John Mellencamp viewed his paintings as a “hobby” until a fellow member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame prodded him to do something with the artworks gathering dust at his home studio.
“As a kid I could always draw,” Mellencamp said Thursday during a press conference at the Museum of Art – DeLand Downtown, where “The Paintings of John Mellencamp” goes on exhibit today.
“My report card in high school was D, D, D, F, F, A,” he said. “Guess what the A was? Art.”
Even as Mellencamp was earning his musical reputation in the 1980s with such hits as “Jack & Diane” and “Pink Houses,” he was pursuing painting seriously, including training at the Art Students League in New York.
“But I viewed it as a hobby,” the 63-year-old rocker said. “You wouldn’t criticize a guy about his hobby, would you (laughs)? But a few years ago some people came to me and said, ‘John, what are you going to do with all this stuff?’ Actually, it was Bob Dylan.”
Mellencamp told Dylan he would give his paintings to his kids.
“He said, ‘They don’t want it — they’ll just give it away or sell it,’ ” Mellencamp recalled. “So he introduced me to some people and that’s how it started.”
Since then Mellencamp’s artwork has appeared in a number of museum and gallery exhibitions.
His relentlessly stoic-faced portraits, often peppered with slogan-like text, have earned critical praise as well as comparisons to American Neo-Expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat, and to such German Expressionists as Max Beckmann and Otto Dix.
When Mellencamp was asked by museum CEO George Bolge whether he felt any angst in letting his paintings out into the world, the rocker replied: “I don’t treat my paintings as preciously as that . . . I never fall in love with anything I do.
“The music broke me in on that. During recording the guys in my band would go, ‘This is the greatest song. This is going to be a big hit record.’ I’d look at them and go, ‘Yeah, they’re all hits in here. It’s when you take them out to the public that you have trouble.’
“At the end of the day, is the painting beautiful for me? Even if it’s grotesquely beautiful, that’s my goal.”
Mellencamp said he was enchanted by DeLand.
“I drove into town and I thought, ‘Wow, look at this architecture — they’ve maintained their downtown,’ ” he said. “I kind of have a girlfriend and I called Peg and said, ‘You won’t believe the little town I’m in right now.’ ”
And the rocker who penned a Top 10 hit titled “Small Town” said he was pleased to have his paintings exhibited in a small-town museum.
“Any artist or songwriter who is any good at all did not come from a big city,” Mellencamp said. “Where did Woody Guthrie come from? Oklahoma. Where did Hank Williams come from? Alabama. Where did the Beatles come from? Liverpool.
“I defy any of you to tell me a great songwriter who came from New York City or Los Angeles. They might have ended up there, but they didn’t start there.
“New York and Los Angeles have nothing to do with America. They really don’t. It amazes me that we admire and pay attention to the (expletive) that comes out from there. Who cares? I don’t care.”
Bolge said the Mellencamp exhibit will raise the stature of the Museum of Art – DeLand. (The museum is displaying the bulk of its Mellencamp exhibit at its downtown gallery at 100 N. Woodland Blvd., while five paintings are at its venue at 600 N. Woodland. Blvd.).
“John’s damn good at what he does,” Bolge said. “A little museum like this that can do a show of John’s work gains a national profile almost immediately.”