John Melillo Continues Exploring Vietnam, PTSD Through Art

John Melillo painting "What War?"
John Melillo painting “What War?”
Beth Melillo

East End painter John Melillo has seen his life change in a lot of ways over the last year since he first introduced his artwork to the community at Southampton Cultural Center (SCC).

His story of turning his struggles with PTSD from the Vietnam War into a burgeoning art career has captured the attention of all kinds of admirers, including a number of local veterans groups who invited him to participate in their activities and good work.

Now, a little more than year after his first show at SCC, Life Goes On, closed last November, Melillo is back with Life Goes On Part 2, a sequel exhibition also featuring the artist and veteran’s oil paintings, including scenes and images from his time serving as an MP (Military Police) at Long Binh Post, the largest U.S. base in Vietnam, from 1970–1972.

He also created multiple paintings of the East End and his deep connection to the region.

JOHN MELILLO LIFE GOES ON PART 2

The Vietnam-inspired portion of the exhibition opens on, appropriately, Veterans Day this Friday, November 11, with a reception from noon–4 p.m. It represents Melillo’s continued efforts to heal from a staggering case of PTSD that took hold after he retired and life slowed down enough for him to begin facing the difficult things he experienced during the war.

Along with his oil paintings and the photographs that inspired them, Melillo’s new exhibition includes a video portion showing the artist discussing his story and artwork, especially the latest pieces, which explore what he calls “a lighter side of Vietnam.”

“The video that people will see on Vets Day tells these stories of my dad, but it also give the behind the scenes of how he paints them,” explains Beth Melillo, John’s daughter, who produces his videos and often helps her father promote his work, and organize exhibitions and other events. “He shows how he paints it so that he can teach people how it comes to life.”

"Symbiotic Relationships" painting by John Melillo
“Symbiotic Relationships” painting by John Melillo

As for the so-called lighter side of the war, Melillo went through his archive of photographs and found images that related to fun times, like supervising USO shows with Bob Hope and Sammy Davis Jr., or odd memories — like “Symbiotic Relationships” when he ran over a huge rock python, took it back to his barracks and kept it as a pet, before it had babies and then vanished into the jungle unharmed.

Another painting, “What War?” shows a group of children playing in an area Melillo was checking after an ambush the night before. As he says, “Anything off post after night was open season. Anybody could shoot you for any reason.” But these kids, “They were having the time of their lives,” he said of the eight children in the painting.

“The moral of the story here is, the war was yesterday, today was for living large — you gotta love it, and a picture tells all.”

He also captures more solemn moments. “This time I’m trying to focus on patriotism with certain paintings I painted. I had a medal ceremony, I’m bringing that up,” Melillo says.

"What War?" painting by John Melillo
“What War?” painting by John Melillo

JOHN MELILLO EASTERN LONG ISLAND SERIES

An earlier part of the exhibition, which opened on November 6, offered visitors a look at Melillo’s “Eastern Long Island Series” highlighting beloved local places, some appearing as they are now, and others as he remembers them from childhood.

Throughout the series, Melillo reveals secret spots and scenes of a bygone era. “When I grew up out here, Montauk Highway was a dirt road,” he recalls.

“I grew up out here and it’s inspirational for me to paint some of the things that I go back to from my heritage,” Melillo, an Eastport resident, explains, “We’ve also over the past couple years totally embraced the town. Southampton is where my mother went to high school and aunts and everybody else, my grandma lived here.”

"Morning" painting by John Melillo
“Morning” painting by John Melillo

He says Life Goes On Part 2 is an effort to help inspire others to find peace in something they love, as he did when he discovered he had an aptitude for art and that it helped him manage his struggles with PTSD.

“We all have our Vietnam…whether it be a death in the family, an accident, bad relationship — whatever,” Melillo says, explaining that he does not diminish the pain of others because of the pain he experienced. “PTSD is a condition, it’s not something you cure. It’s something you learn to live with.”

Melillo says people who are suffering should seek out professional help, but also find solace, as he did, in things that occupy time and bring joy. “If you sing, join a choir. If you dance, join a dance lesson. If you’re an artist — art,” he adds with hope that his new show might set someone on a happier path.

“We are teaching every time someone walks into that room.”

Life Goes On Part 2 is on view at Southampton Cultural Center (25 Pond Lane) through November 21. Learn more at scc-arts.org.

Learn more about John Melillo and see more art at artfeelingsjm.com.

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