Everyone thinks they know a lot about John Mellencamp because everyone knows who he is. After all, throughout his 4 decade-long career, the 59 year-old Indiana native has sold 40 million albums worldwide and has amassed 22 Top 40 hits in the United States, been nominated for 13 Grammy Awards, winning one. He’s written such heartland hits as "Jack and Diane", "Pink Houses," “Hurts So Good”, and of course “Small Town”, the soundtrack to their lives for generations of young people. But as I learned recently, Mellencamp’s name, and his music, is far far better known than his many other artistic achievements.
It was a seemingly random event that happened a few weeks ago, that caused me to find myself thinking about John Mellencamp. It was the first Saturday night in May, and I was, as I usually am if I’m in town, enjoying Nashville’s monthly art-and-wine extravaga known as the First Saturday Art Crawl. As I wandered from gallery to gallery I ran into a lot of people I knew, which is usual, but this time someone told me that the near-by Tennessee State Museum was open that night, which is unusual. But nobody seemed to know why.
I decided to go over there myself to see what was up. When I arrived I made a surprising discovery. The museum was offering a sneak preview of paintings by John Mellencamp- not only a musician as I found out, but also an artist of the painterly kind, and that the museum was hosting his first-ever one-man show, featuring 49 works never before seen by the public.
Though I explored the show in peace that night, loving every minute of it, I soon learned there was to be an actual Hollywood-style, star-studded premiere happening a few weeks later. I also learned that the notoriously private Mellencamp was planning to attend. And I also found out his latest love interest, Meg Ryan, who I met some years ago on a crazy film shoot in Spain, was coming too. I began to wonder if it might be possible to say hi to her (did not happen), or wrangle a few words from him about his painting, and several other intriguing projects he has going on. For example, do you know that Mellencamp scored the soundtrack for a Stephen King penned stage play, The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County which had its debut in Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre in April, 2012. I thought not. (Read on to find out more!)
Now, to digress, I think many of us art lovers have been bored silly at one time or another by the mediocre art work of a famous celebrity casting themselves in the role of artist. Galleries love to show their work, knowing that 1) some rabid, wealthy fan might buy a piece just because, and that 2) the opening will be heavily publicized and 3) where hordes of fans and paparazzi go, money usually follows. This might sound cynical, but alas, it’s only too true.
But in the case of John Mellencamp, this scenario was totally not the case. The exhibit was entitled Nothing Like I Planned: The Art of John Mellencap. And in my case, it was also Nothing Like I Expected! Excellent. Colorful. Powerful. I would even say Masterful, but I expect Mellencamp would be embarrassed by that.
Mellencamp’s oevre is not what you might think, with his first subjects, painted when he was 10, his family, friends, and the local Indiana landscapes. His work has been compared by art critics to the dark and shadowy paintings of the German Expressionists. This search for expression by means of exaggeration, and distortion of line and color in favor of a simplified style intended to carry an emotional impact, can be readily seen in his work.
Themes of populism, social injustice, small-town struggle and fractured relationships that can be heard throughout Mellencamp’s sprawling musical recordings are, not surprisingly, also spread across his canvases. "I write about the human condition, I paint about the human condition," he has been quoted as saying.
Many of Mellencamp's somewhat surrealist works are autobiographical, depicting his children, past wives and past selves. Some are pensive character portraits depicting party-goers, marginalized farmers and depressed musicians, while other pieces are harsher, more visually chaotic commentaries on racism, Hurricane Katrina, the fatal plight of smokers, censorship and religion. Still others are large, and pack a strong political message, featuring different causes depending on what year they were painted, but always carrying the same humanistic message. Don’t forget, people, Mellencamp, then John Cougar Mellencamp, was one of the original founders of Farm Aid in 1985, which has raised over $37 million for the benefit of needy farmers through the years.
In a press release, Mellencamp explained what the exhibit’s title meant to him. "I'm always surprised," he said. "I always have a vague notion of what I think it's [a painting’s] gonna be, and so many times it doesn't turn out anything like I thought it would." Of course, one might also argue that the same might be true for Mellencamp himself.
The private, and exclusive official opening soiree was low-key, just as the artist must have wanted. But it was also star-studded, with music industry heavy weights Big Machine label-head Scott Borschetta, famed record producer Tony Brown, and performing artists including Oak Ridge Boy, William Lee Golden and Emmy Lou Harris spotted among the crowd.
Sometimes things go your way, and it was that way for me the evening Nothing Like I Planned: The Art of John Mellencap was to open. I found out when I arrived that I was approved for a highly coveted, albeit brief, one-on-one interview with the man-of-the-hour himself (or perhaps I should say half-an-hour as he, and his entourage made a sudden, and unexpected departure before the event even got started.) Here is what John Mellencamp told me that night:
Raeanne’s John Mellencamp Interview 5/17/2012
Dish: You’ve got so many things going on at the moment and they’re so surprising and varied. You have a No Better than This video on Showtime and upcoming Canadian Tour, the 2012 Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony on HBO, The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County stage play, CD and book that you created with Stephen King and T Bone Burnett, and this important exhibit, with all of it happening at pretty much the same time. Which excites you most and how do you manage to stay so creative?
JM: I get excited by all of them. If I wasn’t interested then I wouldn’t do it. I only do stuff that I find interesting. I wouldn’t do anything just to be doing it.
Dish: How was it working with Stephen King?
JM: It was great. Steve and I have been working on this thing for 15 years. Steve and I have become good friends, and that’s been the best part of the process, my relationship with him.
Dish: How about these paintings, how long have you been doing them?
JM: I did painting forever and my mom was a painter so even as a little kid I would watch her paint. I didn’t really paint anything for this show. They were all done, and they [the museum curators] came and picked out the ones they wanted. I have this many if not more still in my studio.
Dish: So how do you feel about seeing them on the wall in a museum?
JM: Embarrassing (laughs).
Dish: Do music and paintings co-exist in your mind at the same time? Do you hear music when you’re painting? Or do you see an image when you’re creating music?
JM: Actually, when you’re painting, you’re pretty involved in the process. My mind is generally on that. And it’s the same with songwriting. I can’t imagine painting and saying, ‘Oh, I could write a song.’ It doesn’t work that way for me. I’m very focused with what’s happening on the canvas.
Dish: So how long does it take you to do a painting?
JM: I can do a painting in a couple of hours, and there are some of these paintings that took years.
Dish: I love the social commentary ones. They’re so beautiful and they’re representative of so many different time periods. Are they painted over a long period of time?
JM: This one over here was over a long period of time. This was right when George Bush declared that we need to have red and green and I thought it was a silly exercise, and I still do.
I have been told there are no plans for this show to travel. Therefore, this might be your only chance to see this remarkable body of work! So get yourself over to the Tennessee State Museum in downtown Nashville ASAP. Nothing Like I Planned: The Art of John Mellencamp will run from May 17 - June 10, 2012. Please go to www.tnmuseum.org for hours and directions.