For John Melillo, Long Island is home — starting in the 1950s from the time he was a boy, spending every vacation, holiday and spare moment with his family on the East End.
His childhood and young adult life were idyllic, with a healthy dose of excitement — a “Tom Sawyer adventure,” the Eastport resident recalled with a fond laugh during a telephone interview last week, up until 1970 and the moment he was drafted into the Vietnam War.
“Life, to me, is an adventure,” he said. “Sometimes, you don’t know where it’s gonna lead you.”
Today, chronicling the journey of both past and present are two series of paintings, on view starting Friday in “Life Goes On,” the artist’s solo show at the Southampton Cultural Center that explores not only his time in Vietnam, but also his relationship with the East End — with about 60 scenes, painted from both memory and photographs, that correspond to a map of Long Island.
“A lot of it is not only current memories and current pictures, but a lot of it is of old memories in those locations from a historical standpoint,” he said. “My family were really of the land and the sea.”
Melillo’s family history on the East End starts with his grandparents, the Sherrys, who each emigrated from Poland to Shelter Island around the turn of the 20th century. They met here and settled in Water Mill, Melillo explained, where his mother, aunts and uncles were born. More family followed and they spread out across the North and South Forks, working in farming, dairy and even hospitality.
In Sagaponack, his aunt ran the Sea Breeze Boarding House on the family’s potato farm, where it wasn’t unusual to see famous guests staying there, from artist Willem de Kooning to playwright Arthur Miller.
“At those times, there was not much amenities out here. So the rich and famous would try to stay at this old house built in the 1700s,” Melillo said, “and it was famous because my aunt cooked the best meals. For $5, you got a steak dinner on Friday with potatoes, and we all helped on the farm.”
When they weren’t harvesting the potatoes or moving them to market, Melillo — who grew up in Huntington — and his cousin were fishing, crabbing and catching turtles in Sagg Pond, or venturing deep into the woods to explore the famously haunted Betsy Hallock Mansion or the mystical Jeremy’s Hole.
“That was like the land that time forgot,” he recalled.
From the roof of the potato barn, they would watch the Bridgehampton Formula 1 races at Sagg Pond, the cars whizzing around sharp turns with just bales of hay to keep them on the road.
“It was a great, healthy way to grow up,” Melillo said, “and a great place at a great time for me.”
In 1969, he graduated from Cornell University — only to be drafted seven months later and eventually stationed in Long Binh, the largest military installation in Vietnam at that time, as a military police officer.
“I just was quiet, I wanted to get through my two years and get out,” he said. “All of a sudden, we lost a couple of guys, and I said, ‘You know what? I can do something about this.’ I could see there was a lack of supervision or knowledge, so I stepped up and I volunteered to become patrol supervisor.”
With this newfound responsibility, Melillo found himself overseeing about 100,000 people in Long Binh — 40,000 G.I.s and 60,000 Vietnamese — supervising any civil or combat situation during his 12-hour shifts, working six weeks on days, six more on nights, and repeat.
“Every day was pretty traumatic, to say the least,” he said, adding, “Every day I was there, you were prepared for not going home. There were three or four times where you say, ‘I’m not gonna see tomorrow.’ But you know what? You deal with it.”
During one of his patrols in the jungle, Melillo and his men stumbled across a woman living in a humble shack, cutting sugar cane to support the orphaned children she took in from both sides of the war. They began calling her “The Caretaker” and, one day, he took her photo — which he painted as part of his Vietnam series.
“This woman made life for those kids meaningful and it struck me as amazing, and I wanted to immortalize that picture, I wanted to immortalize that woman, and I wanted to immortalize that situation,” he said. “Even though it was extreme, life was still going on there in a very unique way — and I wanted to capture that.”
His year-long stay cut short, Melillo returned home after eight months, 20 days and nine hours — “But who’s counting?” he deadpanned — and immediately got back to “normal” life, for better or worse.
“In extreme situations like Vietnam, to survive, you don’t fight the jungle. You become part of the jungle,” he said. “When I came home from the service, part of that jungle came with me that led me to New York City — to a New York City business race that I ran for 45 years.”
From marketing and entertainment to printing and real estate, Melillo lived and breathed entrepreneurship until he started to wind down in 2015, officially retiring two years later. When he did, the Vietnam War nightmares began.
“I was having daymares, too,” he said. “I didn’t realize that all that running and that drive that I had in business was to mask some of the things that I saw and experienced so long before.”
After a series of medications failed to help him through his post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as side effects from Agent Orange exposure, he turned to the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center one more time for help — and, to his surprise, an abilities and aptitudes test pointed him toward art.
“I had never drawn a straight line before!” he said with a laugh.
Diving into art classes rapidly changed that, including courses at Suffolk County Community College, the Southampton Cultural Center, and in Manhattan at the School of Visual Arts, the New York Academy of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art.
“I found a tremendous relief, healing, and I was able to focus,” he said. “The fact that I could create something almost made me feel reborn again. It was a real relaxing pleasure that helped me deal with all those issues hidden for all those 45 years.”
After exclusively painting scenes around him — largely seascapes, portraits and landscapes — Melillo began actively looking for material and decided to dig out his old photos from Vietnam, tucked away for the last four decades.
“I certainly saw a lot of shock and awe, but my pictures that I took, to my amazement, were people going to work, feeding their families, going to church, getting on with their lives,” he said. “When you hear the bombs bursting in the air, and all the fighting going on, people still have to live, and I realized my pictures were the lighter side of Vietnam — meaning, ‘a life goes on’ side.”
In painting them, he found even more healing — a journey that continues to this day, he said. Living on the East End helps, too, he said. An avid fisherman since age 3, he gets out on the water with his daughter, Beth, all year round, never far from the Great South Bay, Peconic Bay, Long Island Sound, or the Atlantic Ocean.
Together, from sometimes 80 miles offshore, they watch dolphins and seals playing, turtles swimming to the beach to lay their eggs, sunfish, sharks and the occasional whale, often against the backdrop of a colorful sunrise, as captured in some of his East End paintings.
“I’m proud of the work, so regardless of what the outcome is, I’m just thankful for the opportunity and I’m thankful of the fact that I was able to do it and present it,” he said. “And to me, that’s a success before it even begins.”
“Life Goes On,” a solo exhibition featuring paintings and photos by artist John Melillo, as well as a video, will open on Friday, September 17, at the Southampton Cultural Center, 25 Pond Lane, Southampton, and remain on view through November 3. Gallery hours are noon to 6 p.m. A reception will be held on Sunday, September 19, from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. For more information, call 631-287-4377 or visit scc-arts.org.