Modeling himself after Odysseus, landscape artist Jim Mott has set out on the Great American Road Trip. He has boldly declared that his journey will be virtually free of monetary exchanges, and he will depend only on his wits and his paintbrush to weather his journey's vicissitudes. He has taken it upon himself to redefine the nature of art, travel, money, and hospitality in an age increasingly defined by individual insularity.
The only thing is, Jim Mott is terrified of what he's doing.
"I don't like travel," the Rochester, N.Y.-based artist confesses. "I'm scared of adventure."
But that's the whole point, he concedes. "I'm at the mercy of all these things I can't control. It stimulates a lot of creativity, a lot of productivity. It makes me rise to the occasion."
Mr. Mott is on the second cross-country tour of what he refers to as the Itinerant Artist Project, in which he embarks on a road trip and offers a small oil painting in exchange for two to four days of room, board, and friendly conversation. On his first tour, in 2000, Mott says he traveled nearly 10,000 miles through 23 states over the course of two months. Since then, he has made several smaller journeys, through western New York, New England, Maryland, and Arizona. He chooses his hosts beforehand, making contact through word-of-mouth, e-mail chain letters, entreaties on his website, and a classified ad he places in The Nation magazine. He now has created over 300 paintings during his travels.
"It's like a productivity machine," he says, explaining that he'll create more paintings in one to two months on the road than he'll do in a year or two at home.
On Sept. 18, Mott flew to Seattle and picked up a '98 Chevy Prizm he bought for $3,800 over the Internet. He's now driving the car along a northern route, eventually to end up back in New York around Halloween.He spent his first nights at an artist's house in Issaquah, Wash., where he traded a 6-by-9-inch oil painting for room and board. Further down the road, in Sandpoint, Idaho, Mott upped the ante on a host's guess of the number of paintings he could complete during his stay.
"I said I could do five," Mott recalls. "He said, 'No way,' so I did seven."
Other than the one painting he gives as a gift to his hosts, Mott sells some of the paintings he makes, typically for $300 to $500. But mostly he prefers to keep the collection intact for a possible traveling exhibit – and, he'd really prefer not to use money on the trip, except for gas.
"I'm sort of pretending I'm living in a world where there isn't money," he says. "That drives my painting a little bit more."
Inspired by the book "The Gift," by Lewis Hyde, Mott has an idealistic preference for what's referred to as a "gift economy," more so than the market-driven one he – like the rest of us – are forced to inhabit. Though his paintings appear in art galleries in the Northeast, he feels the system prevents art from belonging to everyday people. He attempts to change that, by trying to stay with people who wouldn't normally frequent art galleries.
And, by not purchasing anything along the way, he also hopes to change his own role as artist.
"The need to paint to survive is very real then," he says.
Case in point: Yellowstone National Park. It was cold, rainy, and snowy when Mott arrived early this month; camping was not an option for him. His mind filled with doubts, he knew he had only one recourse: to trade a painting for a room in one of the park hotels. The manager was sympathetic – and an art lover. So Mott made it through one more day.
Next stop, Bozeman, Mont. Mott sits on a wall in front of a suburban house painting a scene that includes a tract house under construction in a nearby field.
As Mott paints, he talks about his background. He studied art at Dartmouth College and the University of Michigan. He finds painting a challenge, not a pleasure; he does it because it's what he does best. He tries to live as simply as possible, and likens his travels to a spiritual search. He works part time as an environmental consultant. He'd like to stay at the homes of more working-class families; most of the people he stays with are upper-middle-class. He's also staying with three artists on this trip, which makes him a bit anxious. As soon as he starts getting comfortable with the people with whom he's staying, he finds it's time to move on. His father is a doctor who was inspired by Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and devoted his life to working in underserved communities. After retiring, both his parents became full-time social justice activists – something Mott appreciates, but doesn't claim for himself.
"I'm more a contemplative than an activist," he says.
Mott describes a stop on his first road trip where he stayed in a house in an anonymous subdivision outside Las Vegas. Rather than paint scenes of nature or the strip, he painted a white plastic deck chair next to his host's pool.
"[My host] loved seeing that part of her world was turned into art," he says, explaining that one role for art is to find meaning in everyday things. "I guess people are hungry for meaning, or a sense that things matter. When I sweat over a painting and show that I care enough about something to paint it ... that affirms the value of whatever's around."
Part of what motivates Mott is his feeling that he can't practice his vocation in isolation – he needs a supportive community. But can he practice his vocation while having a vacation?
"No!" he protests. "I'm having fun, but I never worked so hard. I don't even have time to go see the dinosaur museum, which is what I was most looking forward to in Bozeman."
Mary Keefer, a reference librarian who, along with her husband, is Mott's host here, says she enjoys meeting new people and has hosted foreign students as well as artists in her home before. "I like almost everybody in the arts, whether they're musicians, or artists, or actors, or whatever," says Ms. Keefer, a painter herself.
Keefer adds that she considers Mott's payment of a painting generous, but not necessary. "In a sense, giving us that is giving of himself, which is far more valuable to me. Anytime I have people in my home, I think it's a gift to us."
Despite Mott's claims that he's terrified of adventure, Keefer sees that he thrives on it.
"It just takes him a much longer preparation," she says. Keefer's husband, Jim, a pharmacist, likens Mott to the reluctant protagonist in Anne Tyler's book "The Accidental Tourist."
Plus, Mott's insecurities seem to disappear once he settles in with his hosts. Over vegetable soup prepared by Ms. Keefer, Mott breaks out a board game he invented called Dazzle, and enthusiastically explains the rules.
"I cannot imagine my life without having done it," he says of the places he's been and the people he's met. "With it my life has a little story within a story.... I actually look forward to going home and thinking about it all."