Portrait of an Artist As a Conman
Words by Paige Townley
Pride, ambition, fear, money—there’s a driving force that motivates us all. For infamous art forger Mark Landis, the question of motivation has long been asked. Why did he travel the country, duping unknowing museum administrators into accepting fake masterpieces? It wasn’t for money—he never accepted a dime. It wasn’t pride or ambition—he has never seen himself as a great artist with serious talent. No, for Landis the motivation was much simpler: a desire to just be liked.
Landis has never really felt a sense of belonging, even as a young child. He grew up feeling as if he was never really accepted by his father, a naval officer, and adding to that sense of loneliness was the fact he moved so often. During his early childhood, he and his parents moved all over Europe. In a sense, it was often just Landis and his art—it’s what he would do in the evenings when his parents would leave him alone in the hotel to go out. “We didn’t have television in those days,” he says. “Just like any other kid, I had my box of crayons. So I started copying pictures out of the museum catalogs for something to do. I got good at it.”
His ability to intricately copy each masterpiece was impeccable. Landis could duplicate essentially an exact replica of any famous work of art—though with poor self-esteem, he never saw himself as very good. “I was only good in a superficial way,” he says. His artistic versatility only increased when he was in the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, where he was admitted as a teenager after suffering a mental breakdown when his father passed away. It was there he was officially diagnosed with schizophrenia, and because his therapy included arts and crafts, he honed his unique ability to copy artwork. Landis hoped to take that craft and attend a commercial art school and start his career in the art world, but dealing with personal struggles, low self-esteem, and a tendency to isolate himself, he ended up dropping out of school and moving to Laurel, Mississippi, to be with his mother, who is really the only person he was ever close to. Always looking to please her and gain her approval, he frequently painted subjects she liked, such as angels and religious icons like the Madonna and child. He eventually donated a fake painting to a museum, resulting in his receiving an appreciative letter that impressed his mother. With that, he was hooked—obsessed, even—with the attention and sense of approval it provided. That obsession became his new reality, which started out with donations in the memory of his father and resulted in a completely made up sister, numerous aliases, and even disguising himself as a priest. Each donation took Landis further away from reality and into an imaginary world in which he was a rich art collector and philanthropist. “I liked it so much I got addicted,” he says. “I never had people treat me like that before. I got a boost when I’d walk in with my briefcase, open it, and take out the picture. Everyone would say, ‘Oh, what a masterpiece.’ And I’d get a boost by getting a compliment on the artwork, even though it was in a roundabout way.”
Today, Landis lives in his mother’s old apartment, surrounded by items that remind him of his mother and the past. He no longer attempts to donate faux artwork to museums—that was over after a persistent museum registrar eventually exposed him—but he does still use his multidimensional talent in somewhat of a similar fashion: he creates custom commissioned portraits from customer-submitted photos. He also continues to produce icon after icon, partly because he admits he’s good at them—“when you get good at something, it’s frustrating not to know what to do with it,” he says—and partly because they are a reminder of his mother. “In a way, I feel like I’m pleasing her by painting them,” says Landis.
The ability to still utilize his craft through commissioned work gives Landis something to do—it helps keep him busy, as he likes to say—which is part of what he’s after at this stage of life. But it really gives him so much more: each commissioned piece provides him with a sense of purpose and a feeling of self-worth, which is what he was after all along.