When Eastport resident John Melillo retired after 45 years of working, never really stopping to take stock or smell the proverbial flowers, something dark began slithering its way back into his life. Long suppressed memories of his Vietnam War service began to invade the veteran’s dreams and eventually seeped into his days as harrowing flashbacks he couldn’t seem to shake. Then something happened — Melillo discovered an untapped well of artistic talent within him, dove in head-first and followed its path toward healing.
Today, four years after his retirement, Melillo is enjoying his creative side and proudly showing 70 paintings, including a series directly addressing his Vietnam experience, in his aptly titled exhibition Life Goes On at Southampton Cultural Center through November 3.
Things are much better for the artist and veteran after several years of honing his new craft, but it required hard work, dedication and relentless focus to get here.
Melillo graduated Cornell in 1969 and joined the workforce, but he was drafted the following year and shipped off to Vietnam to serve as an MP (Military Police) at Long Binh Post, the largest U.S. base in the country. From 1970 to 1972, the young soldier encountered a wide range of difficult and painful situations on both sides of the wire that left an indelible mark, but he hid them away and focused on work after the war.
“I came out in 1972 and I immediately found a job and went to New York City, and I ran this New York City race for 45 years,” Melillo says, recalling his early days on Wall Street and then as a successful marketing and business development executive all the way up until his retirement. “I retired in 2017 and I slowed down, obviously, but I started having a lot of problems sleeping. I was not only having nightmares, I was starting to have daymares,” he says, explaining how his new circumstances gave way to haunting and traumatic memories. “I didn’t realize all those 45 years of running was really to mask some of the things that I experienced in my tour in Vietnam,” Melillo continues. “When I slowed down, it just all hit me at one time, so I went to the VA and they diagnosed me with an acute case of PTSD.”
As part of his recovery work, the VA gave Melillo an aptitude test, and he scored very high in art. “I never drew a straight line until about five years ago — I didn’t know I had that ability,” he muses. But Melillo fully embraced the advice and, with help from the VA, enrolled in as many art classes as he could, including workshops at the New York Academy of Art, School of Visual Arts, The Art Students League of New York and Art League of Long Island. He even audited classes at Suffolk County Community College.
“I’m goal oriented,” he says, pointing out that he was making up for lost time with the classes, and it was working. “I found a solace and healing in being able to focus and create something. It definitely helped me cope with what I was dealing with.”
The greatest breakthrough, however, came when Melillo, who paints almost exclusively from his own photographs, began to look for new subject matter in his old photos taken in Vietnam. “I hadn’t looked at them in 45 years. And surprisingly enough to me … the pictures I took were of the lighter side of Vietnam,” he says. “I found Vietnam to be a beautiful country with beautiful people. Those pictures I took were of people herding their water buffalo, fishing, feeding their families, bathing their children … so I started painting them.”
These oil paintings, seven in total, became the linchpin for his Southampton Cultural Center exhibition, which also includes numerous pictures of life on Long Island. Each piece in the Vietnam series is displayed with its source photograph and a brief description of Melillo’s related experience. Adding further context, his daughter Beth produced a short film, which plays on a continuous loop at the SCC gallery. It describes the reason he chose to paint the images, what they’re about and how he painted them.
One such image, “The Caretaker,” depicts a Vietnamese woman he found living in a grass hut in the jungle, caring for war orphans from both sides of the conflict. “She had about a dozen kids running around and they’re all smiling, they’re all well-dressed,” Melillo recalls. “This woman made life meaningful for these kids and it struck me as amazing, and I wanted to immortalize that picture, immortalize that woman.”
Another painting — a black and white oil on plywood called “In Remembrance of Chris” (at top of page) — honors a 19-year-old MP who asked to take Melillo’s place on patrol and was killed some four minutes later, leaving behind a wife and child in Texas. Each piece in the series is a little different from the others, but together they paint a larger picture.
Melillo says he hadn’t talked about the war for more than four decades before he began painting these scenes, so it’s more than a bit surprising to now find himself so engrossed in it. He notes that the VA calls this “prolonged exposure” and it can help. “We all have our Vietnams … be it a death in the family, be it a car accident, be it something, we all have a situation, and life goes on. That’s the whole theory of this painting series,” Melillo says, adding later, “We’re all in the same position looking to do the same thing, and that’s heal and go forward.”
Creating this work has done much to improve Melillo’s life. “There are some results now. I’m just starting to catch my stride. We’ve had over 400 people come through this exhibit already, and I’ve sold a bunch of paintings,” he reveals with pride. And while he’s not yet sleeping soundly through every night, his daymares are a thing of the past.