Since he began exhibiting his work, gallery owners and curators have found it difficult to label Eric Mesko as any particular type of artist, which suits him and them just fine.
“From my earliest days, I was making things out of junk. We were assigned to trace a maple leaf in fifth grade and I drew it instead,” says Mesko, whose work includes collage, painting, video and sculpture. “I’ve worked a lot in wood and assembled a whole art installation based on baseball.”
That installation, No Joy in Mudville (from the poem Casey at the Bat), was on exhibit at Oakland University’s Meadow Brook Art Gallery in the 2000s. The curator was Dick Goody, chair of the art department at Oakland and the gallery’s director.
“The art world in Detroit is too small and intimate to produce too many stars,” wrote Goody in the exhibit program, “nonetheless, this exhibition provides Mesko with ample opportunity to distill and project his considerable vision.”
No Joy in Mudville was, in part, a tribute to Mesko’s beloved grandfather, a catcher who played on a team with fellow coalminers and steelworkers, turning down a minor league offer in deference to his family responsibilities. He gave Mesko a baseball mitt for his tenth birthday, starting a collection that Mesko has added to over the years and now provides the subject of a drawing assignment on value for his Color and Design classes at South Campus.
“We all need to have a purpose in life,” says Mesko, who taught art at private schools previous to joining Macomb’s faculty 17 years ago. “Art and teaching are mine.”
Mesko’s own education was determined by which military base his father, a career Marine, was stationed. Mesko remembers being an engaged student in Bermuda but responding to bigotry at a rural South Carolina high school by distancing himself from other students and faculty, with the exception of his art teacher.
“I never took an art class until my last semester in high school,” says Mesko, who moved to Virginia after graduating and remembers hitchhiking regularly to an art supply store in Georgetown. “I read and studied and wanted to be more than the beatniks. I admired their independence, but wanted to stop short of the brick wall many of them hit.”
After Virginia, Mesko joined the U.S. Marine Corp and was moved deeply by poverty in Ethiopia and the great ruins of Greece, both of which he saw during his service time. Home then became Michigan, where his parents had moved. He earned an associate degree from Macomb and bachelor and master degrees in arts as well as a Master of Fine Arts degree from Wayne State University. From Wayne State on, Mesko’s work has been politically charged and well received by the art community. In addition to Meadow Brook, it has been part of exhibitions at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Kresge Art Museum and Western Illinois University Art Gallery, as well as several private galleries.
“I’ve often included student art in my shows,” says Mesko, who collaborates with Found Sound and Library Books, independent record- and book-sellers in Ferndale, to regularly showcase Macomb students’ work in their storefront windows. “This gives students a kick-start to their careers.”
Working out of a studio in Detroit for 25 years, Mesko regards that city as much his home as Ferndale where he lives. He has involved students in Detroit’s Mural in the Market project and served as the “engineer” on the refurbishing of the Eastern Market mural that greets as many as 40,000 visitors a day during the market’s peak season.
“Dave Barr (one of Mesko’s art professors at Macomb) told me that if you touch just one person with your art,” reflects Mesko, “you’ve made a difference.”