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Tom Melvin has raised Valentines to an art form

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Close to 40 years ago, Tom and Nancy Melvin chose the most romantic day on the calendar to get married, Feb. 14.

The invitation to their ceremony was, fittingly, a Valentine created by Tom himself.

Drawing inspiration from a poster he’d produced two years earlier to promote a Valentine’s Day dance, Tom, an artist, designed a red-and-white woodblock print to mail to guests in advance of the anticipated nuptials.

Though he couldn’t have known it at the time, that first fanciful image of a bride and groom atop their wedding cake evolved into an annual tradition.

Every year nearly without fail since 1979, Tom, now 65 and a highly regarded muralist, has gifted Nancy, 63, with an original work of art for their anniversary. More than just a love letter between spouses, these Valentines also serve as an unconventional year-in-review that the two share with family and friends.

“I think that we were just negligent getting our Christmas cards out,” Tom explained of the ritual’s genesis. “We figured we could do a Valentine.”

Sometime in late December, Tom begins reflecting on the year and starts sketching ideas for the print. Once he’s finessed the drawing, he carves the image into wood (or occasionally linoleum), a process that takes anywhere from a day to a week. He individually hand rubs each of the 100 to 150 prints, a physical effort accomplished over the course of several weeks. A handwritten note from Tom to the recipient is the finishing touch.

Naturally, Nancy, a clothing designer, receives the first print. “The first decent print,” she emphasized.

The entire series, including Tom’s 2018 print, is now on exhibit at Cafe Selmarie in Lincoln Square, 4729 N. Lincoln Ave., through Feb. 18.

“People get up from their seats to take it all in,” restaurant manager Meg Walsh said.

Though varying in complexity, the prints — always hewing to the red-and-white color scheme — are typically dense with imagery, mingling domestic scenes with professional accomplishments and inside jokes, often rendered with a healthy dose of humor in a vaguely madcap style. The couple’s love of dancing and Tom’s obsession with heights and aerial views are among the recurring themes.

“I try to get a heart into it somehow,” added Tom.

Subject matter ranges from the general — 1990’s simple nature scene recalls the Melvins’ home between Lake Michigan and the prairie — to multi-layered narratives that, while depicting events specific to the Melvins, will seem universal to any long-married couple.

There’s the progression from newlyweds to empty-nesters and the mingling of mundane everyday moments (2008’s Valentine centers on a broken window) with major life events — 2011’s Valentine is a tribute to Tom and Nancy’s mothers, who both died that year.

The prints are hung without descriptions at Cafe Selmarie, but the restaurant keeps a booklet handy at the hostess stand for customers who want an explanation of the artworks’ hidden meanings.

“We’ve had folks take the book and walk around with it,” said Walsh.

For her part, Nancy encourages patrons to “just be immersed in and surrounded by the art and look deeply. Different things pop.”

Wood block carved for 2018 Valentine.

Wood block carved for 2018 Valentine. | Thomas Melvin Studio

On a recent morning at the cafe, during a lull between breakfast and lunch, the Melvins sat amid their family history and enjoyed the rare opportunity to view the breadth of the Valentine series in one place. (Only 2001’s “In the Clouds” is regularly hung in their house.)

“Having them hanging here, it’s like having my life on a china plate,” said Nancy. “It feels like flipping through a photo album.”

Flip, there’s the wedding invite, the culmination of a seven-year courtship that began when the Melvins met as students at Vermont’s Bennington College.

For Nancy, it was a case of love at first sight.

“I knew the moment I saw him I wanted to marry him. He was hanging by his knees from a balcony. I thought, ‘I love that energy. I could live with that.’ And he’s been entertaining me acrobatically ever since,” she said.

Flip, there’s 1985, a jumble of daughter May’s toys spilling out of a suitcase as the young family moves into the Ravenswood Manor house they still call home.

Flip, there’s 1986-87-88, when the addition of the Melvins’ son Leif caused Tom to skip two years of Valentines. “Time was flying too fast, hence the hourglass,” Nancy said of the ’88 image. “We’re all rocketing on this hourglass.”

Flip, there’s 1997, the Melvins’ car trapped in snow while visiting Nancy’s mom on Orcas Island off the Washington coast.

Flip, there’s 2009, Tom and Nancy clad in barrels spinning on the blade of a windmill, a symbolic nod to the pauper’s life of artists, along with a mural project Tom completed in west surburban Batavia, where windmill manufacturing was once king.

“They’re little bits of our story,” said Tom.

“We’re lucky to have 40 summaries,” he said, and, knock wood block, many more.

Prints are available for $260 upon request. Contact www.thomasmelvin.com. Valentine cards are for sale at Bari Zaki Studio, 3858 N. Lincoln Ave.