Plein Language

Plein Language

“Everything just keeps changing,” Bill Meddick says as he presses his brush to his palette. It’s day four on his current painting, and the wind keeps blowing, then stopping, turning the water of New Haven Harbor different hues. With gasoline at record highs, this plein air artist has been staying close to home, in New Haven. “I saw this and I thought, ‘That’s ambitious,’ but now I’m thinking I’m not that ambitious.” He’s been trying to keep up with the water’s changing mood.

Someone told him recently that his paintings aren’t “happy.” He studies his canvas to see if it’s true. “Is that depressing?” he asks. To me it’s serene, not sad, but I change the subject. “How long have you been painting?” “Forever,” he answers. Meddick started life in Ohio, where his father was an amateur artist. “My father wanted to be a full-time painter, but he had five kids. He used to take me to the basement at night to paint.”

Meddick was the fourth child, “the baby until Jimmy came along.” Jim Meddick is an artist too, a cartoonist who created Robotman, the comic strip now called Monty. “He’s way more successful than I am,” Meddick says with a hint of pride. “What’s your favorite color?” I ask, changing the subject again. “What kind of question is that? It’s like, ‘What’s your favorite crayon?’” “Just a personality question,” I say, adding, “Maybe we’ll just skip your personality.” “Purple,” he proclaims, and adds, “Everything is half-empty. I’m not a cheerful person. I mean I’d like to think I am, but I’m a downer. I can barely stand myself.”

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Meddick, who studied at Silvermine School of Art and at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, exudes rib-tickling, self-deprecating humor. When he was younger and living in California, he was a Yippie and painted posters for the Youth International Party, attending meetings with folks like Yippie-in-chief Abbie Hoffman. “I came out of the ’60s during the Vietnam War,” he adds as an explanation. Later he worked for Atlas Scenic Studios, painting backdrops for theater productions on and off Broadway, and served as executive director of the Milford Arts Council for about 30 years until he grudgingly retired and started painting full-time.

He describes his work as “realistic.” People appear in some of his oil paintings, but most are scenics, buildings, trucks, boats, empty rooms. Finished pieces fill walls and canvas racks in his sprawling and brimming Fair Haven Heights home, proof of a long art career. There’s Left at the Table, a painting of a man asleep at a table, a half-drunk bottle of wine before him, totems of loneliness. He’s painted East Rock, Light House Point, silent old tank cars at a New Haven train yard, stoic cabins lined up on Cape Cod, Gulf Beach in Milford, boats with no one in them. There’s I Didn’t See Her Fall, featuring himself, his back to a window as a woman falls past it to the ground. “A lot of galleries have taken interest in it,” he says, explaining that the piece is about “avoidance; not wanting to take part.” Get the Party Started depicts a man and a woman walking into a party. “It’s me and Amy Winehouse,” he says, and no, he never met her. Then there’s Buck Moon, featuring his niece on the patio outside his house, and there’s some purple in that one. There’s also the historic Grand Avenue Bridge undergoing repairs, a lone tree looking out over the sea, images copied from television for inspiration.

He completes about 36 paintings a year and sells them primarily from his website, estimating the price tag for the Long Wharf piece will be about $500. He’s won awards, held one-man shows and been in group shows in Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island. His work hangs in numerous collections, and, for his years of service, the City of Milford named its trove of art The William Meddick Permanent Art Collection. He says he was commissioned last year to paint a series of New Haven scenes that now hang in the Cornell Scott Hill Health Center on Sargent Drive.

“Every New Year’s Eve I do a self-portrait,” he continues, holding up several paintings of a man alone. “Oh to be invited to a party,” he adds with a laugh. “But you probably wouldn’t go, right?” I ask. He grins.

His back yard is an oasis of flowers, and as he sits at a table in front of a fountain, water streaming from the mouth of a decorative pig head one of his brothers gave him, a rooster crows somewhere in the distance. He tells me that he volunteers to pick up trash once a week at Quarry Park, not far from his house. “It’s a community thing,” he adds. He speaks often of his Fair Haven neighborhood and his love of painting, especially outside on the city streets. “You get people walking by, and they say, ‘Oh, I can’t do that. I can’t even paint a stick figure.’ And I say, ‘Sure you can.’ Everybody has an outlet.”

“So are your paintings sad, lonely?” I ask him, though I still don’t think so. He contemplates my question and says, simply but not, “They fit me.”

William Meddick | (203) 468-2993

Written and photographed by Jill Dion.

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