Traveling artist makes connections with people and places

ADDISON COUNTY — He only needs a room, a few decent meals, a table to work on and access to the outdoors. In exchange, Jim Mott promises a painting and pleasant company.
“It’s just art for hospitality around the USA,” he says of the Itinerant Artist Project, his 16-year-old mission to spread the gift of art to strangers across the country.
Since 2000, Mott has spent one month each year touring different parts of the country, and staying with hosts in exchange for a six-by-nine-inch painting.
Over the course of the project he has finished 700 six-by-nine-inch images — each the product of one to three hours — and given away 150. Those that he doesn’t gift, he saves as part of a collection for exhibits about the project in colleges, small museums, and non-commercial venues.
At the beginning of August, Mott completed a four-day trip to Addison County, hosted by Rebecca Purdum and her husband, Thomas Moran, in Ripton.
Mott spent his days painting their lush gardens and landscape, looking for watering holes and lakes to jump in and exchanging ideas about art with Purdum, an accomplished artist herself.
“I loved it,” he said. “I love swimming holes, and there are plenty here. The rolling low mountains, trees and the meadow plants are all familiar from childhood. I happen to be in a very quiet place right now with these beautiful gardens. It’s all a treat.”
While this was Mott’s first tour in Addison County, more than half of his homestays have been in New England.
“It involves enough travel that it feels like a real journey,” he said. “But it’s familiar enough and intimate enough that it provides a good focus. There’s something unified about New England.”
Mott, who grew up outside of Boston and now lives in Rochester, N.Y., chooses his tours based on who offers to host him. Most hosts reach out after encountering his work through various outlets, and almost all are complete strangers.
“The challenge of staying with strangers and developing a rapport with them, in their place, it’s very stimulating,” he said.
The trip to Addison County was unique because Mott already knew Purdum’s art, and vaguely knew her. The two were first acquainted in the late 1980s, although neither remembers very well. Thirty years later, they reconnected and Purdum invited Mott to Vermont.
Although Mott tries to avoid staying with other artists, Purdum was an exception he was happy to make after years of admiring her abstract painting. The two were able to spend time both discussing and making art.
“Art is a lifelong process,” said Purdum. “It’s important to cultivate that in the studio and do your work, and I think that’s something that Jim and I share. In Jim’s work, the art of seeing, observation, and being in that moment is similar to my own being in my painting while I’m working. And I think it’s almost miraculous to be in that state.”
For Mott, the project is multifaceted. Traveling, connecting with strangers and sharing art are all part of the mission of the Itinerant Artist Project; each inspired by something different.
Mott was initially motivated by “The Gift,” a book by Lewis Hyde that defends the value of art and creativity, and explores the possibility of gift exchanges and a gift economy.
“Art is not meant to be part of a market economy,” Mott said. “You can be rich or poor, as long as you give me a few meals, I’ll give you a painting. It becomes a more pure way of sharing art.”
As the project developed, Mott was drawn to the literature of travelers, including Homer’s “The Odyssey” and the Bible.
“You hear about these wanderings. People who throw themselves into these journeys of trust,” he said. “You go, and just see how you get tossed around in the world.”
And then, raised by parents and grandparents who were ardent social activists, Mott tapped into his own social awareness and uses the project to engage in discussions about the state of American culture. Motivated in this direction by Christopher Lash’s “The Culture of Narcissism,” Mott is determined to defy contemporary cultural norms.
“I’m trying to embody and play out some of the values that I see being left by the wayside, but that I think are important,” he said. “Meeting people face-to-face and connecting with these people and the environment through substantive acts. It’s anti-social media.”
While inspired, the project does boil down for Mott.
“The project lets me present art, and experience it, as no more and no less than an integral part of everyday life,” he said. “It’s a way of sharing a deeper sense of connection with our surroundings and with each other.”
For more information or to find out how to be a host for the Itinerant Artist Project, please visit www.jimmott.com.

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