Jim’s most excellent adventure

 

Chicken on Porch, Ojai

Chicken on Porch, Ojai

 

Jim Mott recently came by to tell me about his latest itinerant artist project (IAP) tour, a drive across the country and back, which took nearly three months. This was his 16th painting tour. Since launching the IAP in 2000 with a trip of similar length, this was also his most ambitious and organized sortie into impromptu bed-and-breakfast land, where he exchanges room and board for a painting, or paintings, with people who have agreed beforehand to host him. When he got to my place, I took him up to see my new space for painting, and he spotted a couple books on my end table. a recent book of essays by Marilynne Robinson and an earlier book on semiotics by Umberto Eco. When he asked about the books, he discovered that he had to wait patiently for me to unload about the contrast between post-modernism and my more Platonic view of things, which is always in the back of my mind when it comes to painting. (I’m starting with my rambling remarks because it’s typical of our usual conversations.) And then I’m transcribing quite a lot of what followed, with some of his encounters, starting near Cleveland and ending on the Pacific coast, because it’s probably the most detailed description I’ve gotten from Jim on how these itinerant projects work.

Dave: How much does post modernism, or Umberto Eco’s semiotics, allow for an absolute at the basis of things? It doesn’t seem to, or else it’s inexpressible. It’s possible that what’s absolute can’t be communicated, that’s all. It’s like a court of law. One thing happened. But you have a dozen different views on what exactly it was, and yet that doesn’t mean a dozen different things happened. It’s just that you can’t be certain about what’s true. It isn’t about lack of truth. In other contexts, it’s a question of how you know how it applies to everyday life. With morality, you know what’s wrong or right, in most cases, don’t you? You don’t steal. Period. But knowing what’s good in terms of outcomes is the hard part: how will this affect everyone involved? If my family is starving and I steal a loaf of bread, the stealing is wrong, but it’s the right thing to do, isn’t it? So where’s the absolute in all this? It’s there is my opinion, hard to grasp or not.

Jim: In the area of aesthetics, it gets especially tricky.

D: I did a post from Tolstoy. It was from “What is Art?” I discovered it in the back of a row of books when I moved my studio upstairs. It’s about what we’ve talked about before: so much of modernism and contemporary art is wonderful. My favorite painters are mostly modernists or they come later. Yet Tolstoy lived through the start of modernism, and he just says, art has become more and more an elitist activity. And more relativistic. He wrote this at the end of his life. He was saying it becomes more an exclusive activity that cuts itself off from the life of common people. He dismissed Shakespeare because, I think, no peasant would sit through Shakespeare. A lot of people think he became a crank toward the end. His whole thinking about art grew out of this, I think. When you read it you think it’s absolutely true. You look at so much of what goes on now. It makes me wonder how much of my response is simply that I’ve learned to like it because of its stature in the culture. The further you go into contemporary art, the less it calls for an emotional response, and you have to come up with reasons for why it’s good.

Jim: My own sense of art and what inspires me is heavily informed by the abstract expressionists, and several more contemporary artists. For me, the proportion of art that seems essential goes down in recent years, but there are good people who do love it.

D: Right. But he says there needs to be a dimension to it that connects. Is there an immediate, or universal, response to the work? You couldn’t show it to people from various classes and have them all get something out of it. It’s like what I think Hemingway was trying to do with his prose. To write in such a way that anyone who could read the language would feel the impact of the story. It’s a paradox.

Jim: Maybe the honest stance is to embrace the paradox. The truth tends to be paradoxical.

D: Absolutely right. But when you read Tolstoy you say this is true. So what do I make of my love for what he would hate? I guess that’s the paradox.

Jim: Then the people like the NEA crowd are totally on the other side.

D: Exactly.

Jim: Say you like Einstein’s theories, but most people wouldn’t understand them.

D: But this is different. This is art. Not science. There is a lot of parallel between art and science but they are two different activities. People are meant to respond to art and the further you get from an immediate response the further you get from what art is, don’t you? Science either works or it doesn’t.

Jim: What if the common person generally likes, for example, Thomas Kinkade?

