Patrick Melroy, a multidisciplinary artist to the nth degree, captured at his studio in Santa Barbara | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

On the corner of Micheltorena Street and Gillespie Street, a small concrete obelisk was discarded by a construction team. It stood around four feet tall, with a pointed top and some minor chipping along the side, an utterly insignificant piece of rock between the sidewalk and the curb. This small pole was destined to join a pile of other concrete rubble, forgotten by history and memory alike, yet when Santa Barbara artist Patrick Melroy stumbled across this scene, he saw something worth saving.

The pole, as Melroy would later discover, was a remnant from postal boxes used in the early 20th century, when boxes were hung from these concrete obelisks. When the U.S. Postal Service made the switch to the iconic free-standing blue bins, these postal poles were left without letters and without purpose — yet the obelisk remained.

“I’m really fascinated by little monuments, monuments that just get turned into nothing,” said Melroy. “They get removed as the world encroaches on them.” He likened them to a Thomasson, a term coined by Japanese artist Genpei Akasegawa to describe useless relics of structures, buildings, and environments — staircases to nowhere, windows to nothing, beautiful in their obsoleteness. For Melroy, the postal pole was a triumph, a vestige of a forgotten artist’s craftsmanship. “With the tools that they had over 100 years ago, they were making these really pristine, beautiful objects” worthy of a second chance at life. He recalls repeating, “I think I can fix it.” So, he took it home with him.

A multidisciplinary artist to the extreme, Melroy hails from the small town of Ridgefield, Washington, the son of a cabinet maker and a schoolteacher. After finding his talents were better suited for art school than trade school, he found himself at UCSB in 2009 for a degree in fine arts. “And I stuck,” he said. He saw opportunity and creative ripeness in the city, adding, “UCSB felt like there were enough holes in the tapestry of the place that could be kind of stitched.” Since then, he has lived and worked on the Central Coast, teaching art at UCSB and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. 

Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

His aptly named MISC Workshop, a space as eclectic and joyous as its purveyor, lies somewhere between your dad’s garage toolshed and Willy Wonka’s factory. It boasts a broad assortment of materials, tools, and playthings: heavy boxes of pre-war steel axe heads, a miniature printing press made of Lego bricks, a wooden mold for his ongoing obelisk project, a lemonade stand, and a soft-serve ice cream machine. Though disparate, Melroy connects these objects with a loving, earnest admiration, creating a wholly creative space where he appears as in his element as a fish in water. “When you’re a young artist, the dream is that you’ll have a place where you can just do paintings all day,” he said. “Now, as an old artist, I really just want a place that lures people into conversation.” 

Along with his most recent discovery of concrete postal poles in Santa Barbara, Melroy hosts regular community workshops, exhibits public works throughout Santa Barbara, and runs the small independent media outlet Pullstring Press. With incredibly diverse works and interests, Melroy’s practice can be tricky to categorize; he opts for the term “social practice.” “When I’m trying to figure out which project is most compelling to me to work on, it so often has to do with, how does the human body interact with this object? How is the audience going to interact with this object? And what is it going to mean to the person who experiences it and moves on?”

For Melroy, it’s all about the gesture of creation, right down to the smallest act. One recent project of his allowed children to make their own ice cream cone with the rumbling soft-serve machine in his workshop. “They get to figure out how to navigate putting the ice cream on top of the cone. That is such a small little gesture, but it’s this kind of beautiful moment.” He paused, before asking, “Do you call that an ice cream practice?”

What is most exciting about talking to Melroy (and what makes him a gifted instructor) is this ability to recognize artistic possibilities all around him. When I met him, Melroy was in the process of planning the Kinetic Cake Expo, a showcase of non-motorized kinetic sculptures (picture, as Melroy puts it, “a really cool, weird art bike”) that drivers must steer through an obstacle course while keeping a cake intact. The expo, planned for April 2024, celebrates the possibilities of pedal-powered transport yet also examines these vehicles as artistic and creative objects. “A bicycle transitions into a thing that doesn’t just propel somebody from one place to the next,” he said, “but activates imagination, creates a sense of something in somebody who’s observing it.” That magic something, according to Melroy, is where art is born.

After our conversation in MISC Studios, I asked Melroy if he had any extra room in his axe-making workshop. After battling with steel, wood, leather, and linseed oil, I brought home a massive and unwieldy splitting axe. And since then, I must confess that I have only grown increasingly devoted to Melroy’s artistic doctrine. Its fundamental tenet is exceedingly simple: “If somebody offers you something beautiful, reconcile with the beauty of that thing. Don’t fight it.”

And as for that obelisk on Micheltorena and Gillespie streets, Melroy imagines placing obelisks all around the city someday, a fleet of “minor monuments” that mark spaces he feels connected to. “It’s for somebody to care about,” he said of the project. “It’s so weird that you could do that with this completely innocuous object. But we do it all the time.” For now, Melroy has repaired and restored the broken obelisk in its original location, standing tall in all its quiet glory. Despite the odd looks I got from cars passing by, standing in front of a concrete pole I felt immensely glad that someone like Patrick Melroy is in the world defending art that lies right under our noses.

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