ART AND CRAFT
Who would be the most unlikely artist you have ever seen? Directors Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, and Mark Becker, present such a person in their documentary, Art and Craft. It’s about Mark Landis, a brilliant artist who for decades copied major art works and donated them, mostly to museums. In the film, we see him first as a bald, bent over older man dressed casually in a cotton shirt not tucked in. The surprise is not only in his art productions and what he has done with them, but his mental sharpness, forthrightness, and endearing qualities as well.
He resembles very much some of the people I saw in therapy when I was practicing—honest and genuine in their own way—but Landis is sharp as a tack and quick on the uptake and response, while still being thoroughly engaging. He had a mental breakdown when he was 17, and was treated at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka for two years. While there, his artistic talent was reinforced (he had been copying works of art from an early age), and he subsequently enrolled in art schools, although he ended up dropping out. After his father died, when he was living with his mother, he made his first donation of forgery to a museum. After showing the letter of appreciation he received for it to his mother, she seemed impressed, which encouraged him to do more. Thereafter, he donated frequently to municipal museums, nonprofits, and university museums, sometimes dressing as a priest to bolster his credibility. He donated to 46 museums in 20 states over about 30 years.
Finally, in 2008, museum registrar Matt Leininger realized what Landis was doing and doggedly pursued the issue, even at the cost of his job as a museum employee. Leininger had discovered that a host of museums across the country accepted his works without adequately checking them out. Landis had even sent the same copies to multiple museums. Leininger informed museums and the FBI of Landis’ activities, but since he had not done anything illegal, they did not file charges. John Gapper of the Financial Times tried to contact him when he heard about it, but Mark did not read his e-mails or answer the door when he and organizations like 60 Minutes and the New York Times came calling. He said he thought they were after him to subscribe to their publications.
Mark Landis was present at the Art and Craft screening sponsored by the Houston Cinema Arts Society Film Festival on November 13, 2014, and he and one of the directors, Jennifer Grausman, answered questions afterwards. Mark is entirely open about his life and has a mischievous sense of humor. He brought out chuckles from the audience multiple times. When asked what his reaction was to Art and Craft the first time he saw it, he stated that “I missed a lot visually because I was hanging my head in shame”, but he also spoke positively about the filming experience and his life, saying “This was Mark’s Big Adventure.”
Among the diagnoses attached to Landis during his hospitalizations was schizophrenia, and he does have an odd way of saying things at times, such as when asked what copy he made is his favorite, he said, “I’ve never been asked that; I’ll have to practice on it.” He likes to quote sayings (I don’t know if they are original or not), such as “[An expert] is someone who knows a lot about something, and sometimes gets it right.” And “Nothing is original under the sun; everything goes back to something.” When asked over and over why he does not make his own original art, he says, “Copying pictures is my gift.” He does not regard his original works as particularly good.
Having seen the film and listened to him in person, I applaud his craftiness and generosity of spirit.
By Donna R. Copeland