Early in his life, John Mellencamp would pause to watch as his mother, Marilyn, painted at her easel. He was the only one of her five children who stopped to look. When the Hoosier singer-songwriter left his hometown of Seymour for New York in the 1970s, he went there thinking he would study art. Instead, Mellencamp got a record deal. But in the late 1980s, the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer did train at the legendary Art Students League of New York, and he has been painting, exhibiting works, and, like his mother, subtly influencing the next generation of Mellencamp artists ever since.
Growing up, Speck Mellencamp—the musician’s younger son with his ex-wife, model Elaine Irwin—remembers watching his dad paint. “I’ve always been interested in art,” says Speck, who graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2019. “I drew a lot as a kid. My dad and I have collaborated on a few paintings.”
They also collaborated on a show: In October 2019, paintings by Speck, John, and Marilyn, who died in 2012, were featured in the Mellencamp: Three Generations of Art exhibit at the Southern Indiana Center for the Arts in Seymour. Last July, Speck, 25, became executive director of that gallery, where he taught oil painting classes in early 2020 and where, as a child, he spent time in the pottery barn, learning to throw clay. He wants to bring the same relaxed experience he remembers to the center’s contemporary classes.
“In my classrooms, I like to get a sense of community instead of a teacher/student dynamic,” he says. “I don’t want it to be a stress-inducing environment.”
Some of the center’s board members observed the classes Speck taught and were impressed—not only with his teaching style, but with ideas he had about how to grow the center, which opened 30 years ago.
“Once he got past the initial nerves on the first night, he was a natural,” says Eric DiBlasi Jr., board president. “By week two, we were considering him for the director’s position. What makes Speck stand out is that art is his true passion. Being right out of art school, he is seeing SICA with fresh eyes.”
During the pandemic, Speck has had to get resourceful. He hosted the Socially Distanced Painting Club at the Medora Covered Bridge and rolled up his sleeves to refinish the hardwood floors upstairs in the two-story brick center. (The property at 2001 N. Ewing St. is owned by John Mellencamp, who leases it to the nonprofit, volunteer-run center for $1 every two years.) The most challenging thing about engaging arts lovers during a pandemic? “Email,” Speck says. “I hate email.”