Art of deception

How one Kentucky painter came to claim another’s work as his own

Aug 31, 2011 at 5:00 am
Art of deception

Jim Cantrell has lived the life of an artist.

He studied it — earning a bachelor’s degree in fine art and education from the University of Nebraska in 1958 and a master’s degree in painting and ceramics from Colorado State College (now Northern Colorado University) in 1965.

He taught it —14 years in Nebraska, Colorado and Kentucky.

And he’s done it — he’s painted steadily for 50 years, and since 1971, when he and his wife and business manager Jeanette relocated from Berea to Bardstown, he’s been a full-time independent studio artist, working in oils, watercolors, woodworking, sculpture and pottery.

Cantrell has enjoyed no small measure of success — more than 300 gallery exhibitions, including a 1985 solo show of oils and watercolors at the J.B. Speed Art Museum in Louisville, and a 1992 show at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.

Just recently, in connection with the 100th anniversary of Bill Monroe’s birth, he created a series of 21 paintings featuring old-timey and bluegrass musicians. On a recent Tuesday morning, before they got picked up for delivery to the Owensboro Museum of Fine Art, the paintings were spread out in the front room of the Cantrells’ home and gallery, a 2,000-square-foot Craftsman bungalow they’ve owned for the past 14 years.

Throughout his career, Cantrell has lectured widely, and his work is held by numerous museums, corporations and private collectors here and overseas.

Along the way, the couple — Jim, 75, and Jeanette, 69 — have adapted with the times and learned how to do the myriad things necessary to keep such an enterprise moving. To hedge against relying on an artist as the family’s sole breadwinner, she learned to run an art gallery and sell work by other artists.

Jim’s passion is painting the human figure, though he long ago made peace with the reality that what he’d really like to do — paint nudes — won’t pay the bills, at least not in rural Kentucky. There was a time he hated watercolors, but in the 1970s he saw his respected colleague Jim Foose selling the hell out of them while Cantrell’s oils sat. Cantrell learned to do it, developed an original style, and became known as Kentucky’s figurative watercolorist.

Jim might’ve been a star in New York, or even Berea, which is something of an arts center (Jim was a potter-in-residence at Berea College in 1969-70). But after he decided to forego teaching to make art full time, and Jeanette got over her obsession with moving to Manhattan, the pair — who both grew up in small Midwestern towns — was ready to find a place that echoed their upbringing but was close to a major metropolitan area. They discovered Bardstown, and it has proven to be a fine choice.

In all of his years of producing original art, Jim has never had another artist try to take credit for something he created. So he was shocked and appalled when he found out, earlier this year, that another painter — Louisville watercolorist Jim Mahanes — had done exactly that.

Jim Mahanes has lived the life of a therapist and teacher. After earning a political science degree from the University of Louisville, he was working as a probation officer and pursuing a master’s degree in poli-sci when he got the chance to attend U of L’s Kent School of Social Work through a work-study arrangement. He changed course, earned a master’s in behavioral science, and began a lengthy career in rehabilitation.

He taught in the University of Kentucky system until 1990, working concurrently as a therapist, including an eventual staff position with Human Development Co., which operated employee assistance programs — counseling employees with drug and alcohol issues — for several companies. Along the way, he developed a niche around organizational behavior and group dynamics. For many years, he’s taught at Webster University and been a board member of the Louisville-based Oates Institute, a self-described lifelong learning community for caregivers seeking to connect faith, health and healing.

When Mahanes was in his late 30s, someone bought him a set of watercolors and he began to paint. Though he was largely limited to weekends, he got pretty good, won some awards and began teaching others to paint. He opted toward landscapes, with an affinity for lighthouses.

When he retired from Human Development Co. three years ago, Mahanes, now 73, began to treat painting as a full-time job. He increased his output, and also his teaching efforts, working in particular with patients who have neurological maladies such as Parkinson’s disease, adult ADHD and multiple sclerosis. He sees creative arts as not merely a way to occupy time but a way to rewire brain circuitry.

He also broadened his efforts to show his work, renting space at Highlands Art Studios, a co-op that opened last year, and the Louisville Visual Artists Collective, another co-op. He recently developed a relationship with the Brown Hotel’s art gallery.

Jim Mahanes knew of Jim Cantrell, but did not know him.

Jim and Jeanette’s daughter, Vennita Cantrell, is also an artist. She studied painting and is a self-employed decorative painter who works on her own art — she’s gravitated toward assemblage — on the side.

In the spring, she visited Highlands Art Studios, where her friend, glass artist Chad Balster, had recently rented space and was participating in a group opening. Looking around, she noticed a Mahanes watercolor that reminded her of work by Foose, a well-known Kentucky painter, retired UK art professor and friend of her parents. Later, on a porch outside, she noticed a bin of Mahanes’ work, and in the very front she saw another painting that struck her as familiar — a raincoat and scarf, hanging on separate hangers on a single nail in a wall. “I looked at it and did a double take,” she says. “I thought, ‘This is weird, this painting looks so familiar, like one my dad did.’”

