Credit: Courtesy

James Fredrick Melnik: 1942-2021

Melnik, that’s what I called him. Jim — to his many friends, fans, and clients — was a character to be sure. An artist, landscape designer, father, grandfather, husband, drinking buddy, and spiritual guide, he had many talents, but mainly, Melnik was my friend. For more than 15 years, I was his personal assistant — but his codename for me was “the Empress of the Universe.”

We shared a deep bond honoring our Polish heritage, a love of Polish vodka, pierogi, Gołąbki (stuffed cabbage rolls), laughter, and spending time together contemplating the wackiness of life. We decided it is the story we tell ourselves that reminds us of who we really are — what rivers run through us, what blood we share, what secrets and lies we hold dear or spread around like wildfire — and Melnik’s recurring cosmic theme was that all that really mattered was kindness.

He grew up not on the wrong side of the railroad tracks, but between them, in upper-state New York to a family as complicated as most. After his mother passed away, Jim, his two brothers, and his older sister were raised by their father. One of his first jobs was working in a donut factory — squishing the custard into the soft donuts — and he marveled at how ironic it was that the kid who couldn’t afford to buy a donut was making them.

His dad died just a day before Jim’s high school graduation — an event that stung for the rest of his life. But as he was walking home that afternoon, his art teacher told him about a scholarship. He applied that night, and he got it. Lucky for him, this allowed him to pursue a lifetime in the arts.

Stories about his childhood were moving, poignant, hilarious, and tragic. He met his one and only true love, Patty, over a cup of tea one afternoon. They moved to the West Coast, married, and lived at Sunnyridge, a commune in Oregon. They snuck away one afternoon and ate Cheetos and cottage cheese in an alleyway somewhere in Oregon.

That was Melnik. Devoted to the cause and yet a rascal at the same time!

When he arrived in Santa Barbara and began his landscape design business, his talents blossomed. Jim was a guy who could hang with the high cats who lived behind the fabled gardens and gates of Montecito. More comfortable with a sketchpad than a cell phone in his hands, a minor detail that often exasperated his more modern-day colleagues.

Over the course of his career, Jim did numerous public landscape works, including reimagining the Japanese Garden for Lotusland and a number of pieces for the City of Ventura and Thousand Oaks.

He considered each garden a blank canvas and would begin with a “walk-about” to get the vibe of a place. And then, as he often said, he’d start from big to small, imagining how hardscape and water features would inform the more intimate details of his designs. He was flown all over the world to work on gardens for clients — England, Costa Rica, Cuba, Canada. And on the rare occasion when he would appear before architectural boards of review, he went mano y mano with the “out-of-town architects who showed up in their Armani suits, bearing laptops and computer assisted designs — looking like they chopped up Architectural Digest magazines and ate them for breakfast in bowls full of one percent milk.” Jim proudly and humbly walked in carrying his beautiful hand-drawn site plans, each and every one a work of art.

While Melnik’s pride in his work was bountiful, his greatest joy in life was spending time with his three kids — Josh, Jed, and Patience. He was so proud of them and what they have all accomplished in their lives, including bringing his six grandchildren into this world who delighted him in his twilight years.

We had a chili club that met every Wednesday night for years, and there was always a place at his table for a wandering minstrel or any lost soul who was hungry and had no other place to be that night. His friends came from all backgrounds, religions, and walks of life.

Jim was always an independent, strong character, and it was heartbreaking to bear witness to his last couple of years when things started to change. In the end, his strong body became weak, and although he might not have been able to remember the botanical names for all of the plants that he moved about our earth, he could remember every drop of kindness that was bestowed upon him.

People are curious how Jim died, and I can assure you that in the end, Melnik slipped away as gently as he walked on this earth. He was found lying on his bed. He looked like he just took his last breath and laid back to contemplate his fate.

So now, we grieve the loss of a man who touched so many lives and so many gardens, yet we rejoice in the fact that he is now free to find out what lies beyond the great beyond.

Melnik was always true to himself. I loved him, and he loved me, and I will miss my dear friend.


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