The latest cover of Dan’s Papers North Fork was created by East End artist and Vietnam War veteran John Melillo. Here, he discusses the North Fork lighthouse that partly inspired “Broken House,” how his PTSD art therapy has blossomed into an art career, and sharing the solace he’s found through painting.
A Conversation with John Melillo
What inspired you to paint “Broken House” and is it based off a specific location?
I’m an East End boy, and I’ve been out here since the late 1940s. My family landed on Shelter Island around 1890, and they spread to North and South Fork. … I remember so many childhood memories of, like, back in the old days, we used to fish in Greenport. We fished off the dock; there was no Claudio’s or any restaurants there. … What inspired me is all the fishing. We’re fishermen, we’re potato farmers, we’re dairymen and all that. …
I did a Shipwrecks series because when I was a child, we used to do family cookouts at beaches in Cutchogue and at Flying Point in Southampton, and we’d see shipwrecks floating from a certain current. And there was nobody around there, so they would just stay there. … I did two paintings, which really represent the Race’s Current, which is a treacherous current off of Orient Point that’s claimed hundreds and hundreds of shipwrecks over the years. … You could reconcile that to the Plum Gut Lighthouse off Orient, but it’s little on a fantasy side. …
I wanted to do something with color, and I wanted to accentuate the dramatic circumstance and gravity of that treacherous area.
How did your relationship with art evolve from therapy to a burgeoning career?
My art career only became evident about seven years ago. I went to Vietnam, I came home, and I immediately went to New York City and ran a business for 45 years. I didn’t realize until I retired about seven years ago, that all that running and all that effort was to mask some of the things that I’d seen in Vietnam.
When I stopped, it all caught up to me, and I was not only having nightmares, I was having daymares.
I didn’t know what to do, so I went to the VA, and they did a complete analysis on me. Right off the bat, I was diagnosed with a severe case of PTSD, Agent Orange and a few other ailments.
But part of their analysis was vocational testing, and they said, “Look, John, don’t try to do anything with your hands as far as carpentry goes, because you’ll lose your fingers. However, if you want to be a salesman, which is what I did for a living, or if you want to be in the arts, an artist, an actor, you’re in the top one percentile.”
With their help, I started doing art therapy, and I started going to the School of Visual Arts, the NY Academy of Art and classes at The Met. I did business certificates out of Christie’s and Sotheby’s. I did the Southampton Art League, the Long Island Art League and the New York Art League.
I just totally immersed myself in art, and I found solace and a God-given talent that I didn’t realize I had. Let’s call it a third act. Since I’m goal-oriented, I immersed myself in it with professionals, and I jumped into deep water.
Then what I was looking for was subjects to paint. The East End, the North and South Fork, you can’t beat it — the topography, the skies, the water, how the sun comes up, the light. … I also dug up, which I hadn’t for 45 years, old photographs I took in Vietnam, and I started painting them too.
My daughter, who’s a TV producer, produced a video series on me painting them, and all of a sudden — I guess they were good enough — NYU decided to have a solo exhibit airing the video and showing my paintings and the actual photographs.
Southampton Cultural Center had a showing for me called Life Goes On, and that developed three years ago into a second solo show last year, where I not only presented about 15 paintings that I did of Vietnam, but about 70 works I did of Long Island.
This year for Vets Day, we’re going to do a part three where I’ll be exhibiting more photographs and more paintings of photographs I took on the lighter side of Vietnam — I try to leave the shock and awe out of it and make it constructive. …
What do you consider the greatest accomplishment of your art career so far?
It is finding solace. PTSD is not something that you heal, it’s something you learn to deal with. And this is not just about me in Vietnam. This is really a global event. … We all have our Vietnams — be it a death in the family, an illness, a bad relationship. One out of every three people in this world suffers a dramatic event that stays with them for their whole life, and they have to deal with that. … I found solace and healing in painting, and that’s the biggest accomplishment I could find. My message to everybody is: Find something that you really like, that you can immerse yourself in … something that makes you feel good about yourself and can become a source of solace.
Melillo’s art will be featured in a show at St. Mark’s Church on Memorial Day weekend and in the Hamptons Fine Art Fair in July. To stay up to date, visit artfeelingsjm.com and @artfeelingsjm on Instagram.