Friday, August 31, 2007

These Middling Masses – Brother Mel Meyer

This series will celebrate people I know or have very recently met. While “middling” is a particularly bland adjective according to my Microsoft Office Dictionary, defined as, “of average size, quality, or position; neither good nor bad,” the word is ripe for transformation. Maybe these middling masses aren’t so pale and unremarkable. Maybe they distinguish themselves in ways difficult to spell out on a banner or celebrate on the television. Could their daily struggle, if considered, somehow elevate our own? I decided to start with a great man so that the experiment would initially appear a success, like a first firework in the sky.

Next year Brother Mel will be eighty years o
ld. He lives in a dormitory at the edge of a high school campus. He’s not some kind of indentured janitor. He belongs to the Society of Mary, a Catholic religious order founded by a French priest named William Joseph Chaminade in 1817, and is therefore a Marianist monk. Brother Mel has also been a sculptor and painter for sixty years, working in a number of mediums from fresco to large-scale metal. Unsubstantiated by any inquiry on the part of this blogger, he is St. Louis’ most prolific artist.
Driving up to Mel’s studio, the juxtaposition of football blocking sleds and fine art primes the visitor for something fresh. There’s a twelve-foot tree stump armored in copper sheeting, a violet tricycle bigger than an SUV, steel forms with brushed metal appendages spinning like turbines in the wind, and high schoolers, sporting black and gold gym clothes, lining up for bocce ball on an adjacent field (When did teenagers become elderly Italians?).
According to the Marianist Galleries website, the easy-to-miss campus of St. John Vianney High School, located near the intersection of Big Bend and South Kirkwood Road, used to be woods and farmland. The rough-cut cedar farmhouse still stands, but with more architectural grace having housed “one of the largest private collections of religious and contemporary art in the United States,” so says the website, for the past forty years. A stained glass window juts porthole-like out of the south face, spreading color into a small sanctuary. A fence conceals raw, rust-red materials awaiting salvation.

Inside, the lofted gallery space is clean and bright. There are paintings, mobiles, crucifixes, furniture, wall-mounted sculptures and handmade paper. The studio section is absorbing in its detail—a dark saint with palms spread in the bathroom corridor, utensils welded into a mass over the kitchen sink, a box of cookies Mel tried to hide when I took his picture. The workshop is further in, its presses and saws lit by a triangular set of windows that afford a view of the sentries, with their oxidized grit and children’s book color, holding the yard.
His first year out of high school, Mel worked for his father’s pump company, having only taken one watercolor course that, “didn’t amount to much.” After spending an afternoon swimming, Mel was driving with a friend who turned to him and said, “I think I want to be a priest.” Mel said, “Look. If you become a priest, I’m going with you.” He had thought about it before.

“The [Marianist] Brothers just impressed me
very much. They’re a very democratic order. The Brothers that teach for a living together work together. The whole bit. And they’re equal members in the order, whereas that wasn’t true in any of the [other] orders in the Church at that time.”

The next day, Mel and his friend spoke with a Brother Eugene Jansen. Afterward, the friend said, “You know maybe we ought to think about this awhile.” Mel said, “Look. If you don’t want to go to the rectory now, I’ll take you home. No problem.” He dropped his friend off and returned to file his papers and begin the induction process.

“He never did join,” Mel told me. “He got married and had sixteen children.”

Spending an hour in Brother Mel’s studio leaves little doubt about the confluence of art and monkhood in his life. The Mother Mary, born out of acrylic, or the metal Jesus hung on sycamore limbs collected after a storm speak to the artist’s convictions in a simple language, but the majority of Mel’s work is visually free of religious content.

“I don’t think I could be inspired if it weren’t for my religious life. There is definitely a connection. People come in here and they say, ‘Do you have any religious work?’ and I say, ‘Yea. Everything is religious,’ which is true.”
Brother Mel perceives his art as essential to his apostolic work. “It influences a lot of people,” he said. “A provincial once told me, ‘More people know the Society of Mary through you than through most of us who’ve been working in the schools for years.”

