AT AGE 20 AND FRESH OUT OF JUNIOR COLLEGE,
John Mellencamp went to New York to pursue fame. He just wasn’t sure which field it would be in.
“It was either going to be music, as a dancer on Broadway, or art,” he said, adding after a short pause, “or a street fighter.”
His first choice was to study at the Art Students League there, but a recording contract came along and superseded that plan.
“I had no money for art school, and they wanted to give me money, so I put art on hold ... I figured the rock thing would last a couple of years, and then I’d come back to art.”
The rock thing, of course, got pretty big. Mellencamp would grow to legend status and be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
But his desire to paint never went away. So in 1988, in the wake of a rough divorce and 14 years after that first record deal, Mellencamp took up art at the Art Students League.
Painting became a second outlet for his creativity. In a parallel to his music career, Mellencamp found his stylistic groove, and eventually began to tackle social issues through art.
Prolific and steadily improving, Mellencamp at first shared his art only with family and friends. But eventually — at the urging of a famous friend — he began exhibiting his paintings.
The first exhibition of his works in an art museum opens today at the Butler Institute of American Art’s Trumbull branch. It comprises 37 oil on canvas paintings, dating from 1991 to the present. The exhibition runs through Jan. 12.
The 62-year-old Mellencamp visited the Trumbull branch Saturday afternoon for a private reception. Clad in black and still looking the part of the rock star, he first spoke privately with reporters. Afterward, he moved into the main gallery where, surrounded by his paintings, he answered questions posed by Louis A. Zona, director of the Butler, and others.
Credit for Mellencamp’s decision to start exhibiting his art goes to his friend, folk icon Bob Dylan.
“[Dylan] came to see me at my house, and said ‘What are you going to do with all these paintings? You should put them up somewhere for people to see,’ ” said Mellencamp. “I responded ‘Why? ... I’m still learning’.”
The two have plans to paint together in the future, he said.
Mellencamp recounted how his fascination with art began during his childhood in Seymour, Ind.
“My mother painted, and I grew up looking at her art,” he said. “She loved it, but she had five kids so she couldn’t paint for more than an hour at a time. She painted in the basement. Paint smelled different back then, and the smell of that paint left an impression on me.”
At the Art Students League, he came under the wing of David Leffel, a portrait painter who taught him the technique of painting dark to light in the manner of Rembrandt and other old masters.
Leffel also introduced Mellencamp to German Expressionism, an early 20th Century school noted for its heavy and serious portraits that often possessed a narrative of social activism.
For the strongly opinioned and politically antagonistic Mellencamp, it was a style that seemed made for him.
Mellencamp is often passionate and outspoken about the subject matter of his paintings. When discussing his 2013 painting “Gun Control,” he launched into a diatribe about the U.S. prison system and how it is used as an ineffective warehouse for mental patients.
But despite his strong opinions, Mellencamp admittedly has no strong attachment to his paintings.
When Butler museum director Zona visited him to select works for the exhibition, Mellencamp told him to pick what he likes, because he had no favorites.
“I don’t have love for any of my paintings,” he said, adding that he’s not really big on selling them either.
“I’m like a Buddhist,” he said. “If you ask me about my paintings, I’ll talk about it.”
His detachment from his works was made crystal clear at Saturday’s event.
In conversation before the gallery reception, a reporter told him that he likes his painting “Puppet,” but would have preferred it if Mellencamp had not written the word “Puppet” on it.
Shortly after Mellencamp entered the gallery, he caught that reporter’s attention and told him he was going to correct the painting. Wielding a black marker, Mellencamp then scrawled two lines through the word. “I fixed it,” he said with a mischievous smile, drawing stunned laughs from attendees.
Mellencamp also explained why he has taken to writing words — sometimes several sentences — on his paintings.
“Because I write songs,” he said, implying that his lyrical nature carries over to the canvas.
“I am lucky that I can plainly speak in song, and can plainly paint when I am painting,” he said.
Still, Mellencamp admits that when he begins a painting, he has no idea where it will go.
He likes it that way.
“When I sit down and try to make something happen, it never works out,” he said. “I hate making plans. I like for the painting to surprise me.”
One example is “Scooter” (2012), which Mellencamp painted in 20 minutes to cheer up one of his employees who suffers from migraines. It depicts a man with a stylized oblong head with red streaks and pain lines emanating from the forehead. “I brought it to him and said ‘Is this how you feel?’ It was a joke, but now everybody likes that painting.”
In many ways, his painting and songwriting processes are the same.
“I sit down without a clue, no inspiration,” he said. “And every now and then it isn’t crap. That’s when I look up and say ‘Thank You.’ I’m just channeling.”
Mellencamp revealed that his song “R.O.C.K. in the USA” — like “Scooter” — was created quickly as a joke but became one of his lasting hits.
In Mellencamp’s other current endeavors, “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” a musical he co-wrote with horror novelist Stephen King, is currently on tour in theaters in the Midwest.
In December, he will release a box set of CDs that includes 223 songs and spans his entire career.
But through it all, he continues to paint.
“Forty years passed by with me working on music when I could have been painting,” he said.
“I figure I have a lot of catching up to do.”