HOWLAND, Ohio —
John Mellencamp called over a man he had been talking to earlier and walked him to a painting called “Puppet.”
“Puppet” is a portrait of a friend of Mellencamp’s he identified as Trevor. To Trevor’s right side, a puppet dangles from a string that leads above the canvas, and the word “puppet” is printed in big block letters in white.
The inclusion of the puppet is a joke; Trevor calls Mellencamp by that nickname.
The man had told Mellencamp that he loved the painting, but not the printed word. So, Mellencamp pulled out a black marker Saturday and started crossing out the word.
Amid the laughs and expressions of shock among members of the media, officials of the Butler Institute of American Art and invited guests, Mellencamp nonchalantly walked to the chair where he was to be interviewed.
“It’s just a painting I did,” he explained later. “I don’t care.”
And, it’s not like he was cutting up the master tapes to “Jack and Diane,” “I Need a Lover,” “Cherry Bomb” or any of his other hits.
While the man known for heartland rock has painted for years and has thousands of canvases sitting around the house, he’s never made his living from painting, and he’s trying to still trying to feel his way around whether people will – or should – care about his visual works.
The Butler is giving Mellencamp his first solo, art-museum show at its Trumbull gallery on Warren Sharon Road in Howland.
Mellencamp’s road to art started with his mother, a musician and painter who let her son “use her stuff,” as he put it.
“I was very interested in paint and what paint could do,” he said shortly after bumming a piece of gum. “It was curious to me that you could show space with paint.”
There was a magic to paint, but the feel and smell of it was just as much a source of wonder, he said, dressed in a black suit over a white T-shirt, his hair piled high on his head.
After high school, Mellencamp had three interests: music, art and dance.
“I ended up getting a record contract,” said the father of five, who still lives in his native Indiana. “I had to put the painting on hold.”
Mellencamp – known progressively as Little Johnny Cougar, then John Cougar, then John Cougar Mellencamp – wrote songs of small-time life, the big-time thrills of teenagers, and heartstrings and heartbreaks of being an adult.
His musical climb was by no means easy, he said. His music was organic at a time – the ’80s – when synthesizers and canned sounds were all the rage. It was personal when others sang of universal themes.
“There was no place for John Mellencamp,” he said in an interview included in the show’s catalog. “So I had to create a place.”
At the height of his popularity, in the mid-’80s, he put down his guitar and picked up a paintbrush, a choice brought on by the dissolution of his second marriage.
He sought formal art training, including at the famed Art Students’ League in New York.
His paintings, however, are not the spawns of Thomas Hart Benton or any of the regionalist painters who depicted America’s farms and small towns – the grist of Mellencamp’s musical work.
Instead, he embraced German expressionism, and the work of Max Beckman and Otto Dix, with their imposing studies of figures, straight and unadorned – “grotesque beauty,” Mellencamp said of the appeal.
It’s not so much a stretch given that he is the descendant of German immigrants. He said Beckman had the same effect on him as Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.
However, a study of the 37 paintings in the exhibit show other influences – Pablo Picasso, Grant Wood, the Old Masters and the modern aesthetic of heavy textures, drips of paint, cartoonish slashes and heavily detailed sections of canvas next to images that are merely hinted at.
His faces are not realistic in a traditional sense, but they convey real emotions.
While some canvases are spare, others are crammed with doodles, words, letters, skeletons, faces, crosses and targets.
His political leanings – “I’m a lefty” – are apparent in some of the pieces, from “Gun Control,” showing a man in the agony of a fresh bullet wound, to “Strange Fruit,” which seems to show how religion has been used to justify some of the worst of human behavior.
His self-image proves to be a fruitful subject. “John With Puppet” from 1992, showing him holding a puppet from his hand, “suggests disgust or defiance at the feeling of being manipulated,” Hilarie M. Sheets writes in the catalog.
Jump to “Self With Green Background,” painted just a year later. He looks older, his style has changed, but the blue of his eyes shows a sign of life that is absent from, “John After Heart Attack” from 1994, in which he looks gaunt, skeletal, mortal.
Heart attack or no, Mellencamp remains a dedicated smoker, as evidenced by his trips outside the gallery for a few puffs.
Mellencamp said Dylan suggested that he show his paintings publicly, but you sense he’s not sure what he expects anyone else to get from them.
“I’ve been lucky enough with music to write a couple of songs that connect with people,” he said. “With art, I’m still learning.”
He said his son, Speck, 18, already is a much better painter than he is, and he hopes that his ability to get a show at a place like the Butler inspires his son to try for such visibility.
Mellencamp noted that he dreams “big, big dreams,” so big that they can never come true.
“I ignore my dreams,” he said. “I do what’s in front of me.”
These days, an empty canvas is in front of him more often than an acoustic guitar.
“The Paintings of John Mellencamp” will be up through Jan. 12.