“Just the other day, a guy came in here with his wife, their daughter and her husband. After he was here awhile, he said, ‘You know, I wasn’t going to come here at first, but I’m really glad I did. There’s not a thing in here that I don’t like.’ This was an old guy, you know.”

Perhaps the appeal is as simple as the color or the playfulness of the forms.
“A lot of older people come here on bus tours and things like that and they say, ‘You know I never did like modern art, but I really like these things here.’”

Paul Merker, the man who introduced me to Brother Mel and a voracious collector of the artist’s work, ascribes the allure to Mel’s creative process.

“He works so fast. There’s an intuitive element to every piece. They always seem to please the eye.”
[Paul, his son, Phil, their dog Dakota and Richard Nixon photographed beside a Brother Mel original]

When I asked Brother Mel what advice an established artist has for young people who might be invested in the arts, but find themselves middled between academic educations or art school and a divergent career path, Mel said, “There’s nothing like travel. Meeting people, seeing different cultures, knowing that the world isn’t just your little world. It gives you an insight into what the world is all about.”

After earning a degree from the University of Dayton and teaching at Central Catholic Marianist High School in Texas for three years, Brother Mel went on to study for a masters in fine art at the University of Notre Dame, during which time he was given an assignment. Historical and iconographic research was needed for the design and construction of a chapel, specifically a series of stained glass windows, at Chaminade College Preparatory School in St. Louis. Mel was chosen and sent to Europe on a mission that would last a year and carry him through nine countries.

Brother Mel, who responded to my request for a forty-minute interview by saying, “How about thirty?” was brightly animated when relating both the details and significance of this experience.

Following the advice of a provincial who met him in New York days before his five-day Atlantic passage, Mel purchased a white 1957 Lambretta scooter on which he would log fourteen thousand miles between Septembers. With a saddlebag on either side, one bearing art supplies, the other—wine, cheese and bread, he explored the Bordeaux region in France, where Father Chaminade founded the order, then proceeded from one monastic community to the next.

He described sleeping in hay barns, climbing cathedral ladders to photograph the stained glass, gathering for morning prayer with thousands of young people on pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Chartres in what “must’ve been bomb crater”, and sketching the face of Saint John Vianney, whose body lies uncorrupted in the Sanctuaire d’Ars, northwest of Lyon.

“That, to me, was my education,” Mel said.

Next year, in conjunction with his eightieth birthday, three retrospective exhibits will go on display at the St. Louis Artists' Guild (August 24th - October 11th, 2008), the Foundry Art Centre in St. Charles (October 10th - November 21, 2008) and at the Arts Company in Nashville (June 2008).
In light of this and his age, Brother Mel has not relented in his production. Six days a week, he rises at five, proceeds to breakfast and morning services at the campus chapel, then labors until four in the afternoon with an hour break for lunch. He works alongside fellow Brother and artist Brian Zampier and John McCarthy, who wields the computer and photographic arms of the operation. The fourth member of their team, Bill Cowie, who assisted Mel with metal work and welding, passed away this year at the end of June.

“With John, Bill and Brian, it’s more like a group of guys getting together for a picnic every day than working.”

Brother Mel described the routine for when he’d leave town and prepare a list of things that Bill would take care of.

“He’d even add to it. He had all kinds of stuff on the list I made right before my last trip. He wanted to wash all the windows in the shop and fix the door back here. I had about eight or so things on that list, most of them he’d written himself, and he had the first four scratched out. That list is still on the table in there.”

“It was a real loss to have Bill go. Pretty darn hard.”

The Marianist Galleries are open to the public every day but Sunday. Brother Mel’s work can also be seen at a number of St. Louis locations, such as Barnes-Jewish Hospital, Forest Park, St. Louis Children’s Hospital, the St. Louis University campus and several other sites. He has also completed commissions in several states throughout the country.

“It’s heaven on earth,” Mel said, “and I’ve been here forty years.”

