Mark Landis didn't become an art imitator for the money. Using his name along with several aliases — he even posed as a Catholic priest — Landis attempted to donate 100 fakes to some 50 institutions in 20 states. And because he has not accepted money for his work, Landis has never been charged with a crime.
A slight, balding 59-year-old man with a Truman Capote-esque voice, Landis is the subject of a new documentary, "Art and Craft," which opens Friday. Directed by Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman with editor Mark Becker co-directing, the film reveals how the mild-mannered Landis became a prolific art copier driven simply by the initial gratitude of unsuspecting museums.
Now he is enjoying every minute of the attention he's long craved.
"To have a couple of glamorous young New York filmmakers come and want to listen to you run on about your life story — for an old guy like me, it's a dream come true," he said.
Donating his imitations to museums, Landis said, started as an impulse about 30 years ago.
"Everybody at the museum was just so nice," Landis said over the phone from his home in Laurel, Miss. "I was unused to being treated that way. Actually no one had treated me with deference and respect like that. I just got addicted to it. I just kept doing it. That's really all there is to it."
Landis was clever in that he chose secondary works by well-known people or works by relatively unknown artists, Cullman said.
"I think that probably helped him evade the kind of detection ... that may have occurred," the director said. "For the most part, he targeted smaller museums. He did target some bigger ones, but for the most part they didn't accept them."
Landis' art-imitation career began to unravel in 2008 thanks to the tenacious Matthew Leininger, then-registrar at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Leininger recalled the day that the museum received a watercolor attributed to Paul Signac from Landis.
"That came FedExed with a letter of intent and an auction catalog," said Leininger, who lives in Cincinnati and is a fulfillment associate for Amazon. "He promised more artworks."
Landis eventually did show up at the museum.
"He was there for 21/2 days and wore us out," Leininger said. "He had this black satchel with him and had all kinds of works of art in it."
Leininger started looking up some of those works online to get the correct titles only to discover the Signac watercolor referenced in a press release citing it as a donation from Landis to the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. Leininger soon discovered that was just the tip of the Landis iceberg.
Grausman learned of Landis' story in a 2011 New York Times piece. "I couldn't stop thinking about it," she said. "I thought I would show it to Sam and Mark."
They got in touch with Leininger, traveled to Cincinnati to film him, then contacted Landis and spoke with him on the phone about the movie.
The filmmakers were surprised when they finally met the beguiling, sparrow-like Landis in the home he inherited from his late mother — cluttered with his paintings, supplies and a TV.
"When we first caught up with him, it was just at the beginning of him being exposed, and what that meant was not totally clear to him," Cullman said. "We were surprised to find someone who was as open as he was because you think a guy with his kind of past would have so much to hide, but that was not the case."
Said Landis: "When I first found out I was in trouble, I was awfully down. I was thinking, what am I going to do now? Mother's gone. There's nothing to do but just watch TV. Then they showed up and befriended me. And through them I have made some other nice friends."
Life has not been easy for Landis. An only child, he moved all over the world because of his father's career in the U.S. Navy. The family eventually settled in Jackson, Miss., in 1970 when his father retired.
Two years later, the teenager suffered a nervous breakdown when his father died and he was sent to the Menninger Clinic, then in Topeka, Kan.
While at Menninger, Landis said, "it was noticed I had an aptitude for arts and crafts."
He wanted to be a commercial artist, but his mother and her friends thought the Art Institute of Chicago had more prestige. Though he got accepted, he didn't stay very long.
"It was a hippie school," said Landis, who transferred to the San Francisco Art Institute ("even more of a hippie school"), then quit school and opened an art gallery.
When the gallery failed, he moved back in with his mother in Mississippi and began making his art copies.
Leininger is still keeping tabs on Landis. The two met up earlier this year at the screening of "Art and Craft" at the Tribeca Film Festival.
But Landis is just too busy these days to do any likenesses of paintings.
"He's become friendly with a woman in town who has taken him under her wing a bit and has had him do commissions — mostly grandchildren portraits," Grausman said.