Two paintings — Scenic New Mexico, which depicts a jagged butte seen from the perspective of someone standing farther back on its edge, and Mayo Beach Wellfleet, a view of a white cottage on a cloudless day — are hung next to one another at Spiritus Pizza in Provincetown. They are part of a show of works by R. Mark Melnick on display through July 14.
The edges of the cliff and of the house are blurry, almost as if Melnick has smudged them out. As a result, each painting has a certain softness. The viewer is invited to see the big picture rather than dawdle in the details.
The way the two paintings have been arranged invites comparison: Southwest and Northeast, the thrill of being on a cliff edge versus the quaint domesticity of a Cape Cod house, arid heat next to dewy humidity. But there is a further comparison to be made, not readily evinced by the paintings themselves. Melnick painted Scenic New Mexico with his right (dominant) hand in 2004, and he painted Mayo Beach Wellfleet with his left hand this year — three years after he suffered a severe stroke that robbed him of the use of his right hand.
The show is arranged to invite the comparison: pre-stroke painting next to post-stroke painting, almost as if daring you to decide whether there is any difference in quality.
Melnick, 62, grew up in Chicago and earned a B.F.A. at the University of Michigan before attending the Art Institute of Chicago. Later, he moved to California and Nevada and dedicated himself to plein-air painting. In 2018, after the stroke, Melnick came to the Boston area, where his parents and three siblings all live. He comes to the Outer Cape regularly to visit family in Truro, including his uncle Dave Roberts, who is also a painter.
Melnick’s sense of color, perspective, and spatial relation were unaffected by the stroke. He has difficulty communicating, however, because of aphasia — a common consequence of left-brain strokes. He was able to respond to written questions, though, with assistance in finding his words from his cousins Stephanie and Kristen.
His pre-stroke work included public art, landscapes, and fine art. “If you look at melnicholas.com,” Melnick said, “you can see my complete art collection from before the stroke. A lot involved very large murals. Since the stroke, most of my paintings are on a much a smaller scale. Everything takes me much longer. There’s a lot I’ve had to relearn.”
Before the stroke, he never painted with his left hand. “I would stand up and paint while holding the palette in my left hand,” he said. “Since the stroke, I’ve lost all use of my right hand and right leg, so I have to rely on my left hand for mixing the paint, holding the palette, and painting. It also means I have to do most of my painting sitting down.”
He said learning to paint left-handed was difficult, but he is improving. “In the first month after my stroke, I was at Spaulding Hospital in Charlestown and started doing some paintings of the shipyard from the window down the hall,” he said. “Even though it was tough for me to get the details down in the way that I used to, I could still capture the sense of light and color. It was a low point in my life, and I wasn’t really in the mood to paint, but my family encouraged me. Eventually they asked me to paint the family pets, so I did a whole bunch of dog paintings.”
It is tempting to view Melnick’s work through a lens of sentimentality. His is a feel-good story about perseverance. But it also says something about the power of art and its emotional foundation to promote healing.
“He’s been here for the last week with us,” said Kristen Roberts. “And his ability to communicate has increased in that short time. The more he talks, the more he can talk.”
“I am my own toughest critic,” Melnick said. “When people see my work now, they say, ‘Wow, you did that with your left hand, after having a stroke?’ To me, art invokes an emotional response. And that’s what I want my art to do, stroke or no stroke.”
The event: A show of works by R. Mark Melnick
The time: Through July 14; every day, 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m.
The place: Spiritus Pizza, 190 Commercial St., Provincetown
The cost: Free