Richard Makes Good

In the ever-approaching future, I intend to canvas the St. Louis Metropolitan Area for holy sites sprinkled across this great dining landscape. For now, swaddled in the suburbs, I’m only interested in eating in one of four local gems: Wan Fu Chinese Restaurant, owned and operated by a six-foot five-inch man known as George, who possesses a masters’ degree in Geography and a crushed velvet portrait of the Great Wall that is not for sale. Nachomama’s, where the food is as good as the pun. Dewey’s Pizza, former employer of poet-farmer Molly McDonald, who did, in fact, “take pizza to the next level.” Finally, Richard’s Ribs, located at 10727 Big Bend Road in Kirkwood, Missouri, where hearts and bellies go for warmth.

Barbecue (how can this word not have a definitive spelling?) isn’t too easy to rustle up in this city. With bar-b-que meccas, Memphis and Kansas City stealing the thunder, St. Louis diners were nearly abandoned to toasted ravioli until Richard Hollins set up shop over fourteen years ago. Mr. Hollins operates out of a single location with his daughter, Joye, her godmother, Rose Walker, Rose’s son, Ralph, and Joye’s cousin, Vincent Williams, all helping out. Richard’s wife, Delores, is the queen of pies (sweet potato and lemon chess being her specialties).

Bandana’s Bar-B-Q, a chain that fans across four states, could be seen as a threat to Richard’s restaurant and catering service with its three special sauces and snappy slogan, “Smell that Smoke,” but don’t options indicate the absence of a winner? Joye says the secret of her family’s sauce will forever elude the curious, leaving customers with the rhetorical, “Is that cinnamon?”

Joye, who grew up with barbeque like an uncle who always comes to dinner, indicated that she doesn’t eat much of it when she’s working, but, “the smoked chicken is the bomb.” Other menu starlets include rib tips, jack salmon, buffalo and catfish complimented by spaghetti, green beans, baked beans, coleslaw, ranch fries, applesauce or an ever-popular potato salad. The brisket and shredded pork sandwiches are the top sellers and baby backs sell out every weekend.

“Everything is hands on and made from scratch,” Joye says. “It’s straight home cooking. That’s what keeps us going.”

The atmosphere at Richard’s is also part of the draw. The dining room seats twenty-four, but it’s never cramped as the majority of their business is carryout. I particularly like the signature placemats and the fact that people can’t help complimenting the food as if they were getting paid for it.

Joye says her family is blessed, but bless-ed seems more appropriate from the cool side of the counter. Richard’s Ribs—a good place to fill your middle.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Middle History — Olympic Heritage? Here?

In Middled’s first thematic gesture, I thought a historical account might nudge us that much closer to an understanding of this place, this middle. From where better to embark than St. Louis’ arguable zenith, that event for which World’s Fair Doughnuts on Vandeventer Avenue in my soon-to-be neighborhood (review forthcoming) is named?

But the 1904 World’s Fair is a tired story in this town. Check out the Missouri History Museum—they’ve got interactive exhibits. Yet, by studying the Internet, I’ve encountered something notable. Where did the first Olympic Games held on American soil go down? The third such event in the Modern Period after the 1896 Olympic revival? The first in which African-American athletes participated? I was shocked too.

Not long after the St. Louis Brown Stockings changed their name to the Perfectos and then promptly to the Cardinals (good move), the citizens of Chicago were provided with further reason to begrudge my people. Against the wishes of the International Olympic Committee President and an entire metropolis, the 1903 Olympics were moved about 297 miles southwest and rescheduled to coincide with the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (that’s the World’s Fair). That same IOC president, Pierre de Coubertin, would later decry the St. Louis Olympic games, utilizing an ugly word: “failure.” Having skim-read two entire books at the St. Louis County Library, an oddly popular place on Monday afternoon, I would offer other words: cultural, kooky, near-death!

Eleven countries hailing from four continents participated in the games, though Europe was only represented by Germany, Greece and Hungary. There were fifteen events, all of which I won’t mention, though they did have tug of war, proven by the fact that somebody won a silver medal for it.
Women were only allowed to participate in archery because of, I suppose, the unstimulating nature of that sport. By running the sixty-meter sprint and the two hundred-meter hurdle, George Poage became the first African-American athlete to compete in the Olympics, finishing not in first in both events. Each American Olympian represented one of the major athletic clubs, the most competitive being New York, Chicago and Milwaukee, the insignia of which they wore on their jerseys.