She wasn’t sure what to make of it — was her memory playing tricks? It was dim on the porch, and she could not quite tell whether the painting had a signature. She snapped a photo on her phone, showed it to her mother, and said, “That looks like dad’s.”

“It is,” Jeanette told her. “That’s my cape coat.”

Weeks later, while collecting donations for an Art for the Animals auction, Vennita returned to Highlands Art Studios. She asked to take a closer look at the painting, and in better light she could see the signature had been painted out. She removed the back and saw a code, in her mother’s handwriting. Jeanette Cantrell is fastidious about keeping records of her husband’s work, and she matched up the code to “Coat and Scarf,” a watercolor Jim painted in 1977. She thinks they donated it to a charity auction. They’ve scarcely thought about it since.

Jeanette contacted Highlands Art Studios and made arrangements to see the painting. Then, on a Thursday when they knew Mahanes would be at the gallery, they nervously paid him a visit.

Jim Cantrell perused Mahanes’ gallery, then asked him about his inspiration for the cape coat painting, which included a label on the lower right-hand corner of the frame announcing the work as a Mahanes original titled “Brother” and selling for $300 ($225/$125 for a print, depending on size).

Cantrell listened as Mahanes described how he’d seen his brother’s coat hanging on a nail and loved the simplicity of it, then cut him off.

“You’re full of shit,” he told him.

“You’re looking at the man who painted it,” Jeannette interjected.

Mahanes was taken aback, the Cantrells say, and offered a few implausible excuses for how he came to have someone else’s work hanging in his gallery. He gave them the painting, and the next day he called to acknowledge the deception and to apologize.

The art world, like many creative disciplines (or Wikipedia), is self-policing, and though fraud and intellectual property theft are common but difficult to prove, community reactions to perceived transgressors can be swift and brutal.

The Highlands gallery co-op promptly asked Mahanes to vacate, though it meant the individual members might absorb additional rents. Jeanette Cantrell contacted Katie Bennett, who manages the Brown Hotel art gallery, where Mahanes had just hung his first show. It was pulled — Mahanes says by mutual agreement. Bennett declined to comment.

Jeanette Cantrell went to the police, who told her they had bigger fish to fry. She called the media. WHAS-TV aired a piece, though Mahanes was not named. Bardstown’s tri-weekly newspaper, The Kentucky Standard, ran a story. The Cantrells, along with the Highlands Art Studios artists, pressured the Louisville Visual Artists Collective to disassociate from Mahanes.

A Mahanes brochure says he is working with an author on a book of lighthouses. The Cantrells contacted the author and learned that a nascent project from 13 years ago had never gotten off the ground. (Mahanes says it’s simply an outdated brochure.)

The Cantrells suspected Mahanes had misappropriated Foose’s work as well, but were unsure whether they should contact Foose, now retired and living in Atlanta. Ultimately they decided they had a duty.

“We handled Foose’s work,” Jeanette says. “I think it is my responsibility to know. He didn’t just rip off Jim Cantrell, he’s ripped off Foose. Who else has he ripped off? We couldn’t just sweep it under the rug.”

Legal experts tell LEO Weekly that Mahanes may have committed fraud.

“It certainly would be some kind of fraud on the buyer to misrepresent the authorship of the work, and making reproductions would arguably be copyright infringement,” says Louisville attorney Kyle Citrynell, of Seiller Waterman LLC.

Copyright law is tricky and nuanced, she says. Artists who don’t register with the copyright office still own their copyright but cannot sue for damages. And owners of works who register their works after the infringement can only recover any profits the infringer gained from selling reproductions; they lose the important leverage of statutory damages, as well as attorney fee and cost recovery, which is available when a work is registered prior to infringement. (The Cantrells say they typically don’t copyright Jim’s work; they don’t think the time and expense are worth the trouble.)

Under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, Citrynell says, removing signs of authorship from a work of art is actionable. Under the act, copyright registration is not required to recover statutory damages, which can be as high as $150,000 for a willful infringement of rights, plus attorney fees. The act, however, is only applicable to works created after it was enacted and that are still owned by the artist. Cantrell’s coat and scarf painting is from 1977.

In essence, the financial stakes are not great enough to justify legal action. The Cantrell-Mahanes dustup, for example, does not rise to the level of the Shepard Fairey case, in which the graphic designer Fairey was accused of misappropriating an original photograph of Barack Obama to create the iconic red and blue image that is burned into the nation’s collective brain. He eventually paid a settlement to the Associated Press, which took the original photo.

The Cantrells are left to argue their case in the court of public opinion.

Art is tricky and there are gray areas about what constitutes an original piece.

But there are specific limitations, according to John Begley, gallery director of the Hite Art Institute who also teaches a curatorial studies course that focuses on gallery and museum work.

For example, he says, it is perfectly acceptable to copy an Andrew Wyeth painting while learning to paint, but those paintings should not be shown publicly without indicating who did the original.