D: Well, Tolstoy might have endorsed that. That’s the problem. He loved Uncle Tom’s Cabin. That’s the paradox from the other direction. But would he really?

Jim: You read that New Yorker piece by Gopnik about figure drawing?

D: Yes, excellent.

(Jim starts to show me the paintings from his trip, literally producing a small stack of them and putting them on the kitchen table. He works on thin board, and the scale of his paintings is always very small during these itinerant projects – his standard panel is about 6” x 9”. He can carry them around in a bag.)

Jim: My first stop was this lighthouse on Lake Erie, east of Cleveland.

D: You were up in the lighthouse?

Jim: I stayed in the lighthouse. The second day a gale blew in, and the view out the window was just big waves. From Lake Erie the next stop was Urbana.

D: Where I went to grad school. My apartment was in Urbana.

(He showed me a painting of a lush, leafy street with streetlights I still recognized from my walks to the English department from my one-bedroom apartment.)

Jim: I stayed with Theo Gray the mad scientist, who lives in Urbana. He wrote a popular book on the elements with photos for every element. He’s made a poster of the periodic table – my hosts at the next stop didn’t know him but they have his poster on their wall. I was trying to explain where I’d been and what Theo does, and we walked right by it.

D: That’s kind of amazing.

Jim: He earned a lot from his early work with Mathematica Software, so now he more or less does what he likes. His hobby is collecting elements, samples.

D: Pure elements.

Jim: Or like an old watch with a luminous radon face. A friend had sent him a pure block of tungsten cut to fit a $5 flat-rate postal box. It weighed fifty pounds. He’s a character. He was one of my favorite hosts on my first tour; it was fun to go back 15 years after my first stay with him.

D: Why mad scientist?

Jim: He’s written a book called “Mad Science” about experiments you can do with your kids. His wife is an accomplished animated film-maker. She’s working on something called Seder-Masochism. She’s Jewish, so…

D: That’s funny.

Jim: There’s a song from Andy Williams, I think, that’s called “This Land is Mine” or something. “God made this land for me.” It’s sort of an Israeli nationalist anthem. She has a series of animated figures representing different people who may have claimed Israel at some point, Egyptians, Israelites and so on. Somebody singing and an Arab comes in and lops his head off and picks up the song, and then someone kills him. And so on. You end up with a pile of bodies. God made this land for me, buddy.

We talked about why so much public art is awful. And how a lot of the high-priced art these days is just currency for the super rich. The government doesn’t issue million-dollar bills, so we have Koons and so on to fill the currency void. You establish these big names, and everyone just agrees that value won’t go down. From Urbana I went to St. Louis and stayed with a couple who work at a pretty high level with the Enterprise Car Rental firm. Lisa is an education advocate, too. She did most of the hosting; her husband had a business trip…

D: I lived in East St. Louis, fourth grade, fifth grade.

(My contribution is now reduced to: “Hey! I lived there!” I was unable to keep this up, though I failed to mention at the start that I lived in Cleveland for nearly a year, too. Three for three, right off the bat.)

Jim: Lisa was really tuned into the project. Very supportive.

D:   How did you find these people?

Jim: Friends of a friend of a friend. She reminded me of the goddess in Joseph Campbell’s stages of the hero’s journey. Very nurturing and helpful at a crucial time in the trip. She knows how the corporate art world works, and we were talking about maybe doing an IAP city tour there. While I was in St. Louis I went to Ferguson. (He showed me several paintings from that town, all excellent.) That’s the shop where Michael Brown had come from. This one is where he got shot, actually. This is the store. I walked into it to buy a Snapple. There were teenage black guys giving me the stare.

D: Hey, what’s this exceptionally white dude doing . .

Jim: Right. The only person I connected with there was this four year old guy.

D: Guy? A four-year-old guy?

Jim: Boy. I walked out of the store feeling really out of place, and this little boy sitting in the back of a car said “Hey!” He was nice. We talked a little, and then I talked with his mother, who had been a friend of Mike Brown.