Here’s where this long-winded post might get interesting. The marathon event took place on August 30th at three in afternoon with the temperature licking the ninety-degree mark. Thirty-two men took off at the sound of the pistol, but only fourteen would finish. Two participants who did complete the race were South African Tsuana tribesmen, Len Tau and Jan Mashiani, who were attending the fair as part of the Boer War exhibit, having served as message runners during that conflict. Neither of them wore shoes, but I would hope that they were spared from hazing as the majority of their competitors weren’t wearing socks. Mr. Tau managed to finish ninth and might have placed higher if he hadn’t been chased more than a mile off course by a dog.

At the thirteen-mile mark, William Garcia of San Francisco collapsed and was taken to the emergency hospital where doctors pronounced that he would’ve bled to death due to a severe hemorrhage of the stomach had he not been treated sooner. Earlier, Fred Lorz had dropped out of the race with a cramp, but rode in an automobile for a few miles until he felt better and resumed running. He finished first, was quickly denounced, barred from Olympic competition for life, subsequently reinstated, and went on to win the Boston Marathon a few years later. The true winner was Thomas Hicks, who was poisoned (slightly) seven miles from the finish line. After running nineteen miles, Hicks asked for a glass of water. The officials tailing him in a car said he couldn’t have any, but did dampen his lips with a moist sponge. When this perfectly reasonable treatment proved inconsequential, Thomas was given two egg whites, brandy and one-sixtieth grain of strychnine. Not something New York Marathon runner, August Heffner, would probably recommend.

And I haven’t even introduced the most interesting character! Felix Carbajal, a former mailman, representing the two year-old independent nation of Cuba, raised money for his Olympic birth by running the length of his island, but squandered the entirety of his funds in a dice game in New Orleans. After hitchhiking and walking his way to St. Louis, Carbajal approached the starting line in a long-sleeved shirt, street shoes and a beret. Fellow athlete, Martin Sheridan, helped him cut off his trousers above the knee. Felix would finish fourth, but may have set a world record had he not blown sixty minutes of his time chatting with spectators in broken English and eating peaches, according to Charles J.P. Lucas, the head marathon official.

Clearly the marathon was the most thrilling of that year’s spectacles, but another non-Olympic athletic event has surfaced in the historical froth, possibly because it was the reason that famous Missourian, Mark Twain, refused to attend the World’s Fair. As the result of an eager conversation between social scientist, Dr. W.J. McGee, and James E. Sullivan, director of the St. Louis Olympics, three athletic exhibitions were put on, entitled, “Barbarian Games,” “Philippine Tribal Contests,” and “Anthropology Days.” McGee wanted to tabulate data to compare results among different native tribesmen and Sullivan wanted to “destroy the popular belief that aboriginal peoples, living close to nature, possessed natural athletic talent, and to confirm the athletic, hence racial, superiority of Anglo-Saxon peoples” (see citation below). As with the marathon, the real winners in this madcap display may be difficult to identify, but the top “Anthropology Days” finishers all received American flags.

As you might imagine, all of the information and photographs in this post have been borrowed from two excellent books: America’s First Olympics: The St. Louis Games of 1904 by George R. Matthews (Univ. of Missouri Press, 2005) and St. Louis Olympics 1904 by George Matthews and Sandra Marshall (Arcadia Publishing, 2003).

Jeez. If you read all that, please consider yourself a Middled high honorary patron.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Contest Winner

Melissa Parrott of Missoula, Montana became the first Middled contest winner at 4:37 PM yesterday afternoon. If you were hoping to read The Secret History, she might let you borrow it when she's finished. She's pretty nice.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Book Worming

If this is Day One of the great trial that will be my life in St. Louis, then I’m not fairing poorly. Actually I’ve had some rather mediocre days since my arrival, but those were unofficial.

