Someone once told John Mellencamp that if he really wanted to sell his work, he needed to paint still lifes and flowers.
“I don’t want to sell paintings that bad,” Mellencamp said.
One walk through “John Mellencamp: Expressionist,” which opened Thursday at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, is proof that he didn’t take that advice. Inspired by the work of German expressionist painters, Mellencamp’s work is filled with dark subject matter and figures that range from sad to serious to grotesque.
Mellencamp told Butler Executive Director Louis Zona during a Q&A session at the members-only reception attended by about 200 people that the wrongheaded advice did help him figure out what kind of artist he wanted to be.
“I think that art should surprise the artist,” Mellencamp said. “If the artist is not surprised, it’s something else. It’s not really true art.”
He no longer does preliminary drawings.
“It was like a paint-by-numbers thing … it just turned into math,” he said. “I didn’t enjoy it. I just started letting stuff make itself. I was more happy. I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t paint for anyone but myself. I don’t need to sell paintings.”
Mellencamp does quite well with his day job as a Grammy-winning singer / songwriter who’s been inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame. He’ll be back in the area in that capacity when he performs Feb. 19, 2019, at Stambaugh Auditorium in Youngstown.
Dressed in a white T-shirt and black overalls, Mellencamp talked about the inspiration behind some of the paintings and mixed media assemblages.
“Jack Johnson” was inspired by the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion — “I liked the courage that Jack Johnson demonstrated in a white America” — but also by his own love of the sport.
“I always thought that I would be a boxer when I was a kid because I liked to fight, but I always got beat up,” he said.
“Easy Target,” which prominently features Martin Luther King Jr., was inspired by growing up in the 1960s. At age 13, Mellencamp sang in a soul band in Indiana where half of the guys were white, half were black and all but Mellencamp were in their 20s.
“They loved us on stage, thought we were the cutest thing in the world,” he said. “But when we came off stage, they wouldn’t let the black guys stay inside the building.”
Except for the Q&A, Mellencamp mostly avoided the crowd. Michael Jordan of Poland was one of the only people to snag an autograph, getting Mellencamp to sign a CD booklet on his way out of the room.
“Expressionist,” which runs through Nov. 18, is Mellencamp’s second art exhibition in the area. He showed his paintings in 2013 at the Butler Trumbull Branch in Howland.
Dr. Nazim Jaffer of Liberty attended that opening and was at the Butler Thursday for the opening event.
“It’s powerful work,” Jaffer said. “There’s a lot of emotion.”
Jerry Reedy of Poland said he was impressed with Mellencamp’s art.
“I’m captivated by the eyes mostly in the paintings,” he said.