I was aware of being a tourist. I went to this neighborhood. It was a lot like the residential geography in a part of Tucson I’d painted. There, it was a white working class neighborhood that was probably Republican. But here in Ferguson it was just the opposite. Yet the neighborhoods looked the same. Hard-working, outwardly conservative-looking. I finished four Ferguson paintings and two more-scenic takes on St. Louis. The husband came home and liked the two St. Louis ones, but he didn’t like the Ferguson ones at all. And it was a little strange for me to be working on them while staying on the other side of town, but I felt a strong pull to do that. So then Memphis.

D: Memphis was next? That’s coming back east.

Jim: Yeah, but Sonja was there. (His wife lives in Tennessee and teaches at the University of Memphis.) The editor from the Memphis Flyer, the weekly paper there, took me out on the river in exchange for a painting. That was my barter: a boat ride. I’d been wanting to see the river for years.

(He showed me a painting from his next stop.)

Jim: By this time I was already getting burned out.

D: And how long were you into the three months of the trip?

Jim: About two weeks.

D: (Laughed out loud.) Funny. I thought you were going straight to California and going up and down the coast.

Jim: That was the plan, but I was worn out by the time I got there. Do you want to see all these?

D: Yes. (His next stop was near Oklahoma City. And then on to New Mexico.)

Jim: Next was Albuquerque. There was a balloon festival but it rained. I freaked out because I got there in the dark and the neighborhood looked sketchy and I got into the house before the host. I felt really uncomfortable with where I’d landed. But when the guy showed up he was great. He organizes exhibits for MoMa. He coordinates them from this little house in a semi-rough neighborhood in Albuquerque. He’d just done a Picasso sculpture exhibit. From there I went to Zion. On the previous trip Yellowstone was the one place I really wanted to go. This time, Zion was it, but they’d had a huge rain storm before I got there so the water wasn’t that beautiful clear green. From there, Salt Lake City, a young couple, both biologists, very nice people, friends of a cousin of mine.

Before I did the trip… It was the first time I used Facebook to announce a tour. I thought I’d use Facebook to spread word about the trip and get a bunch of hosts but the weird thing was that dozens of people “liked” the announcement and shared it, but I only got two responses. And neither of them wrote to me, they just posted, “Yeah, we’d like to host him!”

D: No direct messages to you.

Jim: No. I had to hope that the person who shared it would notify me. Yet, they were very enthusiastic about hosting. My Salt Lake City hosts were great. And I like Salt Lake City. You can drive half an hour and be up in the Alpine zone with no one around.

(He showed me a scene from outside Salt Lake, beautifully lit.)

D: Amazing what a sense of space you can get on such a small surface.

Jim: Thanks, yeah, funny isn’t it? So from Salt Lake City, I went through the east entrance of Yosemite and then toward the Bay Area. I arrived completely exhausted and frazzled. Luckily I stayed with a nice person who let me crash there for a week and not do anything if I wanted to.

D: What’s the situation? You’re in a spare bedroom?

Jim: Yep. This guy got into computers early. He’s married to the founder of Mozilla. There was a group of people that formed Mozilla, but she was the legal mind that helped preserve their integrity. My host, Casey, said after they got married he and Mitchell took turns managing one start-up after another, and if it worked, it worked. They seemed to know how things work out there. When I arrived they were watching that sitcom “Silicon Valley” and laughing about the people they knew who fit the caricatures.

D: So this was a big house?

Jim: Good size. But it didn’t stand out and the neighborhood looked modest. Just another house on the hill.

D: In that location, the price would be two million dollars no doubt.

Jim: They had a view of the Bay. The neat thing about them, he took me for hikes and was just a friendly, benevolent presence. He can do what he wants, I guess. The wife, Mitchell, was mostly away at a conference but came back for the last day or two. They had this German friend, Katharina, who used to run Der Spiegel Online, and she said she had done an itinerant journalist project. She’d say “Anyone who gives me a dinner and a bubble bath I’ll write about.”

D: Same thing, but I like your idea better, for the record. Just sayin’.

