By GUY D’ASTOLFO -
Wearing denim bib overalls and a white T-shirt, John Mellencamp pulled up a stool and talked about his art.
The rocker from Indiana was visiting the Butler Institute of American Art Thursday night, where his new art exhibition, “John Mellencamp: Expressionist” is now on view.
About 100 invited guests crowded around a corner of one of the galleries, where Mellencamp answered questions posed by Butler Director Louis A. Zona.
If the artist’s attire was surprising in such a formal setting, well, that’s a hallmark of art, said Mellencamp.
“Art should surprise the artist,” he said. “If the artist is not surprised, then it’s something else.”
Mellencamp’s expansive exhibition includes more than 40 pieces, and ranges from current paintings to ones created more than 25 years ago.
The largest piece is a weathered-looking collage that combines painting, photography and everyday items, including an antique bottle and a child’s boot. It’s about 8 feet wide.
Zona asked how the eye-catching piece – titled “Monstrosity” – got its name.
“It was hell to move around,” said Mellencamp, drawing laughs.
“It’s setting on a 1940s ironing board and a 1920s scale. I don’t how you guys put it together. A guy working for me said, ‘Do we have to move that monstrosity?’ ”
Mellencamp said he lets each painting go where it will, with no preconceived goal when he first puts brush to canvas.
Similarly, the titles come once the piece is done, almost as an afterthought.
“I only name these damn things because people need to know what to call them,” he said.
In his 20-minute talk, the expressionist painter revealed the inspiration behind several of his works. They ranged from childhood heroes to odd moments that stuck in his memory.
“There’s a painting in the other gallery called ‘Jack Johnson’ – What inspired it?” Zona asked.
“Jack Johnson,” came the deadpan reply from the often flip, and occasionally cantankerous Mellencamp.
But he did explain – eventually.
“I always thought that I’d be a boxer,” he said. “I don’t know why, because I always got beat up.”
The painting, of course, was an homage to the late and legendary boxer, Jack Johnson.
Asked about a painting that is a tribute to Martin Luther King, Mellencamp recalled a story that explained his awakening to racism.
At age 13, he became a singer in a soul band, half of whose members were black. He was immediately issued a knife by a fellow band member.
“He said, ‘Here, you’re in the band.’ I said, ‘What do I need this for?’ He said, ‘You’re going to need it.’ And he was right.”
The band was occasionally met with racist crowds. “If you’re playing ... in Indiana in 1964, with a bunch of black guys, you’re in trouble,” he said.
Another painting, titled “Used People,” had an almost whimsical origin.
“I produced a record in the early ’80s for Marianne Faithfull,” said Mellencamp. “Anyway, Marianne was colorful, to say the least, and when she wasn’t being colorful she was high. And she always wore the same T-shirt every day for a month. It said ‘Used People.’ Obviously, that stuck in my head.”
The most moving story Mellencamp told was not about a piece of art, but about his grandmother, who called him “Buddy.” She played a key role in raising him.
At age 99, she asked him to visit, fearing she was nearing the end of her life. As he laid on the bed with her, she began to pray aloud.
Mellencamp recounted the moment.
“I heard her voice rise and she said ‘Me and Buddy are ready to come home,’ and I said, ‘Grandma, Buddy is not ready to come home. He has plenty more sinning to do.’ ”
Her indignant reply was, “It’s just like you, Buddy, to say something smart alecky like that when I’m talking to Jesus.”
“The not funny part came right after she said that,” said Mellencamp. “Her face took on this calmness and I looked right at her and she looked like a little girl. And she said to me, ‘You know Buddy, you are going to find out real soon that life is short, even in its longest days.’ ”
Mellencamp memorialized that line in one of his greatest songs, “Longest Days.”
As an American music icon and a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Mellencamp is free to express himself as an artist any way he wishes.
“I don’t paint for anybody but me,” he said. “I don’t need to sell paintings.”
For Rita Santon, who was among the attendees at the Butler, Mellencamp’s ability to move from music to painting is what she appreciates most about him.
“When you are an artist, you are an artist in all realms,” said the Canfield resident. “You can be a musician, an artist, you can wear clothes artfully. I love that he pursued art. He is passionate and art is passion.”
Mellencamp’s exhibition runs through Nov. 18.