Artist Paints his way Across the USA
by Rebecca Denton
When Jim Mott decided to travel across the nation painting landscapes last year, he knew he'd have to find a cheap way to do it. A folksinger friend suggested he try living like the old-time troubadours practicing his art on the road and staying with strangers.
Mott, a quiet and soft-spoken man, took the idea as a challenge.
“I mainly did it because it was a good idea,” he said, “one I decided I should follow through on while I could.”
He placed ads in The Nation, a national political magazine, offering a free painting in return for food and lodging, He also posted information about the “Itinerant Artist Project” on the Web to attract supporters. Mott wasn't worried about the potential dangers of such a mission; part of the challenge was to put, his trust, in other people.
“I did it to create a connection with people and to get a sense of interaction and interdependence, rather than independence," said Mott, who lives in Rochester, N.Y.
Through word of mouth and e-mail, he received enough invitations to plot a cross-country route last spring. After withdrawing some money from savings, he hopped in his ‘92 Honda Civic and headed south, stopping for a couple of days at a time to paint. His only expense was gas.
Nearly 100 of Mott's small-scale paintings a selection from his first trip and a follow up tour through New England are on view, through Feb. 17 at Kimball Union Academy's Taylor Art Gallery, in Meriden. He spent the past two weeks as an artist-in-residence at the school before returning to New York.
“I saw the first trip, especially, as having a spiritual-quest dimension, too a journey of trust and renewal and that sort of thing,” said Mott, who has a degree in religion and visual studies from Dartmouth, a master's in fine art from the University of Michigan, and a more recent bachelor's degree in environmental science from State University of New York, in Brockport.
In reality, though, the journey was grueling, filled with days of up to 14 hours of driving and. nights spent in strangers’ houses. Altogether he stayed in 35 different homes, from a beach-front condo and high rise penthouse on the Pacific coast to more modest buildings in the middle of cornfields and along the Interstate.
“It was demanding adjusting to a new house and a new household, two or three times in a week, trying to fit in,” he said. "I tend to be reclusive, so it was a change. Usually the first 24 hours
were a little uncomfortable.”
Most of the hosts were “welcoming and kind, as well as very interesting,” he said, but a few used his visit as an opportunity to promote their political or religious views; others wanted to tell him what and where to paint. “There were some eccentric people, but not threatening,” Mott said. "I was only really worried about the driving, actually.”
The stress had a positive effect on his work, Mott made about 200 paintings in three months - more than he used to complete in two or three years.
“Once the trip was in motion, painting was how I got by,” he said. “It was uncomfortable enough being in new places, and painting gave me a way of belonging. Creativity is sometimes a necessary response to unfamiliar situations. Plus I felt I had to prove myself at every stop. My hosts expected me to paint, and it was exciting to see art as a sort of homemade currency. I spent less time thinking and more time just working.”
The oil paintings from his travels are small, showing scenes of country roads at dusk, palm trees in Tucson, the ocean near Monterey, and skyscrapers in SanFrancisco. He painted mountains in Colorado and a farmhouse under open skies in Kansas, pastel mornings and blazing sunsets, deep blue nights and overcast afternoons glimpses of the country's ever-changing beauty on 6-by-8 inch panels.
Julie Haskell, director of the Taylor Gallery and a visual arts teacher at Kimball Union Academy, heard about Mott from a friend. She was intrigued by the project and impressed with his work. In his paintings, there's, “a combination of sense of space, and a wonderful sense of light and dark,” she said. "Everything breaks down into abstract dabs of paint, but there is a recognizable atmosphere when you pull back, both a natural depiction and an abstract quality.”
Mott felt that duality on his tour: “Suddenly, unexpectedly, sometimes on a highway in the middle of nowhere, I’d be feeling at home in the deepest way,” he said, “I’d be 5,000 or 6,000 miles into the trip and somehow felt like I belonged.”
After logging over three months and 10,000 miles on the road, he has made his way back to New England, exhausted but fulfilled. This spring, he plans to set out on another shorter tour. “I don't think I’ll go on any more big ones,” he said. “I'm not a natural vagabond, but it's a fun way to work, and I'm a lot more productive when I’m on the road.”