A few months after earning a painting degree from Rhode Island School of Design, Speck Mellencamp found himself on the other side of the easel.
Last week at Southern Indiana Center for the Arts in Seymour, the 24-year-old introduced oil painting to a dozen students and covered basic techniques and color theory through still life painting.
This week, some of those students have returned to implement the skills they learned through self-portraiture. Using a mirror and a proper studio portrait setup, students are learning the fundamental use of light, space and color to become better artists.
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For someone who is fresh out of college, Mellencamp said leading the workshop has been a great experience.
“I’ve done lessons just one-on-one. This is my first time teaching a workshop, and I have really enjoyed it,” he said while taking a break from Friday’s session.
“Everyone has definitely improved a good amount,” he said. “The first few days, I was going around and talking to everybody and giving advice, and about Day 3, I just felt like everyone knew what they were supposed to be doing. … The first few days, it was like, ‘Hey, what do you think I could do?’ Then (Thursday), I was just like, ‘All right, you guys have got it.’”
Eric DiBlasi Jr., president of the arts center’s board and a student in the class, said Mellencamp is a natural teacher.
“We’ve offered classes in the past, but I don’t think we’ve ever offered anything this in-depth — five nights consecutively and a second week,” he said. “It’s great to have something different. We’ve had people join us from Bloomington, Indianapolis, so definitely people are interested in it. I’d say if he ever wanted to come back and teach again or do another exhibit, the door is always open.”
Mellencamp said he has been doodling and drawing for as long as he can remember, but he didn’t take his first official art lesson until he was 17.
While figuring out what he wanted to do as a career, Mellencamp said he kept getting pulled toward art.
“As soon as I got my letter to the school in Rhode Island, I didn’t even open any of the other letters from the colleges because I knew that’s where I was going to go,” he said. “I was looking into schools, and that was one of the only schools that you can go and just focus on art. Other places have an art department, but this was just all art school.”
Students have to pick their major as a sophomore, and Mellencamp chose painting.
“All of my classes after sophomore year pretty much revolved around painting,” he said.
He dabbled in printmaking and three-dimensional items with clay, but those didn’t suit him as well as drawing and painting people, landscapes and still life.
“I mostly oil paint,” he said. “It’s just got a long history, which is cool, and I just really like everything about it. I like the way it works. I like the way it looks. The colors are really vibrant and deep.”
Since graduating from college, Mellencamp has made his living as a painter.
“I’ve just been painting a bunch,” he said. “In a perfect world, I’d just paint all day.”
In October 2019, some of Mellencamp’s work was featured alongside those of his father, Seymour native and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer John Mellencamp, and his late grandmother, Marilyn Mellencamp, in the exhibit “Mellencamp: Three Generations of Art.”
The arts center was established in 1991 and is housed in an 1851 Greek Revival brick mansion owned by John and is leased to the center for $1 per year.
“It was cool just seeing all of my grandma’s paintings and all of them together,” Speck said. “Whenever I go to my grandpa’s, he’s got a lot of her paintings, and I like to go look at them. It’s pretty cool.”
After that exhibit closed, DiBlasi said he talked to Speck about teaching classes at the arts center, and he was able to make it happen.
For the students, he said he hopes they gain the confidence to paint on their own.
“Painting can be super overwhelming to start because you have to go and get all of the materials, and you think of colors and there’s red, blue and green, and you go there and there are five different reds and three different blues,” he said. “Once you get somebody that can give you a little direction, you sort of start doing it and you see, ‘Hey, I can do this.’ It’s just getting people over that initial hurdle just to be able to paint.”
Most students in the class are from the area, including Seymour, Brownstown, North Vernon and Nashville, but one came all the way from Wisconsin.
Mary Klink said she found out about the class after stopping in Seymour in the fall to see the John Mellencamp mural on the side of This Old Guitar Music Store. She met the store’s owner, Larry McDonald, and he told her about the exhibit at the arts center.
She wasn’t able to go see that, but she became Facebook friends with McDonald and saw a post he shared about the classes with Speck.
“I thought about it and thought it would be kind of fun to make a vacation out of it,” she said.
Klink only took the first week of the class but said she learned a lot about painting.
“I hadn’t painted since high school art class, and I only took one year in high school,” she said. “I just never had time for it, so for me, it was a nice change. I would like to keep doing painting. Meeting everybody here was awesome, too. We got to talk a little bit while we were painting.”
Gary Boebinger has traveled from Brown County to take the class.
“I’ve known him all his life,” he said of Speck. “I’ve known his dad for years, and he told me about (the class), and I said, ‘Sure.’”
The Seymour native went to school with John and in the past went to Greece for a week to paint with Speck. That and the arts center class are the only times Boebinger has taken lessons.
“His dad and I have painted a little bit together. He would give me a few pointers,” Boebinger said. “Speck, he probably doesn’t even realize he helped me. He thinks it’s so simple.”
Tammy Holland of Seymour and Mike Wooten of North Vernon also have enjoyed learning from Speck.
“He has been really helpful,” Holland said. “It has definitely helped to have observed him doing his painting, and then he is really good about going around and visiting with each person and seeing what their needs are and what they need help with. If we need something, he has been there to work us through it.”
Holland also hadn’t painted much since high school, while Wooten said he just recently started painting.
“Before this, I had no concept on how to paint. Honestly, I would just really put some colors down and start going to town. I had no concept of mixing, the technique, so I just totally broadened my horizons on oil painting,” Wooten said. “We were actually preparing to do it at the house, just kind of an extracurricular to get away from the TV, so it has definitely opened a new door, for sure.”
Speck said he would be willing to do more classes at the arts center in the future.
“I’ve taken a good amount of workshops and I enjoy them,” he said. “You meet a bunch of people. Just teaching them or being in one, they are just fun, good times. You always learn something. I feel like I’ve learned stuff this week. It’s something I like doing.”
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Speck Mellencamp posts some of his paintings for sale on Instagram, and some also can be viewed or purchased at Southern Indiana Center for the Arts in Seymour and Antiquated Fine Arts in Bloomington.
SICA is at 2001 N. Ewing St., Seymour. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. For information, call 812-522-2278 or visit soinart.com.