Mel Spinar has been a favorite at Ipso Gallery and Fresh Produce. His works hang in our office space as well as the homes of our team members. There is this inexplicable energy to his works. They keep you. They attract an audience. They allow you to build stories around them. Stories that you get to share with others. They are mystical.
Chicago-native pro-football documentarian-historian-writer Joe Ziemba had been researching ways to get in touch with Mel Spinar—an artist based in South Dakota, a longtime painting professor at South Dakota State University, and his former art professor at Sioux Falls College in the late 60s. That’s when Joe came across Ipso Gallery and our 2013 exhibition, Mel: A Celebration of Mel Spinar’s Portraiture.
Joe sent us an email this summer asking about Mel and mentioned a painting that he was looking to find a new home for. Liz Heeren, our Gallery Director, sent him information on how to get in touch with Mel and a list of places that had Mel’s work in their collections. A week or so later, Joe reached out again and sent this email:
Thank you again for your help with this project!
Mel did receive my letter and called me today. We had a great chat and he did remember me.
Anyway, he gave me permission to share the painting, and if your offer is still acceptable, I would love to send the painting to you.
It should be mentioned that it is a larger work, probably about three feet in height. I can measure it and let you know for sure.
Once I hear back from you, I’ll arrange to have it shipped safely to the Ipso Gallery. It is over 50 years old, but the original frame is still there and there is no damage to the canvas itself.
I am so very happy to have found a home for this wonderful piece–thanks to you!
All the best–
By the end of July, we received a large package from Illinois with Mel’s painting from the 60s, when he was a young art professor at Sioux Falls College. Joe later during a phone call tells me, “He taught me so much. The world really opened before my eyes as he would explain different forms of art, how they’ve been interpreted over the years, and what lies ahead and what the imagination might bring—I never encountered anyone like that.” He had him as a professor for his first two years before Mel left for SDSU. “I came from the southside of Chicago to South Dakota to get my eyes open to the world out there, so it was fabulous.”
I asked Joe to tell me the story behind how he got the painting.
“Way back when, I’m thinking maybe 1970 in the summer, Mel’s painting that we’re talking about was hanging in the Student Union at the time. We came back from vacation and a lot of the paintings were not hanging anywhere. A couple of people asked questions and —I’m going to use a very gentle word—it looked like some of the stuff got discarded during the summer of 1970. I don’t know if it was intentional or not. But anyway, some of the students found the paintings and retrieved them.
And we put the painting that you have now in the newspaper office. I was the editor of the school newspaper for a couple of years. And people really enjoyed it. Mainly it was oversized, as you can see, and it was just so completely different. You could have hours of conversation in front of it and look at it and try to figure out what the heck does it mean. I think that’s part of the attraction of it.
So anyway when I graduated in ’71, I’m trying to remember who but I can’t, someone asked if they could take it. I had earlier asked the school, even though this painting had been discarded, and some others when we put it in the office. They said whoever wanted it can take it when they left, never thinking to contact Mel. So one of the students, when they graduated, took it home to their apartment.
About a year or two later, someone was coming through Chicago and said, “Hey, would you like the painting” and I said, “Oh, I’d love it.” So they brought it and it took up most of the space in their car, I recall. When my wife and I got married, we had it in the front room for years. And the same thing, it’s a topic of discussion, comments. We had the painting in our house for years and years; we moved many times and kept taking it with us.
Then a couple of years ago, we downsized and we have a lot of things we love, but we checked to see if maybe someone else could give them a permanent home. And one of them was Mel’s work. It was all kind of prompted by a little mini-reunion we had at Dr. Don Richardson’s [another former Sioux Falls College professor] home in Indianapolis three years ago. Some of the students I went to school with or a little older were there and I was asking about Mel, and they were telling me he had moved to Sioux Falls. Of course, it took me a while to get the courage to try and contact him and ask perhaps if he’d like it or had a spot we could consider as its new home. But yeah, we’ve had it for 49 years.”
This early painting by Mel has some similar links to his later works. While more abstracted in form and subject, we see it how his bodies of portraiture work grew from it. It’s been a special piece for Joe, and we hope that we can fix it up and share it through Ipso Gallery in the future.
“I forgot to ask him when I talked to him, but I guess I don’t want to know the intention behind the painting. We’ve gotten so many interpretations over the years; I think I’m going to leave it at that because I enjoyed that part,” said Joe.