QUINCY -- Disobeying his parents wishes set off a chain of events that led to Bob Mejer's 50-year career as an artist and art professor.
Growing up in South Bend, Ind., the University of Notre Dame was along the two-mile path Mejer walked home from football practice. Always curious, he scampered into a building one day, even though his parents had told him to come straight home. Wandering the halls, he made his way into the O'Shaughnessy Art Gallery and, while admiring the busts and sculptures, he ran into a group of students.
"They asked me to portrait model for them," he said. "They said I had high cheekbones."
The students had been hand-picked by renown Croatian sculptor, architect and writer Ivan Mestrovic, who was teaching at the university. They were surprised when a 13-year-old Mejer, already a lover of the arts, contributed to a conversation about art history.
"He called me the 'Little Polish Boy,' " Mejer said of the prominent 20th century artist. "I also had another nickname. I was called 'Little Picasso.'"
Mejer has a knack for remembering people through their identifying features -- the man who walked with a limp, the man with the handlebar mustache and the woman with the crew cut. More than half a century later, he can still describe Mestrovic, the man that encouraged his earliest artistic impulses, in great detail. He was of short stature, standing just over five feet tall, with a beard and a mustache dyed orange from smoke. When Mejer entered his first one-man show at 16, an exhibit that featured 80 pieces, his portrait of Mestrovic elicited a chuckle from its subject.
'God guided me here'
Mejer spent hours as a child copying the images in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" -- a Christmas present he received and, drawn more to the pictures than the stories, one of the few novels he enjoyed reading. Later he illustrated drawings he liked from the Encylopedia Britannica, which happened to be the works of Matisse, Michelangelo and other masters.
His father, who held many jobs in Mejer's youth, never finished the eighth grade, and his mother was a secretary at Hawthorne Milk Company. Coming from middle class stock, Mejer paid for his own Catholic high school education by working over the summer at the school, cleaning out bathroom trash cans and wiping scuff marks from the floors.
"It was my way of helping my parents out," he said. "I wanted to take art, but I was told art was for girls. I said I was paying for my own education, and I wanted that course, so they let me in."
On weekends and with Mestrovic's permission, he studied drawing with Mestrovic's students. His first assignment was to draw an image of four particular trees -- the added dimension of drawing life made the process much more difficult.
"I've always just believed in a work ethic and doing the best you can with the gifts you have," he said. "Even if you have a gift, if you don't work at it, you're not going to grow."
He had no intentions of going on to college. No one in his family held a college degree. After being invited to an exclusive workshop for high schoolers at Ball State Teachers College -- now Ball State University -- he changed his mind, opting to pursue art and education simultaneously. He worked in an art gallery through his four years of undergrad.
In grad school at Miami University of Ohio, he taught for two years. On one occasion, he, his mentor and three peers taught 100 students at once -- an act people said couldn't be done, because drawing is usually taught one-on-one.
"After grad school, I applied to 30 places. Fifteen responded," he said. "I'd never heard of Quincy, but I'd look through library catalogs. I really think God guided me here."
Intrigued by Quincy College's Franciscan friars, which appealed to his Catholic faith, he called the college long-distance and offered to meet there the next day. He drove 10 hours through the night but made it to Quincy for the interview.
"That was 50 years ago," he said. "I'm a distinguished professor of art and the founder of the Gray Gallery and 50 years as a practicing artist. By my practicing my art, I can inform my teaching and give my teaching substance."
'My next piece'
His career is marked by countless awards and recognitions. Even after gaining national exposure, Mejer still refuses to mark his works with his initials, fearing to do so might ruin the painting.
Mejer recently encapsulated his five decades in Quincy with a retrospective exhibit. Largely an abstract watercolor painter -- Mejer describes himself as a "modernist in attitude" -- he created a course at Quincy University in watercolor painting and founded the Great River Watercolor Society -- modeled after the St. Joe Valley Water Color Society created by one of his mentors. He is also a charter member of Watercolor USA and pioneered a technique to develop water-based monotypes.
Preparing the retrospective took four months -- Mejer has participated in over 600 invitational or juried shows and 65 one-man shows in his career -- as he had to sift through a half-century worth of works and frame all but two of the pieces.
He chose to include works from his late son, Jason Mejer, and ex-wife, Mary Beth Dillard, as well. He never pressured his son to become an artist, but countless cross-country trips to art exhibits and a lifetime of immersion in the art world inspired Jason.
"I included them not only to showcase their talents, recognize their contribution as teachers to QU and the community, our relationship," he said, "but also because their lives were cut so short. She died at 42 of leukemia, and he died at 45 in his sleep."
The 130 pieces in the exhibit tell the story of Mejer's time in Quincy and track his progression as an artist. Since beginning in childhood, he has never stopped creating art.
"I try to paint or draw every day," he said, "and when I'm not, I'm always thinking about my next piece."
Staff Writer Matt Dutton will ?bring you a story detailing the life of a local resident each Monday.