Jim: Well, Katharina has amazing charisma. She loves art too. She was grounded in a culture where fine art is an integral part of things. Mitchell, the founder… One of my reasons to go to California was to look for patronage. I thought maybe the superrich would want to support an artist, just like the old days. So we talked about that. Mitchell said, “No, Silicon Valley doesn’t like art. There’s no wisdom here. There’s no intellectualism here. It’s all just geared toward what a 20-something guy would want.”

D: If people in their 20s and 30s aren’t into it, it wouldn’t be a part of Silicon Valley.

Jim: I thought they might like it as a contrast. I want someone who has money and likes art and sees past the art world art, the trends. (He handed me another painting.) That’s the night view. Day Three there I could barely get through this, I was so worn out.

D: What did you listen to while you drove?

Jim: I had books on tape. The Reformation. A book about an art forger. Al Gore’s Assault on Reason. He’s really smart. He was saying that in debate it used to be that – it was never ideal, but there was a basic sense you agreed on the truth and differed in interpretations of what the proper response was to it. We are so subject to irrationality and demagoguery. The primacy of the image. We aren’t as word-based as we used to be. And everything is corporate.

D: True, but since when does anyone behave in a rational way? It’s what I find so funny about people like Dawkins and Paul Bloom. If you had a world run on rationality it would be great, sure. If people were reasonable. But is that remotely possible with human beings? The question is whether you can sit back and not react to provocation – it isn’t about reason, it’s all about emotion. If you teach people to read Voltaire it’s not going to help with the attack of road rage, is it? Smarter, more subtle, yes, but . . . What has an effect on the world is being able to quit reacting. To disconnect from responses. That’s what allows you to be reasonable. You don’t get that from logic. Being reasonable doesn’t mean you’ll do the right thing.

(Jim always patiently listens to my friendly rants then returns to his tale. I talk like someone who’s been living on a desert island for a year. Rick Harrington would play this role when we got together, before he moved to Oregon, talking non-stop for twenty minutes over coffee after a month working alone in his studio.)

So, there’s another book I was reading on Luther. I’m enjoying it.

(We talked about Luther a bit, who was an interesting figure, more like a Zen monk than an organized theologist, in the way he made his way toward his role in history.)

D: Interesting fact I dug up recently, Islamic scholars preserved Aristotle. Aquinas couldn’t have done what he did without the Islamic preservation of Greek philosophy.

(I skipped over some material on Luther and what I learned recently about him, which was fascinating but probably not so much here, so the comment above makes me laugh in retrospect, it sounds so random, but it made more sense at the time. I realized recently I’m on a sort of pro-Islam kick as a hobby, just to be difficult and annoying with some of my friends. )

Jim: Back to the trip, I made a strategic mistake, though. I was grateful they let me stay there for a week. I gave them their choice of the seven paintings I’d ended up doing there. They liked two of them. Either this one or the other. They chose, and I said, “Well you could have this other one too.” Then I thought, why did I just do that? Sometimes my host buys a second painting, and income can be really useful.

(He shows me another painting.)

D: I like these houses and the way it gives you these geometric areas, the contrast between the organic and the geometric in the light on the houses. It’s good.

Jim: That’s the second one I’m giving them. I want to keep it. But it’s theirs now.

D: Yeah, well, make another one.

(He sometimes leaves the painting with the host but brings most of the host paintings home to document before mailing back, which he was doing with this one.)

Jim: From there I went to Santa Cruz and stayed for two days. Another lighthouse. Turned out to be where the couple I stayed with got engaged. Then Burlingame. This was a friend of mine, my best high school friend, who is now on the board of directors for Sony. It’s painful to reflect on the contrast between where we’ve both ended up. He drives a Tesla.

D: Jeez. You should write about that. The class difference between you and these people.

Jim: I can move in and out of different situations.

D: Oh, I know. I don’t mean that. Educationally you’re in the same caste, but not economically. You and I are in the average or below average income level. Yet we’re fairly educated. You’re coming from the educated class, so you’re upper class in that sense, but in reality it’s like the artisan and the wealthy patron. It’s a classic situation. The people who host you are patrons, but not in terms of a stipend. It’s a traditional economic arrangement, except there isn’t any money in it, just necessities.

