The Island Packet: John Mellencamp is rocking Daufuskie. But not in the way you think


The Island Packet

Daufuskie Island has always offered different strokes for different folks.

Now those different strokes have gone big and bold in the form of a self-portrait by part-time islander John Mellencamp.

He’s known to the world as the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer.

But it is as a visual artist that the star has chosen to join 25 other Daufuskie artists now displaying their work at the Coastal Discovery Museum on Hilton Head Island.

“I’m thrilled that he chose to be a part of our show,” said its organizer, Jenny Hersch of Daufuskie. “We asked if he would participate, and he said, ‘I’m a Daufuskie artist’ and the piece arrived from Indianapolis.”

Mellencamp has been a serious painter for three decades or more, or about as long as he and his family have been digging their personal roots into our Lowcountry sand and pluff mud.

He paints a lot at his art-filled home on Daufuskie, the quiet island with no bridge, lying low across from the Harbour Town Lighthouse on Hilton Head.

Right now, Mellencamp has a solo show of 42 large-scale oil portraits and mixed-media pieces — “John Mellencamp: Expressionist” — on display at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio.

He’s not painting marsh scenes.

His website says:
“Butler Director Dr. Louis A. Lou Zona terms Mellencamp’s art as Neo Expressionistic, ‘since his paintings are a return to the emotionally based applications brought forth by German Expressionism, Fauvism and Abstract Expressionism.’ “

The piece on loan to the Daufuskie show is a signed, limited-edition lithograph titled “Sometimes There’s God.”

Mellencamp was formally trained at the Arts Student League in New York. Now his work is included in prized collections and has been exhibited in galleries and museums around the nation.

Mellencamp’s website frames his visual art through his “affinity for portraiture influenced by the works of Otto Dix and Max Beckmann. His kinship with the German Expressionism of the early Twentieth century, with its existential focus on the human condition, serves as the foundation for the development of Mellencamp’s ‘oeuvre.’

“His large-scale oil portraits and mixed-media pieces document America’s heart and soul, revealing unsettling but beautiful truths with a kind of anti-establishment frown, with a rich sense of narrative. Like his music, Mellencamp’s paintings are carefully composed through the structural requirements of harmony, rhythm and order, and (are) thematically in line with the small-town, earnest voice of the heartland.”

Daufuskie time
Mellencamp’s heart has long been entwined with Hilton Head and Daufuskie islands.

His girls, Justice and Teddi, were raised on Hilton Head and graduated from Hilton Head Preparatory School.

Justice gained her own fame as a stylist at Platinum Designs on Hilton Head.

Teddi, who became a national champion equestrian out of our local stables, joined the cast of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” last year.

But on Daufuskie, Mellencamp — the recipient of the Woody Guthrie Award, the John Steinbeck Award, the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award and co-founder of Farm Aid with Willie Nelson — keeps a low profile.

He has done some recording as close by as the historic First African Baptist Church in Savannah.

But Daufuskie offers something much different.

In an interview with my former colleague Jeff Vrabel for a story published in 2010 in the Hilton Head Monthly magazine, Mellencamp said Daufuskie is a place to unplug. Or, as Jeff put it, “it’s Mellencamp’s secret escape hatch.”

Vrabel writes: “Mellencamp sees Daufuskie like Walden or the outback or the island on ‘Lost.’ “ He quotes Mellencamp: “(You’re) not on somebody else’s time, not on the boss’ time, but on your time. You get up when you want, eat when you want, walk to the ocean when you want. A watch is of no use to you on Daufuskie. Only the sun matters. It’s gonna come up and it’s gonna go down. The rest of the time, it doesn’t matter what time it is. And to me, after being in the music business for 40 years, that’s such a relief.”

Like Mellencamp

Other Daufuskie artists don’t have Mellencamp’s training or national following.

But they have discovered on Daufuskie those same magical ingredients.

“The pace is so nice and slow here,” said Jenny Hersch, the local show organizer.

“With an electric golf cart and a ferry, you can’t really hurry.”

The art show includes works of oil, acrylic, watercolor, photography, woodworking, indigo dying and leather crafting. It includes jewelry and books and scarves made on a loom that fills a room.

“People are real encouraging to each other’s endeavors here,” Hersch said. “They are generous with their time and happy to teach..”

She said Daufuskie folks discover creative strokes they never knew they had.

Leanne Coulter and Rhonda Davis had never done anything like they are doing in their Daufuskie Blues studio in the old Mary Field school house. They make indigo dyed scarves, shawls and wall hangings. And now there’s a coffee shop in the old kitchen, called School Grounds.

As they ferment the Lowcountry plants of purple, Leanne and Rhonda are in tune with the famous rocker Mellencamp. And he’s just like everybody else in the Daufuskie art show.

“There’s something about this place that really allows for the time — and also the quiet — to explore your interests,” Hersch said. “The sky’s the limit really.”