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.”

1 comment:

Teresa said...

Ryan, I love it, I'm reading. I'm so happy to know the history of Brother Mel and that photo of Phil and his Dad and Dick Nixon is quite possibly the greatest thing I have ever seen.
Keep it up friend.