The Last Paintings of Edward Menges

Death is hardly the end of the story for an Artist. A new paragraph is continually being written as long as their essence lives in the work they leave behind. One however could say metaphorically, the period at the end of the “life” of an artist ….. is the day they can no longer create Art.

Edward E Menges didn’t stop painting until the sickness took over. He was 96 years old when he passed away that October day while still living in the same DeMun Neighborhood he had called home for decades.

His last landscape paintings were done on pieces of wood with deep acrylic strokes, carefully and methodically created over months of work. The question then becomes….. how did they end up sitting next to a dumpster?

My bicycle trip through the DeMun Neighborhood that day was dependent on Kaldi’s coffee, a little jewel of a coffee shop. As I returned home via the alleyways with fresh caffeine in my blood, I spotted the winter scene beautifully vibrant and compelling. The painting spoke to me subconsciously of talent and a wonderment of self expression.

There were 12 paintings total!

A woman parked her car next to the building and I asked her about the paintings. She pauses, shifting her yoga mat and water bottle, speaking about the “art professor” with dementia in her building. It was good enough for me to sense a Dumpster Archeology story, and begin my research into the mysterious Artist.

Edward Ellwood Menges was born on April 4th, 1921 and was raised as a boy in University city, so close to where he finished his life. His father was a composer, and famous band leader, so Edward was surrounded by art and academic pursuits.

The best story I found online comes from his former wife who describes a passionate thriving man who taught art and honed his own brand of personal artistic vision. She tells a story of their travels through Europe in a Volkswagen camper, painting landscapes like Van Gogh. They slept at all of Europe’s greatest hotels, in the parking lot with no sleeping bags. He held rank as one of the privileged classically trained Modern Artists of his age.

Edward was published in Chicago art journals once 1951 and again 1954. He is described as one of the three best Midwest landscape artists of the 1970s. In 1957 he participated in a two-man art event showing 25 of his paintings in the public sphere. In 1969 he got into some trouble as a teacher at Florissant Valley Community College. Edward created a painting that certain upstanding citizens thought was particularly blasphemous. This teacher remained and had a long lasting impact at the college, teaching the history of art and attending conventions with speaking engagements on Religion in the Arts.

It is rare that a person offers so much online data. This is the great thing about artists, they explore their own culture, expose their souls and have a certain obsession with expression that becomes in essence, a public experience.

Stories tend to get better when “the living” add to it. I knew that in some way, I needed a direct witness, to solve the mystery of who threw out his paintings and why? Online research only goes so far.

Still from his obituary video

This is where my mind was a month later on my bicycle casually riding north to the same coffee-shop with no plans other than reading a good book. A dumpster diver always takes the long way through the alleyways of a city, so I made my way accidentally to the same spot.

A dumpster full of kitchen stuff was next to where I found the paintings and I dug around discovering a bag full of teas and protein bars. An elderly woman eyed me with a smile as she tossed her recycling next to my dig. We struck up a conversation and I talked about International students, dumpsters and the “College Exodus”. On a random chance I asked her about Edward Menges because she came from that side of the building. Her hands flew to her face and she began to sob. I knew then as the tear streaked face looked up at me with eyes as deep as space.

I am Jane, his widow.”

Jane showed me the small one bedroom apartment they lived in for decades, with his paintings still on the wall. Photos of Edward sat on shelves now used for her books. His art supplies were gone to make way for her spiritual journey. Jane has big questions about healing, consciousness and death. She told me about Edward and his need for attention, his passion for painting and I understood her answer to that question that is always asked.

How could someone throw away their husband’s paintings?

Three of his large landscapes hang in his former bedroom/studio/living room. One is her favorite because she got him to stop work on it and gift it too her. It is a vibrant colorful landscape with his signature light coming through the black curved lines of two divided thickets. In her painting, the color is everywhere like a kaleidoscope of rainbows through the trees, which speaks more of her, than of his style. Jane didn’t dishonor “Ed” by placing his paintings by the dumpster, she just needed to move on and kept only what mattered most. She had hoped his “experiments” would be picked up by strangers or artists to be re-purposed and I suppose that fits my bill.

This is a common theme with the living people behind the dumpstered lives I discover. To place a loved one’s possessions in the trash, is too purge ever so slowly their grip on your existing. The freedom to discover ourselves is what living is all about and Jane is discovering her own answers to life’s complicated puzzle. Edward is now free to find his own legacy.

Are we too hang on to the objects of each other like an old cartoon ball and chain?

Somewhere out there in St Louis homes and storage units are thousands of Edward’s paintings. He sold for years in Art galleries and his imprint on the St Louis art scene is invaluable, yet after decades without a gallery showing, and outliving many collectors who retained his work, one starts to slip into obscurity. Which leaves us with a small point of reference on the legacy of Edward E. Menges. 12 paintings left by a Dumpster from his last painting years.

Including: A forest afire with the red and orange of dimming light.

A winter scene bleak but for the rays of the majestic sun shining through empty branches.

A singular spring ball of sunlight dancing on the yellow colors of re-birthing shrubbery.

A purple explosion of rain drenched trees and perhaps a light shining through the mind of an artist.

Edward was a man slipping into dementia, frail and weak, with the love of his life by his side, living a meager but happy life. They frequently walked the short distance to one of American’s best Zoos and Forest parks.

Edward was painting his last moments of self expression onto wooden scraps using the talents of his personal artistic experience. His legacy has yet to be written so fresh off his departure from the vessel that carried his name.

There is something so enriching about work of Mr. Menges. His paintings on my wall often inspire me in the spirit of my own Art and I honestly attempt to discover the essence of what he was trying to trying tell us. His last paintings might be just experiments, or maybe he actually used his meager social security paychecks to buy paints, for paintings that took months, in one last ditch effort to express something that was occurring in his spirit. Edward’s mind was drifting back into the blank spaces from which it came and he had one more thing to say.

Dumpster Archeology Update#

After I created this blog post, it was read by the editor of All the Art magazine in St Louis. Based on the story I wrote 700 word version, that was published in the 2018 Spring Issue (read here).

Jane Menges continues to live in the same apartment. I visit from time to time and catch her in the garden working on the flowers. I help her with the hose and we sit by a little tree on the “new bench”…as her husband’s hand built one sits alone in the back… and talk about how hard it is for her to get groceries. She never remembers me at first … then calls me the “the trash guy” and we are back. Jane is losing her mind too and I can’t help to wonder when she finally leaves that apartment, alive or dead, if the remaining paintings will join the others at the dumpster, or be treasured by someone else.