After getting up at eight thirty and not ea
ting all morning, I had achieved something novel by one o’clock in the afternoon: hunger. I understand that other people, even people of means, allow their bodies to slip into this state on a daily basis. Not me. I usually eat too much and then eat again just as my organism enters the initial stages of recovery. I know it’s gross and wrong, but I’m afflicted. Anyway, this special circumstance set the stage for a good meal at one of my favorite St. Louis lunch spots, Pho Grand, with my mother, Deborah Miller.

I can’t attest to the authenticity of the place. Almost all of the diners were white and I didn’t see tendon or tripe options in the pho section of the menu. Nonetheless, the duck leg vermicelli soup was tasty. I also had an iced coffee, which I took as an opportunity to consume a serving of sweetened condensed milk with more self-respect than dipping my finger into a tin can in the confines of my kitchen generally affords.

As my mom and I got up to leave, a fat guy of about fifty called me over to his table and asked, “Young man, how did you manage a date with such a beautiful woman?” I played along with his creepy game and said, “She gave birth to me,” then smiled disingenuously and left. Good for Mom.

After lunch we drove further down Grand Avenue into South City towards Carondelet Park. Along the way there were a few surprises like the Afghan Market and some gutted fast-food restaurants. We admired the brickwork all around us and felt like we’d never seen the city before. Apparently St. Louis brick is a big thing, or at least it is for this guy, who has devoted a whole blog to it.

Our destination was the 2007 YMCA Book Fair at the Carondelet Family YMCA. This is a massive, six-day book fair with, like, a million books. The event benefits YMCA literacy programs and is in its thirtieth year (not surprising considering their level of organization).

The admission fee was ten dollars on opening day, which clearly distinguishes the rare book hunters from your casual buyers. We were two days late for the once-in-a-lifetime stuff, but Mom and I managed to purchase twenty-one books for twenty-six dollars and sixty-seven cents. I bought three Spanish grammar books that I will aspire to open for the rest of my life, some classics like David Copperfield and Middlemarch and the book Jarhead because I met the guy who wrote it in St. Petersburg. Another good find was a hardback edition of The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which is one of my all-time favorites (thank you, Edan).

In hopes of making this blog more appealing, I’ve just decided to add a contest element into the mix. If you’ve managed to read this far and are interested in owning your own copy of the The Secret History, just be the first or only person to email me and I’ll mail it to you, gratis.

Here we will conclude the day’s posting (not that this will happen every day) with a second (!) spectacular offer. If you have any pertinent information related to the Midwest, an anecdote you’d like to share, or perhaps some artwork, a restaurant, or a failing non-profit that you would like to see ineffectively advertised (for free!) on the Internet, please contact me ( and that will happen. Thanks for believing.

Welcome to Middled!

This blog is supposed to keep me alive in St. Louis, Missouri. I moved back from St. Petersburg, Russia two weeks ago. I had a decent job slangin’ English to industrial pipe producers. I had a wonderful girlfriend and a steady diet that sanctioned copious mayonnaise consumption. I had friends and work-appropriate clothing, and yet I made the decision to leave.

The reasons for my departure were simple, but hard to accept and act upon. I was worried about careers that I didn’t have and I wanted to be home. I had applied to graduate writing programs in December and was rewarded for my efforts and lusterless GRE scores with a round of rejections. I was upset at first, but came to believe that this was intended (obviously not by me) and that strolling through the void, rather than a campus would somehow serve me better. It’s an odd thing to be living in Russia, faced with the prospect of returning to Missouri, and to run into questions like, “How can I give up my comfortable life? How can I go somewhere so unknown?”

My family has helped me feel better about this decision. The pain of separating from Natasha has not. I feel very anxious about living in this city, isolated from the majority of my friends who are making their way in more diverse, happening settings. I don’t intend for this blog to focus on my alone time in my apartment (a place that still lives in fantasy while I live at home). I’d rather make this a forum for discoveries as well as encounters with forgotten or underappreciated people, foods, recreation and wonders, all somehow connected to these Middle West states.

I know that my readership will mostly consist of my parents and a few bored friends, but I write this for the world. Rise up Mid-West! Give me some damn hope!