John Melillo painting King, the German shepherd he served with in Vietnam.
John Melillo, "Perspective, Backbay, Southampton, N.Y." Oil on cotton canvas.
John Melillo with his hometown hero of Southampton banner. COURTESY THE ARTIST
John Melillo with his work at a previous art show at Southampton Cultural Center. COURTESY THE ARTIST
John Melillo, "Caretaker," a painting depicting a Vietnamese orphange. COURTESY THE ARTIST
John Melillo painting Montauk Lighthouse for the 2023 Hampton Fine Art Fair. COURTESY THE ARTIST
John Melillo's painting, "Strength, Honor, Hope, and Courage." COURTESY THE ARTIST
This month, Vietnam veteran John Melillo will launch his third exhibition at the Southampton Cultural Center. Titled “Life Goes On Part 3,” the show is a continuation of artwork he has created to cope with PTSD, and to tell the story of both his East End heritage and time as a soldier serving in Vietnam.
As he tells it, when Melillo returned from the Vietnam War, he said he became too busy to process the horrors he had witnessed and experienced overseas. Throwing himself into work, he was able to suppress his PTSD. But once he retired, without the hectic schedule and stress of the workplace, it resurfaced.
“I ran a business at a New York City pace for 45 years,” he explained in a recent interview. “I didn’t realize that all that running and all that effort masked some of the things I’d seen in Vietnam. So when I retired it all came forward. I started getting not only nightmares, but daymares.”
Melillo went to the Veteran’s Administration to seek help. After he took an abilities and aptitudes test, the results were clear. Melillo was suffering with PTSD and needed a way to deal with it. The VA pointed him toward art, after they saw it could be a source of healing and solace for veterans. With the help of the VA, Melillo enrolled in classes at the Art League of Long Island, Southampton Cultural Center, and, in the city, the School of Visual Arts, the New York Academy of Art, and The Met. Over the course of two years, he honed his skills, learning not only the techniques of painting but also discovering the therapeutic power of art in coping with PTSD.
A self-described oil contemporary realist painter, Melillo’s works are a combination of imagery taken from still photographs of the East End, where Melillo’s ancestry dates back to the 1890s, and paintings derived from photos that he took during his time in Vietnam. Melillo had given his daughter, Beth, the Vietnam photos years ago, and he started digging them out for inspiration when he discovered art.
“I didn’t even remember half of them and they became a source of painting,” he said. “What amazed me is that, for whatever reason, I didn’t focus on the shock and awe of Vietnam. I paint the lighter side.”
Melillo eventually started to make a name for himself in the art world. Melillo’s “Life Goes On” series premiered as a solo exhibition in 2020 at New York University, just prior to the pandemic, and was followed by two more solo art and video exhibitions at Southampton Cultural Center in 2021 and in 2022. “Life Goes On Part 3” will kick off with a reception November 10, at SCC, featuring new paintings by Melillo as well as works created for his previous shows. The theme of the show this year is “Comradery, Friendship, Courage, and Honor.”
One of his new paintings that will be on display at SCC centers on a story that finally gave Melillo closure to processing his tour in Vietnam. It’s the tale of a German shepherd named King who Melillo worked with during his time in the canine unit. Ironically, Melillo admitted that he is “not really a dog lover” in his day-to-day life. However, his bond to King is still so strong to this day, that he said, “What’s funny is that the easiest thing I can paint for some reason is a dog. I could paint one blindfolded.”
But that wasn’t always the case and Melillo said that he avoided painting King as a subject for a long time.
“I passed it over before because it really stands alone, and it is King’s own story and it’s difficult for me to tell,” he said. “I’d be remiss if I didn’t recount this most notable and significant encounter in my Vietnam tour, or for that matter my whole life.”
Melillo worked with King during his night shifts, the only time the canine unit was working. Of the 16 dogs that made up the unit, Melillo said there was something special about King. The pair bonded and quickly became “kindred spirits,” Melillo said, adding that both he and King knew what the other was thinking instantaneously.
“The adventures that I experienced with King were heroic,” he said. “He was probably one of the most heroic, significant, magnanimous, just honorable things that I’ve ever encountered. That’s a story that has to be told. If you’re a dog lover, if you like dogs, you really should hear the story because it really exemplifies what not only a dog can do and I don’t even want to call it a dog. It’s more than that, it’s an entity.”