“If it was copied from an Andrew Wyeth, it should say ‘after Andrew Wyeth,’” he says. “The ethical thing is to put that in the title. If you did a good job and it’s nice and people like it, I wouldn’t see anything wrong with that. The buyer knows what’s happening. It would probably make it less valuable, but I know people are still copying things for people. They just need to make it clear that’s what they’re doing.”

Mahanes tells LEO Weekly he understands that and says he counsels his art students to that effect. But he acknowledges he has not followed the rules, that he erred in claiming to have created the Cantrell work outright, and that he has copied other paintings — including from Foose — without being forthcoming about where the work originated.

“I have not been careful on copying originals or how that is conveyed to people who see (the work) in my inventory,” he says. “I’ve not always said of something in my studio, ‘That’s a print of so-and-so that I copied.’ I don’t do that, and I should do that.”

Although Mahanes had a label on the Cantrell painting indicating prints could be purchased, and though that painting and the Foose-inspired piece are included in catalogs of Mahanes’ work, Mahanes insists he never made or sold prints of those works.

“The copy work is done for learning, not for income,” he says. “That’s where I draw the line.”

Foose says he was disgusted by the whole affair. He was good friends with Jim Mahanes’ late brother, Ed, and knew Jim as well. At one point, Jim purchased paintings from Foose, who agreed to let him make payments. But Foose claims that Mahanes still owes him hundreds of dollars. He’s written it off. “I can’t say anything good about the guy,” he says. “He operates on the edge of larceny.”

(Disclosure: Mahanes also owes LEO for advertising purchased in 2008. Mahanes says he thought both debts were paid up and he will follow up on them.)

Living the artist’s life is challenging for obvious reasons, and for the Cantrells, learning that someone took credit for Jim’s work was a visceral offense. They want the art world to know about it.

People who know Mahanes and his work were surprised, including other artists from Highlands Art Studios. While they were upset over his deception and worried it would reflect poorly on them, they acknowledge Mahanes is talented in his own right.

“That’s what is so odd; he didn’t need to do that,” says photographer Ted Tarquinio, one of the Highlands Art Studios artists. Tarquinio often sells artists the rights to use his photos, a practice he condones assuming all the details are spelled out in a contract. He takes issue with the fact that Mahanes worked from other artists’ source material without making prior arrangements.

Begley, of U of L, agreed that Mahanes didn’t need to fudge. “He’s fairly competent — I can’t figure out why he did it. It’s not like he’s totally unskilled.”

Begley is impressed that Jeanette Cantrell could substantiate her husband’s work from 34 years ago and says this is a textbook case of why artists must keep good records.

At this point, Mahanes isn’t sure what to do next. He realizes his name has been sullied and that galleries will be reluctant to work with him. He has sent emails to his list of contacts admitting he falsely took credit for the Cantrell painting (though not elucidating the larger issue of copying paintings). He’s apologized to the Cantrells. Early on, Jeanette suggested a sort of exile may be in order — that Mahanes should stop painting for a while. Mahanes would like to make amends but doesn’t know how.

Though the Cantrells don’t want to litigate, the case sounds like a candidate for mediation, says Elena Paul, executive director of the New York office of Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, which provides free legal counsel to artists, based on income guidelines. Paul says her office would be happy to work with the Cantrells and Mahanes if they were interested.

Asked what he’d like to see happen, Jim Cantrell says: “I don’t want any money from Mahanes. I would like to see him fade away from the art scene and sin no more. I would hope no gallery would handle his work and no students would take his workshops. (And) I would hope that other people out there who may have thoughts of doing something like he did would see what will happen to them when they are caught and be deterred.”

In a lengthy interview, during which he occasionally fidgeted and looked distressed but patiently answered questions, Mahanes told LEO Weekly he is humbled, embarrassed, ashamed, mortified — but says he cannot stop painting and will paint at home if necessary. He compared the situation to an act of plagiarism and worries it will jeopardize his relationship with Webster University. He also says he will resign from the Oates Institute board.

Chris Hammon, the institute’s interim director and director of online learning and publications, has supported Mahanes through the fallout and says that would be unfortunate. “My hope is he does not do that,” Hammon says. “I know Jim has bent over backwards on this. He’s being ridiculous about beating himself up. Jim is a person of high integrity, who’s helped his students find a voice with watercolors and in organizational development at Webster.”

It is more than ironic that someone who worked in the field of human dynamics has become embroiled in a controversy where his integrity is questioned. Mahanes says he’s done a great deal of reflecting and believes he simply gave in to ego and insecurity.

“I have tried to put myself back in my shoes. This was about 15 years ago,” Mahanes says. “I knew it was original … I thought, ‘Damn, that’s good.’ I wish I could do that … Maybe if I frame it up, people will think it’s mine.”

In a follow-up interview, he added: “In my thought process, I did not think my art was as good as others. Similar dynamics occur in eating disorders where a skinny person purges food to be skinny.”

As for what he’s learned, Mahanes mentions how an eating disorder is “more than just a flaw in perception” and says he understands there’s a deeper issue at work, which he plans to continue exploring.

“I have nobody to blame but myself,” he says, adding that he’s used poor judgment. “I screwed up.”