Ain’t That America? Painter John Mellencamp in Mansfield

Singer, songwriter and painter, John Mellencamp

John Mellencamp’s career as a rock and roll musician has been familiar since he was known as Johnny Cougar, and his 1978 song “I Need A Lover” became a hit. He subsequently wrote and recorded many more beloved records full of songs set in the heartland, about regular people with names like Jack and Diane. His most recent album, Strictly a One-Eyed Jack, was released in January. But the songwriter has a parallel career as a painter, creating characters, as he told us, who are mostly “imaginary people that the painting dictates to me to paint.” Over the years his painting has been compared to that of German expressionist Max Beckmann. His first major museum show was at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, in 2013. He has also had shows at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville, the Museum of Art in Deland, Florida, at ACA Galleries in New York, and at the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia. He answered CAN’s questions via email, in advance of an exhibit opening on June 26 at the Mansfield Art Center.

John Mellencamp, JM 1979 (Self Portrait)

CAN: I was surprised to read that you began painting in the eighties. How did that start?

John Mellencamp: Well, that information is incorrect. I’ve been drawing and painting my entire life. What is correct is that I began painting seriously in the eighties. I began painting at that point to make life bearable.

CAN: Who were your influences? Which artists do you look at for their style?

JM: Everything I see is what influences me. And every style, if I can borrow it, I will.

CAN: I also read that you have been painting prolifically in recent years, completing hundreds of paintings. Your website has a gallery of 519 paintings, dozens and dozens of them from 2020 and 2021, but also a significant number from years prior to that. Did the pandemic give you a chance to paint more?

JM: Yes.

CAN: Did the pandemic change your subject matter, or the way you thought about painting, or did the cancellation of performances just give you big swaths of “alone” time?

JM: Yes, the pandemic did lighten the load of live performance. I did do a few portraits with the title Pandemic Whoever. I was seeing confusion in people’s faces of what to believe and what not to believe.

CAN: Did you also write new music during that time, or did you focus your creative energy entirely on painting?

JM: I just released a record a month ago called Strictly a One-Eyed Jack. Half of that album was written and recorded during the pandemic. P.S. I’m not convinced that the pandemic is over either.

CAN: Most of your work is figurative. Are these specific people in your life? Do your figurative paintings go through a process of character development?

JM: Yes, some of the people that I paint are acquaintances of mine, family members, or women I may know. But mostly, they are imaginary people that the painting dictates to me to paint.

CAN: One of the beloved things about your music is its storytelling. Do you see painting that way?

JM: It is a ridiculous notion that people can interpret art in any way except singular. Interpreting art is a fool’s errand. The purpose of a painting or a song is how it connects with each individual. To speak about music or painting in sweeping terms is strictly for entertainment.

CAN: How does painting differ from music as a creative outlet for you? Do people have expectations that make music feel more like a job, and therefore does painting seem to free you of all that?

JM: No, the creative process is best used when one is inspired and open to being open-minded enough to allow the song or the painting to present itself.

CAN: Is the apparent decline of the pandemic filling your calendar with concert dates again?

JM: We have had to cancel over 160 shows, and now we plan on doing 80 shows starting next January. My days are filled with songwriting, painting and trying to create something every day, even if I know that the majority of the work will not be seen or heard.

John Mellencamp, Driving in the Rain, oil on canvas, 2020.

John Mellencamp: Paintings & Assemblages

June 26–August 7

Elizabeth T. Black Gallery

Mansfield Art Center

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