Ani DiFranco interviews painter Jim Mott about his travels, his ongoing Itinerant Artist Project, and his upcoming Great Lakes Tour. For more information about the project, visit Mott’s website, www.jimmott.com.
JIM: The IAP arose out of my dissatisfaction with the marginal place of fine art in our culture. I wanted to experience something different – for myself and for art. I grew up in a home where art was valued, as were civic spirit and community service. Art-making was considered a potentially important contribution to the community.
By contrast, after grad school, my life as an artist felt too disconnected from other people’s everyday lives, and the gallery system didn’t really help; it felt too exclusive and inaccessible. I liked that some people were willing to pay for my paintings – I still do! But that wasn’t enough. And something about turning art into a commodity, buying and selling it, distorted what I thought art was all about, anyway: the exploration and sharing of meaning.
I had a lot of complaints about the relationship between art and society, and about the artworld itself. Maybe at the heart of it all was the weakening sense of community in today’s world. Art didn’t make a lot of sense to me without something like a community to work for. People sometimes leave home and take to the road to escape the influence of community; I guess I went on the road to find it.
ANI: Maybe more Woodie Guthrie then Jack Kerouac. Were you thinking of other people who had done this sort of thing?
JIM: This was back in the late-1990s. There were a few key influences that came together at that time to make me think that I could do something more productive than complaining. You were actually the first of these. I remember a conversation I had with you and Scot (manager for Righteous Babe Records) where you said if you don’t like the way things are, make something different happen. That wasn’t necessarily directed toward me, but it struck home. I’d just started on a different career track and was considering a return to painting. You joked that if I was going back into art I’d have to learn to live with other people. I wasn’t sure what you meant – probably that I could expect to be poor and would need housing – but at some level I equated it with your touring life as a folksinger: How might a painter be more like a folksinger, more connected to the people I paint for?
Around that time I heard a lecture by the art critic Donald Kuspit. He said the most important creative task facing the artist today is the creation of an audience. In the same lecture he mentioned that a lot of people involved in creative work don’t live creatively. Those were good challenges to grapple with. I’d never thought of life as a medium to work with.
Then a friend lent me Lewis Hyde’s book, the Gift, which draws on traditional cultures, folk stories, myth and poetry to make a case for the importance of gifts, the realm of gift, and gift economies – as opposed to the market economy – in the life of the community and the imagination. Hyde specifically addresses the artist’s dilemma: art is a gift that should flow freely, but to survive in a market economy we have to turn it into a commodity. The Gift helped me to see clearly the values, the dimensions of life, that commercial compromises tended to exclude – and that I wanted to stand up for somehow rather than surrender.
Together these influences got me thinking that maybe I could be a traveling artist and operate within a little micro-culture, where art could support me while functioning as a gift. It took me 3 or 4 years to actually get up the nerve to hit the road. I never wanted to travel. I get pretty anxious about going out on the road. And painting. And just about everything, actually. Touring can be kind of rough…
ANI: Yeah, yeah, it can be rough for an artist, especially a painter – you’re used to being so solitary. The social energy you expend to be interactive almost exceeds the creative energy you get to put into your work.
JIM: It’s also good input, though.
ANI: Definitely. It feeds soul more than it sucks energy. But that was something I thought about when I was considering the various kinds of art I might pursue – some seemed so exclusive, solitary and disconnected, some so connected and integral to what’s going on. That’s one reason I chose music. I think that’s similar to the feeling you had and have of wanting to be connected and relevant in this society.
JIM: Yes, but I wanted to do it with painting, because it’s what I do best. And there’s a lot of value in it, even if it’s not a mainstream medium these days.