Capturing Life’s Moments With and Without Camera: An Artist’s Year Long Poetic Journey

Jeff Mellin

Writer/ Artist/ Musician/ Father of Three

(Ardmore, PA)

Jeff Mellin at Common Space cafe in Ardmore, Pennsylvania

Jeff Mellin (http://jeffmellin.com) found me on Instagram. When I followed him back, I discovered how talented he was in painting, photography, graphic design, and even music. He was a true artist through and through. Our kids were in the same class last year at school and even attended each other’s birthday parties.

Hazel : Jeff, I am so glad that you agreed to be my subject. I was awed by your posts on Instagram (@jeffellin.creative). The first thing that drew me in was your painting which was titled “Horace Odes III.29, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Epicureans.” I immediately recognized the title of the painting referencing to Stan Kubrick’s film, which I also used to title one of my previous blog entries. After that, I looked through a whole bunch of black-and-white photographs you’ve done and simply fell in love with your artistic sensibility. I also saw that you composed and played music and did graphic design work. I want to know how you got started in the arts. Can you tell me more about yourself?

Jeff: Sure. Thanks for inviting me.

I’ve been working in graphic art in various ways since the early nineties; art directing magazines, designing advertising and packaging, illustrating… The image you’re referring to was actually an illustration for Marlin, the Virginia Wesleyan alumni magazine; that title was the title of the article it accompanied. And it wasn’t actually a painting… a real painting anyway. It started as a pencil drawing that I then colored and textured on the computer. So I wouldn’t say I’m a painter, though I’ve worked in lots of media; print, interactive, photography, video. I’m also a songwriter with several records to my name, and ran a small indie record label (http://stereorrific.com) and a non-profit with my brother, the composer Joel Mellin (http://joelmellin.com) to help and promote independent music artists.

Art has always been part of my life. My mom was an art teacher, and I’ve always had a knack for it. But I was also always interested in writing, and majored in English in college. The intersection of those two things is, of course, publishing and print media, which is how I ended up doing what I do. I was an art director for magazines such as Art New England, ArtsAround Boston, and Port Folio Weekly, an alternative newspaper in Norfolk, Virginia. I also did work designing CD and record covers, books, specialty publications for non-profits, exhibits…

Hazel: I am not surprised. What are you working on now?

Jeff: A little more than a year ago, I started my #ayearofhaiku project, writing and posting a haiku every day on Facebook. I needed something creative yet manageable I could do while being a full-time dad at home. I kept that up for a whole year, and I’m now about to publish it as a book called Driveway Chalk Stars of Pajama Astronomers (Pennyring Press, 2020).

Hawks cross above. Weave
knots from nothing. Lovers bound
and lifted by air

-Jeff Mellin, Driveway Chalk Stars of Pajama Astronomers

Hazel: Is this the first time you’ve done writing professionally?

Jeff: I’d studied writing and poetry in college. For a long time, I channeled that all into songwriting. My first book, Skin & Bones (Kolourmeim, 2007), was a collection of lyrics. For the most part, I’d abandoned writing poems. But now, stripping away the music element, and revisiting writing that had to work on its own terms felt fresh. 

Hazel: That is awesome!  Kudos to you for having the discipline to write daily for a year.

Jeff: Thanks. Frankly, I didn’t know what it was going to be in the end; I just knew that I needed to do something to ground myself. And I knew that I’d need to invent an obligation to a project, to make doing it at all a priority. As it turned out, by the end of the year, I ended up with something substantial. I’m incorporating some of my photographs from the year in the book as well. 

Unskilled forsythia
spills a full carafe of
daffodil yellow

-Jeff Mellin, Driveway Chalk Stars of Pajama Astronomers

Hazel: Are there artists who inspire you?

Jeff: For photography? There are the usual suspects you probably know, but… there’s a photographer named John Soares (http://johnsoares.com), a good friend up in Boston, whom I’ve collaborated with since the 90s. He’s a phenomenal portrait photographer who knows how to balance geometry and humanity. I’ve learned a lot working with him over the years; not just about photography, but about approaching art, and creating it in general.