A trio of stories about King saving lives in Vietnam will be shared by Melillo at the November 10 SCC opening, along with the screening of a video produced by Beth Melillo, the artist’s daughter, in which Melillo tells a range of tales from his time in the service and shares insight into his artistic technique.
Beth Melillo has invited several veterans organizations, as well as organizations that match service dogs with veterans, to the November 10 opening, in an effort to help build community and celebrate their shared experiences. Elected officials will also be present.
“I’m trying to really create a camaraderie here to celebrate this whole momentum going on and we’re telling a different story that hasn’t really been told,” she explained. “We want to invite everyone and also celebrate all the other veterans and people out there with my dad’s global message of healing.”
As a veteran, Melillo also consistently incorporates flag-themed paintings into his exhibitions, and some of these will be on view at SCC. “I always try to make it a salute to our nation,” he said.
One such painting that will be on display in the show is focused on the East End community. It depicts a parade in which everybody is holding their flags, sitting around and enjoying the fireworks.
“It’s all about our community coming together to celebrate this great nation and the sacrifices it took to make it,” said Melillo.
Other paintings in the show delve further into his time in Vietnam. Melillo served as a Military Police officer, supervising 26 other soldiers, working 12-hour shifts for six-week days in a row, followed by six-week nights. He supervised civil or combat troops in Long Binh, the largest military installation in Vietnam which housed over 40,000 American soldiers and 60,000 Vietnamese. The stories are endless, and he has tried to tell many of them through his art.
One painting depicts the time he walked into the hut of a Vietnamese woman whom he had passed by many times while patrolling the area. He had never entered the hut out of fear of a booby trap or bomb, but one day, for some reason, decided to go in. After talking to the woman, he discovered the hut was an orphanage. The woman had taken in children from both sides of the war, and Melillo photographed them, capturing a moment of humanity in the middle of great suffering and heartache.
“It’s something you want to immortalize,” he said. “In war, some people are forced to do the wrong things while some people do the right things. So those are the types of pictures and the types of stories I like to tell.”
Additional works on view at SCC will depict pastoral scenes from around the East End. Though he now lives in Eastport, Melillo spent much of his childhood in Southampton, Water Mill and Sagaponack. His mother was born in Water Mill, and his aunts and uncles all went to Southampton High School. He has fond memories of cookouts on the beach and spending time at his relatives’ farms. His aunt ran the Sea Breeze Boarding House in Sagaponack, hosting high profile guests like artist Willem de Kooning and playwright Arthur Miller.
Painting the locations that are so central to his youth and East End heritage, Melillo said, provided additional healing. The varied landscape of the region, from the cliffs in Montauk, rocky shores and high bluffs of the North Shore to the Great South Bay, make for a “treasure trove” for landscape painters. He was also happy to find in painting these places that many hadn’t changed since his childhood.
“I can still go down to that one place I used to fish and it hasn’t changed,” he said. “I can go to what they now call Gibson Beach, in Sagaponack and there’s still parking, no dues, and you don’t need a ticket and there’s no lifeguards.”
Melillo added throughout his years doing exhibitions and sharing his work, which includes at fairs and many Starbucks locations throughout the East End, he’s realized that the same kind of trauma he experienced during the war has been shared by many people, for many different reasons.
“We all have our Vietnam. Be it a death in the family, an accident, a bad relationship, or illness,” said Melillo, adding that his ultimate goal is to create a global message encouraging those who have experienced trauma to find something to help them cope, just as he did.
“The first step towards this is to do something good for yourself,” Melillo said. “Do something to give you self-worth. If you like to dance, dance. If you like to sing, join a choir. If you like to read, join a book club. If you like art, do something in the art world, like I did. The message is do something, do something that gives you self-worth and in so doing you might find some solace and a path to healing.”
John Melillo’s “Life Goes On Part 3” exhibition opens at the Southampton Cultural Center with a reception on Friday, November 10, from noon to 4 p.m. Admission is free and light fare will be served. The exhibition will be on view from November 9 to November 26, Thursdays through Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. Southampton Cultural Center is at 25 Pond Lane, Southampton. In addition, on Wednesday, November 15, from noon to 2 p.m., John Melillo will offer a painting workshop at The Church in Sag Harbor for veterans and first responders. Visit thechurchsagharbor.org for details.
One fine body…