellencamp said.

His visual art, like his music, focuses on people of small-town and rural America. They're no Norman Rockwell renderings. The paintings depict serious, usually frowning, people who work the farms, the mills and the small businesses: people whose lives have been hard, who don't see much hope for the future, but who keep on going, anyway. Some paintings depict racism or social injustice.

The painting "Troubled Man" has written into it, "Too late came too early … for me."

"BRMC," featuring a frowning man, states, "Some people believe in their dreams and some will follow their dreams – me … I just don't pay any attention to them."

Mellencamp's style is influenced by 20th-century modernists, and particularly by the German expressionists Max Beckmann and Otto Dix.

Art was the only class Mellencamp, now 63, cared about in high school, he said. Mellencamp began playing with a band by the time he was 14, and had his first hit in 1979 with "I Need A Lover."

Mellencamp, who attended art school in New York for a short time, considered himself to be a painting hobbyist, until one day Bob Dylan visited. Dylan looked around and said, "What are you going to do with all this stuff?"

Mellencamp decided he needed to get his paintings out of his way and into a gallery.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee said a painter's work, like songwriting, comes out of "on-the-job training." He said this means taking life experience and committing it to canvas or paper, and practicing and refining, and practicing more. He worked on some paintings for more than a dozen years before he was satisfied with them — almost. Mellencamp said he never lets loose of a thought.

Art has some benefits over songwriting, Mellencamp said. He can keep tinkering with a painting, adding to it and changing it. A song, once it's out there, is pretty much done. Mellencamp hears some of his old stuff on the radio and wishes he could rewrite some of the verses.

For Mellencamp, the big question about art is, "At the end of the day, is the painting beautiful — even if it's grotesquely beautiful?" he said.

He uses math in every painting to create the proper balance and cohesion, which is needed on the canvas just as it is in music.

"It's problem solving … I go to the canvas, create a problem, then try to solve it," Mellencamp said.

Mellencamp said he has to create all the time, or he gets sick or drives himself crazy focusing on himself. A self-described hypochondriac and anxiety victim, Mellencamp now also wants to write a novel.

Music fans need not despair: A 22nd Mellencamp album, Plain Spoken, has just been released.

The Paintings of John Mellencamp will be on exhibit at the Museum of Art until Sunday, Dec. 28.

Museum Executive Director George Bolge was as excited about the exhibit as any Mellencamp fan. It's the first Mellencamp exhibit in the Southeast.

"It gets DeLand a national profile," Bolge said, and displays the town’s tradition of culture. The exhibit will not only open the eyes of local business people to what art can do for the community, the exhibit is a tool for economic development, showcasing DeLand, he said.