NEW YORK—Mark Landis, 59, is hunched over, dried-up, and slow-paced. He strolls into an arts and crafts store, looking for supplies. When something catches his attention, he lifts his balding head and gazes with his beady eyes.
Using nothing more than a photocopier, student-grade acrylic paints, and Walmart picture frames, Landis has fooled more than 40 museums in 20 U.S. states in his 30-year hobby career as an art forger.
Museum registrars and curators have accepted over 100 of Landis’s “gifts”—and have no one to blame but themselves. Because Landis does not sell his forgeries but donates them, museums have no legal recourse.
And to complicate matters, copying art is one of the only comforts for Landis, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and has been emotionally adrift and alone since his mother’s death.
Nonetheless, former Cincinnati Art Museum registrar Matthew Leininger has dedicated his life to putting a stop to Landis’s activities.
This unusual cat-and-mouse game is played out delightfully in the documentary “Art and Craft.”
An Endearing Character
Landis has been copying art since he can remember. He recalls a childhood episode when he was left alone in a hotel room while his parents entertained in the lobby. To keep himself occupied, he devised a memory trick that helps him trace works with amazing precision.
He says he likes to copy things because it’s reassuring. He snickers when reading medical records that list a bouquet of mental diagnoses. When the nurse at the clinic asks him what he does for fun every day, Landis clenches his jaw.
“I don’t think there’s been anyone quite like Mark Landis,” said film director Jennifer Grausman during an April 18 press talk at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Grausman came across Landis’s story in early 2011 and was immediately enticed. She introduced co-director Sam Cullman to the idea. A few years later, they came out with “Art and Craft.”
It’s hard to label Landis. Museum professionals see him as a villain; he sees himself as a philanthropist, but he’s not doing anything illegal.
Although Landis produces such close replicas of renowned art, he doesn’t call himself an artist. He does, however, very much wish to have a greater purpose in life.
“We all like to feel useful,” he said in the film.
Cullman, also at the press talk, said that what makes Landis an endearing character is that he’s not trying to prove a point, or get back at the world.
“He has other more human and personal motivations,” Cullman said. “He disarms people that way.”
“Mark is a mischievous person, he’s inclined to want to press buttons, and this is his life’s meaning. He does this because it gives him, if not something he can do, something he connects with,” Cullman said.
Notoriety and New Friends
Both filmmakers were skeptical about everything Landis told them, but they didn’t hold it against him and often said that Landis was surprisingly open about his hobby.
“He was so isolated when we first met him,” Cullman said. But the more Landis’s story became public, the most recognizable he was, especially among his neighbors. Landis started to make friends. He also started to do commissioned artwork and replicas for them.
Even Cullman would send him pictures of his newborn, and Landis would send back drawings or paintings of the little girl.
Now that Landis’s face and name is all over the news, museum registrars can sigh in relief that they have one less thing to worry about. But as the film directors see it, Landis’s story is not over.
“I just can’t imagine he’ll just stop. How does one just stop doing what it is that one wants to do?” Cullman said.
Oscilloscope will release the film in theaters in August or September.
‘Art and Craft’
Directors: Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, Mark Becker
Run Time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Screened during Tribeca Film Festival