“I have an insatiable
need to create. It’s with me
when I go to bed at night
and it’s there when I wake up
in the morning. The only thing
that changes is the process,
the medium and the surface
on which it appears.”

Bert's Bar & Grill

Mel's Studio on Pine Island

The Making of Meo
Mel Meo

by Carol DeFrank

OUTSIDER ARTISTS is not a new term, but neither is it one that is readily recognized, even by those in the profession. It’s a term sometimes used to describe artists who haven’t had the privilege of a formal education and who create their craft outside the boundaries of the official art culture. Local artist Mel Meo totally relates to this term.

“I heard this phrase while listening to a program on National Public radio. It’s a phenomenon of its own. Outsiders come from all walks of life, all cultures, all age groups. The common denominator is that we are self taught and don’t follow the normal rules of the masters. I even discovered that there are enough of us to warrant our own art galleries.”

Meo, a serious full-time artist and Pine Island legend, moved to Florida from Indianapolis in 1970 when she was 12 years old. “My mother was drawn to the Calusa Mounds located on the south side of the island known as Bokeelia.” Meo loved the beautiful, peaceful place but there wasn’t much entertainment for kids.

Out of boredom, she began to imitate her artistic brother David. “I decided to try my hand at art. I focused on watercolors because it’s a portable medium and l could carry everything I needed with me as I hiked around the island looking for interesting things to paint.” Her first subjects included the mounds, fishing boats and what she calls her version of people. “I’m not a portrait artist, but our local people are interesting and make great subjects. My version of people may not be the norm, but it’s my interpretation and I love painting them.”

From that time forward Meo knew that creating was the one thing that made her happy. She continued to find outlets for her newfound love such as sewing and illustrating cook books. She began making and painting simple things like aprons and tee shirts. “I have an insatiable need to create. It’s with me when I go to bed at night and it’s there when I wake up in the morning. The only thing that changes is the process, the medium and the surface on which it appears.”

She started her family at the age of 20 and within five years had three children. Although her days were filled doing family things she managed to become a full-time working artist because as her family grew so did the need for extra income.

She credits fate for the evolution of her talents. Her success is based on giving customers what they want. As trends change, so does her art. “I’ve been known to re-invent myself over and over,” she says. “Some artists say that’s a sell-out, but I don’t agree. I’m a realist and don’t fit into any specific category. I like to get to the authenticity of the subject. To me that’s what gives the painting heart and soul. I would say my work is chameleon-like. Whatever comes my way and is my muse at the moment is what I focus on. But I don’t compromise because I think that’s what selling out is.”

Meo was the first artist to establish an artsy store on Bokeelia. “It was 1982 and I was the Lone Ranger for quite a while before other galleries started popping up. Like everything else in my life, the store just happened. I was working at a restaurant and customers saw and liked my art. Eventually I opened a store in a back room of the building.”

She filled it with a mixed bag of her own original art as well as that of other local artists. The store was soon filled with painted furniture, clothing, hand made aprons and canvas bags, wall art, hand painted greeting cards, memorabilia, and anything else that paint would adhere to. The pieces were funky, unusual, colorful, whimsical and priced right.

The one thing the store didn’t have was a name, but that didn’t stop customers from finding her. Before long, the back room shop became a destination and customers from all over south Florida made the trip to Bokeelia to purchase and enjoy her art. To this day Meo is amazed and grateful when people buy her eccentric and cheerful creations.

The next step of her career was a natural progression; art lessons. The beginner class is called Hibiscus 101 and it’s more about learning technique than painting the flower itself. She loves teaching and is always on the lookout for local talent.

Meo has much to be proud of. She credits Robert Rauschenberg for one of her biggest achievements. “I donated a painting I did right after 9/11 to an Arts for ACT auction. It was called ‘Tower of Hope’ and Rauschenberg purchased it for $15,000. It all went to charity, but I didn’t mind. ACT is a good cause and I was proud to help.” Rauschenberg, one of the greatest American artists of the 20th Century, lived and painted in New York, but also had a home and worked on Captiva.

During 30 years of producing art on the island her transformations have been voluntary. That is until hurricane Irma hit last summer. That storm forced her to change directions out of need rather than desire.

Meo is still recovering from Irma’s wrath. Her house, studio and Air B&B were all damaged. Due to flooding and roof leaks she was forced to move her art to a myriad of places. “Life immediately after Irma was hard for a lot of people and businesses. Everyone was so busy trying to survive and cleaning up their property that luxury items such as art was the last thing on their mind. That was not good for me because art is my livelihood. But like everyone else we will be okay eventually.”

Throughout the years she’s actively supported many charities especially Beacon of Hope, an organization that helps the United Way. “Little did I realize that one day I would be a recipient of their help. After Irma I learned first-hand how important charities can be. I don’t know what I would have done without them.”

In spite of Irma’s chaos her future looks bright and, as usual, filled with creative ideas that include expanding her horizons. Like everything in her life, the first opportunity to do so fell right into her lap. She was an invited guest on two trips to fantastic and very different countries; Italy and Haiti. “I spent two wonderful weeks in Italy. Their cultural base is so vast I couldn’t absorb it all in such a short time so I took pictures of everything. I have beautiful images of olive and lemon trees, vineyards, poppy fields, landscapes, goats, chickens and dotted houses on the mountain sides.”

Meo’s experience in Haiti was quite different. “I was only there for seven days and my mission was charity work. It was the middle of August, very hot and there was no air conditioning. I didn’t have much time or extra energy to do any painting, but again I took a lot of pictures of landscapes, people, seascapes, and birds.” She says all of her experiences will eventually appear on canvas.

Regrets? She has a few. “I’ve always wanted to study and paint in a big city, but I never had that luxury. I’m finally beginning to feel re-energized and plan to approach some galleries on the east coast [of Florida] as soon as possible. Several of them have exhibited my work in the past so I’m hoping for a warm welcome. I also plan to research and learn more about Outsider Artist galleries.”

Also on her calendar is to continue mentoring her son, Nate. “I’m proud that he has already developed his own style. We’ve painted two series together, mangroves and crabs, and plan on doing other groupings. You can be sure that his art will be in the store when it re-opens.”

As for her business future, it’s not entirely clear yet. “Repairs of the store are almost complete. I’m very excited about it, but I’m ready to move on to new adventures. I’ve decided to pass the torch on to one of my creative family members. I will still be involved, but not on a day to day basis.

Mel expects her studio/store to open within the first couple of months of 2018. •

Mel Meo’s Studio is located at 5509 NW Pine Island Road in Bokeelia. For information, call 283-0236.

January-February 2018