Hazel: How did you find inspiration for your haiku?

Jeff:  I drew inspiration from things that were part of my daily life.  I’d play with the elements around me as puzzle pieces, catch little moments and pull on the sounds of words that came to me.

The designer David Carson (http://davidcarsondesign) once said, “the answer’s in what you’re given.” He was talking about his graphic art projects, but I think you can apply that to anything. I worked with what was “given” to me and made the most out of it. I tried to tell a story with minimal information. Drop by drop, I was able to go toward finishing this project. I think I got better at it as I went along, and my voice became clearer. 

Hazel: What do you think was the most challenging thing when writing?

Jeff: It’s hard for me to find inspiration without some sort of direction or assignment; some seed I can grow and cultivate. That’s probably why I ended up in design, where you’re usually starting with materials and a clear objective. In my songwriting, the seed will often be a title or phrase or just something that happens to work with a bit of the melody, and then I’ll build out the rest from that, playing off the sounds in those few words, crafting it into something meaningful. In my art photography, the seed’s from my environment; I’ll keep an eye out for patterns and shapes and contrasts, maybe some momentary story, and then figure out how to trap it all in a square.

So, in a sense, writing the year of haiku was like taking photographs without a camera. I learned to see these haiku moments around me, wherever I was, because I told myself I had too. It wasn’t so much finding beauty or meaning in everyday things, but knowing I could find beautiful or meaningful things everyday. And then crafting my fragmented, verbal impressions of those things into something complete, same as I would designing a poster, editing a video, or writing a song.

You gotta remind yourself everything’s right in front of you; you just need to get out of your own way to see it. And then, trust that how you see it, how you process it, letting it filter through all your influences, your experiences, your perceptions and perspectives, all the stuff that makes you “you,” will end up creating something that’s inherently original and worthwhile.

Late air thick with clicking eighths
a cricket close chirps quarter notes
then waits

-Jeff Mellin, Driveway Chalk Stars of Pajama Astronomers

Hazel:  You are absolutely right.  Can you give me another example of how a seed grew into a mature work?

Jeff:  Well, as I said, in graphic art it happened all the time; most of that work started with some given content or concept. Like that illustration we talked about.

In music, the indie record label I work with over in London, WIAIWYA (Where It’s At Is Where You Are), has been a good source of those seeds. John Jervis, the label owner, puts together these themed albums, like a holiday record (https://wiaiwya.bandcamp.com/track/januarys-bluff) or songs for the London Olympics (https://wiaiwya.bandcamp.com/track/hit-me) or most recently, the anniversary of the moon landing (https://wiaiwya.bandcamp.com/track/small-step). He’ll send out an alert to his stable of artists; “Pick an Olympic sport… Boxing? Great!” or “Write a song called ‘One Small Step’” and we’ll pull something together that I never would have otherwise.

Hazel: Wonderful! What would you say has been the biggest accomplishments in your life thus far?

Jeff:  My three kids. They’re the most important thing right now. Having kids is humiliating…

Hazel: You mean “humbling?”

Jeff: Ha! No! Humiliating! In a good way. It strips you of your ego, your self-importance. It cuts you down, and makes you realize how little other things matter, and how little you actually know about anything. I’d had, for lack of a better word, an, uh, “academic” understanding of what it’s like to raise kids, but they became so much more important than I’d ever imagined; they shifted my perspectives on everything. My kids are bigger than anything. With this haiku book, a lot of it ended up being able to see the world through their eyes. My sons were surprising; they taught me to see things their way.

Thank you, Jeff, for taking the time to share your art with me. I cannot wait to receive my signed copy of your book. Lastly, I want to say good night with another beautiful haiku by Jeff.

A passing car’s a
lighthouse sweep. Last words
of the chapter. You’re asleep

-Jeff Mellin, Driveway Chalk Stars of Pajama Astronomers

Poems and photographs ©2017, 2018 Jeff Mellin. All rights reserved, Reprinted with permission of the author, from the book ‘Driveway Chalk Stars of Pajama Astronomers: A Year of Haiku’ (Pennyring Press, 2020 http://www.pennyringpress.com)

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