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Landscape painter Jim Mott took a 10,000-mile road trip for art


Jim Mott traveled the country last year exchanging painting for room and board.

By Jim Memmott
Democrat and Chronicle

(February 18, 2001) -- Given his aversion to travel, landscape artist Jim Mott's decision to crisscross the country by car last year might have seemed odd.

Then, too, his plan to stay with complete strangers, exchanging paintings for room and board, might have seemed masochistic, given his self-described tendency to be withdrawn.

But the 2 1/2-month, 10,000-mile trial by hospitality worked.

''I accomplished something personally and artistically,'' says Mott, 40, of Pittsford, who called his journey the Itinerant Artist Project. ''And it really was a privilege to go into people's lives.''

The fruits of Mott's road trip -- 140 paintings from the summer and another 45 from a shorter New England tour -- have been culled for the first of what he hopes are several exhibitions.

The paintings were on display until yesterday at Kimball Union Academy's Taylor Galley in Meriden, N.H.

'A soulful guy'

A graduate of Pittsford Sutherland High School, Dartmouth College and the University of Michigan, Mott has specialized in oil paintings of scenes from this area.

His landscapes -- some of Mendon Ponds, still others of surburban homes at night -- cast a new, and sometimes lonely, light on familiar views.

Susan Dodge Peters, the McPherson Director of Education at the Memorial Art Gallery and a fan of his work, says Mott's oils continually surprise. ''From a distance, you're certain you're looking at a photograph,'' she says. ''But then up close you feel a depth of surprise when you realize it's painted.''

Jeff Ureles of Gallery Picture Framing and the Gallery Upstairs in Brighton finds Mott's work, especially his small pieces, ''extremely evocative.''

''He's a soulful, philosophic guy, and the works carry a lot of that with them,'' says Ureles, who frames Mott's pictures.

Given his philosophic nature, it's no surprise that Mott describes his motives for the Itinerant Artist Project as ''complex.''

He had come to believe that people were becoming separated from the reality of art, especially because they could view it on the Internet without even going to a museum or gallery.

Separated from art, they were also separated from artists. Mott thought his trip would be one way of bringing art to people, to give them a chance to see an artist at work.

For his own sake, Mott decided that going into people's homes would give him a better sense of his audience and relieve him of the artist's burden of working in isolation.

Art for food

Motives aside, Mott had some practical concerns.

Painting has not made him rich. Indeed, Mott, who is single, cuts expenses during the year by house-sitting. He knew he couldn't afford to travel if he had to pay for his lodging and his meals.

Consequently, Mott placed an advertisement in The Nation magazine, looking for hosts. He promised to give them a painting done on the scene in exchange for lodging and food.

He also contacted family and friends throughout the country, making the same promise. In the end, about half of his hosts were strangers. (It was a fair trade, as the paintings would draw at least $400 on the open market.)

The barter system worked, says Mott. Outside of his gas costs ($500), he had almost no expenses.

Mott left on March 31 of last year, traveling in a maroon 1991 Honda Civic purchased for the trip.

He headed south, the first stop a social stay with friends in Washington, D.C.

The first real Itinerant Artist stop came next, when he stayed with sporting artist C.D. ''Chris'' Clarke, who was a year ahead of Mott at Pittsford Sutherland and now lives on an island in the salt marshes of Chesapeake Bay.

From there, Mott set out through North Carolina and Arkansas and on to Arizona. He went to California and then back through New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas and Michigan. In all, Mott made 31 stops in 17 states.

Settling in

Mott's routine was to stay two or three days in each place, long enough to do four or five paintings.

''The first day was always hard because of adjusting,'' Mott says. ''The people would seem very strange at first, but I always find change difficult. Then by the second or third day, I was comfortable, and I would really be sad to leave. I felt like part of the family.''

Colette Novich of Chicago describes hosting Mott, whom she had not known, as ''wonderful.''

Mott painted a landscape of the alley behind her house, as well as a picture of her front door. He was very much the good guest, says Novich, who had no stories of paint drippings on the floor or unmade beds.

Having come to know Mott's gentle personality, Novich finds herself especially impressed that he could go into strangers' homes.

''Given his shyness, it was a huge leap of faith for him to have done this,'' she says.

Sometimes Mott's choice of landscapes would baffle his hosts, such as the software programmer in Illinois who couldn't understand why Mott was drawn to the seemingly ordinary.

''I was excited to be in a place where it was flat, uneventful,'' Mott says. ''I could focus on the land, the sky. It drove him crazy. He didn't know what I was doing. He kept driving me off to where there were hills.''

'Out of the park'

Ureles is impressed that Mott's journey yielded so much superior work.

''He could go out consistently and actually hit the big one out of the park,'' Ureles says.

By the end of his time on the road, Mott was exhausted, ready to stop traveling. ''But when I got back to Rochester, it was awful at first,'' Mott says. ''It was back to the same old routine of working in isolation.''

Mott did hit the road again in November, doing a 2 1/2-week Itinerant Artist Project tour in New England. He may do a shorter regional tour or two this year, but he says he has no plans for another marathon tour.

''You have to remember, I really don't like to travel.''

For more on Jim Mott and the Itinerant Artist Project, go to:


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Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.