Jim Mellett is one of the absolute icons of the 1980s. In the panoply of political and cultural figures, news events and technological innovations of the decade, Mellett is right up there with Ronald Reagan and The Terminator, Prince and Madonna, the Rubik’s Cube and Sony Walkman.
That’s true, at least, if you’re solely going by The Eighties, a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle whose artwork is a hand-illustrated collage of some hundred-plus pop culture references from the period. There, sandwiched between Sam Malone from Cheers, the Chrysler K-Car, and Time magazine’s Whodunit? (aka “Who shot J.R.?”) cover, is a young Jim Mellett, dressed up in a jacket and tie for his high school yearbook photo.
As a committed dissectologist–that’s someone who likes to do jigsaw puzzles even when it’s not Thanksgiving or a global coronavirus pandemic–I came across Mellett’s work in the most innocent of ways. Just having completed The Eighties, the box was sitting by the front door, waiting to be passed on through the Puzzle Underground™, when mutual friend Paul piped up to announce he not only knew the artist, but that Mellett likes to draw himself into his puzzles as a cameo. In this case, he’s right above Ted Danson’s left shoulder.
By this measure, Jim Mellett pretty much owns the last half of the twentieth century. You have to look close, but there he is in The Sixties, as a boy in a red jacket next to the lava lamp, and then wearing a striped shirt for the next decade’s puzzle. Mellett is pictured with his daughter in the 90s and at the beach with the family above Usain Bolt’s outstretched arm for The New Millennium.
Jim Mellett has been a commercial artist for over 30 years and created original illustrations for over 50 jigsaws, all published by White Mountain Puzzles. Each finished puzzle takes around three months for Mellett to complete, from inception and background research to sketches and final production.
“We both kind of know what one another is thinking,” Mellett says of his long-running collaborative relationship with White Mountain. For any given puzzle subject, “They come up with a list, I come up with a list–we work things out.”
Each artwork is hand drawn on a single big 24″ x 30″ board–the exact size of the final printed puzzle–and filled in with a combination of gouache (opaque water color paint) and colored pencil. The precise masthead lettering that spells out Television Families or Broadway Musicals or The New Millennium is all done by hand as part of the finished piece. There is no computer manipulation, Photoshop, or external typography added to the painting.
In the old days, Mellett would ship the finished artwork to White Mountain’s New Hampshire office for photographing. Now that work is done locally, allowing him more hands-on review of the final production image.
“I’m a Pittsburgh guy,” says Jim Mellett from his home studio in Mount Lebanon, “So I always make sure to put a bunch of local things in my paintings.”
True enough. You’ll find a Heinz ketchup bottle in at least a couple different puzzles and various Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins turn up all over the place. Somehow Bubby Brister didn’t make the cut for The Eighties, but Mario Lemieux did.
Music includes a tour poster for The Eagles ’79 concert at the Civic Arena and The Movies makes sure to get in Slap Shot‘s Hanson brothers. Mellett’s Great Americans puzzle features an entire column of western Pennsylvania folks. Some of these–Andrew Carnegie, Fred Rogers, and Andy Warhol–may be more name brand than, say, Jonas Salk, Rachel Carson, or Rocky Bleier.
“[White Mountain] never told me, ‘Don’t put so much Pittsburgh stuff on there.'”
Jigsaw puzzles are, as they say, “having a moment.” A recent NPR story on the topic mentions sales jumps in the hundreds of percents since the coronavirus left us all homebound and nostalgic for simpler times. Try buying one anywhere right now and this truth will be confirmed. Target’s puzzle shelves are bare and online you’ll likely see a similar message to the one on White Mountain’s site warning of limited supplies and delays in order processing.
“Like a lot of artists, I worked a second job,” Mellett says of his 14 years driving for UPS while simultaneously creating original artwork. Those days are done now, though, as artist has become a full-time job and the virus-driven spike in sales has been an unexpected boon for the puzzle illustrator.
As a veteran of the Puzzlesphere®, I can tell you Mellett’s designs make for top-quality piece-putting-together. At Chez Orbit we don’t cheat–that means no looking at the box–so one achieves the sublime experience of assembling on the pure feel of what fits where, based solely on a puzzler’s intuition and raw gumption. You couple that solving strategy with the anything-could-be-anywhere collage layout and a non-stop parade of pop culture a-ha! moments and it’s a recipe for a socially-distanced good time.*
Mellett is currently at work on a new puzzle for White Mountain called Iconic America. That should be available some time in the next few months. Maybe–just maybe–we’ll see Jim Mellett’s face among yet another set of icons.
* Orbit pro tip. To multi-dimensionalize the Mellett puzzle experience, get one of White Mountain’s collage puzzles, hide the box (or course), relay the theme (ex: “Broadway” or “The 1960s”) to your puzzling group, and have each puzzle solver make a prediction list of what they think will appear in the final image. When you’re done, count up the correct answers, make fun of the people who haven’t heard of, you know, John Hinckley or Leona Helmsley, and call someone a winner!
All photos and original puzzle artwork courtesy of Jim Mellett. For more of Mellett’s art, see his website melart.com.
All of Mellett’s in-print puzzles can be found at the White Mountain Puzzles website. Just be aware that everyone else is also trying to buy the world’s last remaining available puzzles, so many are currently out-of-stock.