John Mellencamp Began His Art Career in His Family's Indiana Basement

By Marc Myers - Wall Street Journal
View a slideshow of some of the works on display at the ACA Gallery HERE

John Mellencamp, 66, is a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter who has recorded 23 albums, including his latest, "Sad Clowns & Hillbillies" (Republic). His solo art exhibit at New York's ACA Galleries opens April 26. He spoke with Marc Myers.

I was supposed to be named Slate. My dad's older brother, Joe, picked it out. He was a college football star and a handsome guy. He thought it would be cool.

But immediately after I was born, the doctor saw I had spina bifida. It's a birth defect where the spinal cord has a hole in it. In 1951, most babies with the defect didn't have much of a chance.

My parents renamed me John, after my great-great grandfather. This way, if I died, there would be some sort of lineage.

The hospital's neurological surgeon operated on me successfully. After, he told my parents, "You can take him home, but he'll likely die."

My parents never talked about my operation or spina bifida. I found out in school when I was 12. In class, the kid behind me asked about the big scar across my neck. When I looked in the mirror at home, there it was. My parents only told me it was an operation. I finally met the surgeon who operated on me in 2014.

I grew up in Seymour, Ind. The first place we lived was on Fifth Street. It was nothing special—just a small one-story home they built for vets returning from World War II. My two brothers and I lived in the basement. My father, Richard, fixed up a section for us with wood paneling and ugly linoleum on the concrete floor.

We had triple bunk beds. I was the middle kid, so I got the middle bunk. There was a TV, and the windows were at ceiling level.

My mother, Marilyn, was a homemaker. Later, she delivered mail to keep busy. She was very pretty, and had been a runner-up in the Miss Indiana pageant in '46. She loved to paint and did so each day, in between dealing with us. My dad created a studio space for her in the basement, too. When I was little, I'd paint on top of her work. That pissed her off.

When I was 12, we moved to the Rapp house. It was about 6 miles north in a small town called Rockford, home of the nation's first train robbery in 1866.

The Rapps were a wealthy family who moved out years earlier. Their grandmother stayed, so the house was dilapidated when my father bought it. I spent my teenage years as cheap labor for my father, fixing up the place. My two brothers and I worked hard and fast so we'd have time for ourselves.

The house was 2½ stories and had a porch on two sides. There were stables and an asphalt tennis court. We had to play. My father insisted. I hated it. We'd play doubles and invariably a fight would break out over a missed shot.

My father was one of five regional vice presidents at Robbins Electrical, an industrial and commercial company. He was hard on me but not harder than most dads of that era.

I'm dyslexic and have a panic disorder and anxiety. Because I had a hard time reading, I learned to listen. I'd also spend more time watching people and viewing life. That struck a creative chord. I started singing in bands at age 12. My first guitar belonged to my brother Joe, who lost interest. I taught myself to play from his books.

I was happy growing up in and around Seymour. Everybody knew me, and I knew everybody. In my teens, I spent many hours leaning against a parking meter on North Chestnut Street, the main drag.

After junior college in 1974, I went to New York to study art. While there, I dropped off a demo tape at a management agency. They signed me and got me a record deal. But I never lost my love of art, and I continue to paint.

Today, I move around among my three houses. I'm pretty restless. My main residence is in Bloomington, Ind. I also have a home on Daufuskie Island, S.C., and a loft apartment in New York.

I built my two-story Bloomington house in the late 1980s to look 100 years old. I spend most of my time in the kitchen and the big-TV room. I used to feel lonely there after the kids left. Now I don't even like people to come over.

The house sits on 88 acres. I paint in a 5,000-square-foot studio in a corrugated-tin barn on the property. I have two of my mother's portraits—one of her sister and one of her mother.

My mom studied painting relentlessly, and her technique became terrific. When I look at the portraits, they remind me of what's possible with hard work.