(Jim’s whole project has been designed to take money completely out of the art-making process. It’s a gift economy in miniature: a gift of a painting for a gift of hospitality.)

Jim: Unfortunately, yes. Next I went to Ojai.

D: Krishnamurti gave most of his lectures there.

Jim: Yes, his institute was there. The place I stayed was right next door. I always feel kind of sorry for him. My understanding is that some English aristocrats thought they had to find the next spiritual leader. They saw this poor Indian kid and bought him, more or less. They brought him back to England. He had no choice.

D: The William Butler Yeats crew. He rejected everything they wanted him to do. He rejected all organized religion, politics, social policy, you name it.

Jim: Well, they indoctrinated him.

D: They tried. But he left it behind.

Jim: When I’ve seen or heard recordings of him there’s this air of “Oh well, here I go again.”

D: Well his talks are all the same. Can’t blame him. He had one thing to say pretty much. They’re almost without content. When you read enough of him, you realize, here he goes saying this again. He’s not really giving information, or even ideas, he’s trying to get you to pay attention continuously to your own mind and what it’s doing. That’s all. Painting for me connects with that. Being aware of seeing and everything it conveys without ulterior motives: just impartial awareness.

Jim: The Ojai story is one of the more interesting ones. The idea of California was to find a network with influential people who could support me. One of the people who responded to my cousin’s Facebook post was Amelia Fleetwood, the daughter of Mick Fleetwood.

D: Wow.

Jim: Yeah. I have to admit I was excited. I wanted this to work. I sort of felt embarrassed for myself that I cared about making it work. My Sony friend said one thing he can’t stand about California culture is that there are so many people who just want to meet somebody famous.

D: Not just in that culture.

Jim: It turned out I was heading Amelia’s way earlier than she wanted to have me. She’s a freelance writer and had an assignment. She put me in touch with a neighbor. So I got to Ojai planning to stay with Anna for a few days, then Amelia later. Anna’s place was really neat. A guest building and farm animals, ducks and chickens ranging freely. We were going to have dinner with Amelia the first night.

D: How old is she?

Jim: Mid-thirties, maybe late. She looked younger. I sensed right away . . .

D: Tell me the story, you were going to have dinner with her?

Jim: I spent the first day with Anna, walking and sketching. I had a nice time hiking on the Krishnamurti estate. Then dinner with Amelia at a restaurant. But Amelia wasn’t tuning into my project at all. She was talking about other stuff and started mentioning that her place didn’t really have a good guest spot. She wasn’t trying to shut me out, but I kind of decided it would be better not to stay with her. Amelia was interesting, though. She found out I was a bird watcher. She was texting during dinner and suddenly said, “My friend Matt, he’s a contractor, and he’s going to go bird-watching with you at 8 in the morning.” She’s a super-connector.

D: That might turn out. She may have paid more attention than you think.

Jim: I called Matt and asked if he knew where I could see a white-headed woodpecker – that’s a bird I really wanted to see in California. He said, no, but I know a super birder around here who would know. This other birder gave me directions to a spot 30 miles away, up a mountain road.

I ended up staying in Ojai just three days. Amelia and I agreed I wouldn’t stay with her, but we would have tea at her house, and I would do a little painting for her then. She gave me toast with marmalade and Irish butter. While she was talking about her boyfriend and making my toast, I just did this tiny painting of the view through her window. I showed her some of the paintings I’d done at Anna’s, but the little one I did in fifteen minutes blew her away. Here’s the thing. She’d originally planned to take me to a psychic in exchange for a painting, which sounded fun, but she had to get going on a story for some magazine. I said, why don’t you write about my project? But no, she was more interested in writing about how she was doing something with Beyonce. I found the white-headed woodpecker though. That was the high point of my trip.

D: For somebody to say, “turn here, turn there, and in two hours you’ll see this woodpecker,” that’s amazing. He knew the woodpecker would be there?

Jim: I found it. There were probably two of them.

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