Brother Mel Meyer died on Saturday, October 12. His funeral mass was last Friday (October 18) on the Vianney High School campus, adjacent to his longtime Marianist Galleries. But he leaves behind a fingerprint on the city of St. Louis as distinctive as it is widespread.
As well known as Brother Mel is nationally and internationally, his artwork is nearly ubiquitous in St. Louis. You can find it everywhere, in places of prominence and in nooks and crannies all over the metropolitan area. And you always know when you’re looking at a Brother Mel, even if you don’t know who Brother Mel is.
The curved metal. The found objects. The bright primary and pastel colors. The bold, elemental shapes. His signature is just as unmistakable in its style as it is in his name, the way he would delightfully hide “Mel Meyer” in impish cursive in the inconspicuous corners of his art.
You always know when you’re looking at a Brother Mel.
Even though he might be better known as a religious artist, Brother Mel’s subjects were both “sacred” and “profane.” He was known as much for his brushed metal crucifixes as for his annual jaunts into the rural Midwest to paint cityscapes and landscapes. And yet, for Brother Mel, these binary categories (sacred/profane) don’t work. He found the sacred in the profane. And he uncovered the ordinary and the everyday in the sacred.
There is a whole theology of incarnation at work in Brother Mel Meyer’s art. He was, above all, an artist of materials. His artwork is a study in found objects: nuts and bolts, forks and spoons, scrap metal and driftwood. There is nothing esoteric or ethereal here. It is nothing if not flesh and blood, pigment and bone. And yet, this is not “found object” artwork. These materials, in the hands of Brother Mel, aren’t so much found as they are transfigured, transformed into a presence that is simultaneously concrete, particular, soulful, divine. The materials in his artwork contain a luminescence. They are illuminated as if from within, like an icon. His subjects always seem to have a sense of metanoia about them, a changed heart.
Of course, you would never paint your house the way Brother Mel did. He painted lives and things as a kind of photonegative in primary colors, never in black and white, but always seemingly inverted, a pink roof with black walls. And yet what he created never seems otherworldly. It looks good and right and true. And, above all, real.
His way of working was thoroughly modern, and yet his artwork was never abstract. You can see it and touch it and feel it. It is the world as it is, yet, how we could never have seen it before. Beholding Brother Mel’s artwork is like the moment Judy Garland-as-Dorothy walks through the door of the tornado-wrecked house, and the world bursts brilliantly into awestruck color. Except you aren’t in Oz. You’re still in Kansas, even if you don’t recognize it.
Because Brother Mel's art always leaves us in the here and now. And maybe that was his life’s work: to open our eyes to see the Oz in Kansas. His signature and his style makes inconspicuous things conspicuous. And the work of his art is to strike our attention, so that we may never miss what hides in the ordinary and the everyday ever again.
I had the honor or working with Brother Mel on several projects, including furnishings for the chapel at Lutheran Hour Ministries in west county. I am still transfixed every time I walk into that space and behold the Christus Rex (“Christ resurrected”) cross that he created for its chancel. He is well known for his crucifixes, but this presentation is stunning. The incarnation is here too, in the stainless steel of outstretched arms, the body—flesh and blood, pigment and bone—raised to new life, breathing a full-bodied peace on all who encounter him in this here and now.
But more than that, working with him personally, visiting with him in his gallery, was always a joy. He had a joyfully clever persona, with a smile to fill a room, even when he could be stern, unyielding even, about the vision and execution of his artwork. Brother Mel didn’t tolerate foolishness, especially regarding art. But, honestly, that was part of his charm.
He said he estimated that he created 10,000 pieces of art from the studio that sits behind the gallery. He was working, always working, even to the end. At his funeral mass, crucifixes bearing his signature were presented to his remaining siblings and his coworkers at Marianist Gallery, a final gift from the consummate artist. But all this artwork, all these fingerprints from his hand, also means that Brother Mel was never concerned about making his work inaccessible or scarce or rare. He was never concerned about manufacturing something too priceless, too precious, too pedantic.
Which is really just another way of saying he saw something sacred—a hint of the divine—in nearly everything around him. He saw the Christ in the commonplace. And he couldn’t help but make art out of it.
And now, perhaps for the first time, he rests from his work. Even as his work now lives beyond him.