Lee Mero: A Christmas Artist

“There is one man in Minneapolis who has to think in terms of Christmas all year round.” Such a man was Lee Mero, a successful commercial artist and illustrator of Christmas greeting cards, who frequently visited Morrison County and became well known in the Little Falls area. Born May 30, 1885, in Ortonville, MN, Lee V. Mero was a younger brother of Dr. Frank H. Mero, a prominent Little Falls dentist around the turn of the century. The Little Falls Daily Transcript followed the accomplishments and exploits of Lee Mero, and through those newspaper articles the story of a talented artist unfolds.

Lee Mero studied art and illustration at the Minneapolis School of Art and later at the Chase School of Art in New York City – both schools which famous Little Falls artist George W. Harting also attended. During the summer of 1908, Lee worked as purser on the steamboat Hopkins on Lake Minnetonka, and made headlines when he saved the life of a seven year old girl who fell overboard and rescued by Mero in a feat of bravery – considering Lee could not swim! His artistic talents also made news as the Transcript in December 1910 reported that large lithographic reproductions of his drawings were on sale locally and were “attracting considerable attention.” Quoting from the Minneapolis Tribune, the Transcript in March 1913 carried a lengthy article regarding an exhibition of the Attic Club, a show which included two controversial works by Lee Mero. Done in the Cubist style, his A Gentleman Eating Noodle Soup led the Tribune to muse, “It is expected that this painting will create a furor,” when exhibited along with his other painting, The Loss of the 29,000 Hairpins. Furor or not, the Tribune in August 1913 admired Mero as “the artist who painted the Minneapolis scenes reproduced in the charming booklet issued by the Civic and Commerce association for the use of visitors.”

In February 1917, Mero spent a month in New York City and made the headlines again when he was arrested for drawing the Brooklyn Bridge! The Transcript, again quoting the Tribune, had a field day explaining how this “prominent member of the Minneapolis art circle” and “respected and admired member of the Attic Club” had so innocently set out to draw the Brooklyn Bridge only to be arrested as a spy. The arresting officer applied the cuffs to innocent Lee, who was unaware that such an act was any violation during the height of World War One. Soon released by a police captain with a stern warning, Mero stayed in New York City long enough to attend a reunion of 21 alumni of the Minneapolis School of Art who resided in the Gotham area and gathered at the famous studio loft of George W. Harting. The following year, Lee won both first and third prizes at the 1918 Minnesota State Fair art exhibit.

Married to Kathryn Rice of Fargo in 1920, Lee briefly moved to Chicago, working for the Chas. D. Frey Advertising Co. where he designed ads for Coca-Cola. Returning to Minneapolis, he became head of the art department of the George Buzza Company (later Buzza-Cardoza Co.), working on poem cards and posters. Around this time he began to concentrate on Christmas greeting cards, and the Transcript via the Tribune reported in December 1921 that Mero labored to create Christmas cards year around: “He sits in his office all his working hours, planning ways to say ‘Merry Christmas’ in new ways that still have the charm of the old.” Neither spring, summer or fall were “allowed to come between him and his all-year Christmas meditations.” His cards were noted for their human quality, and his hobby was stated as photographing “crowds at a fire where everyone is straining to see the spectacle; it is from these photographed figures that he gets his inspirations for his Christmas card people.”

Becoming a highly successful creator of Christmas cards led Mero to work as a freelance artist in 1937, and he was a longtime contributor to the Augsburg Publishing House’s famous annual Christmas publication. Lee continued to find success freelancing in design, decorative illustration, creating mottos and greeting cards, until his retirement around 1971. Lee Mero passed away in 1977 at the age of 92, but his art work laden with Christmas themes are timeless in the joy they bring to us all – as if to say – “And to all a merry Christmas!”

By Bruce Mellor
Copyright 1993, Morrison County Historical Society

40 Comments

  1. yo wazzup… i just wanted to say that my msie is crashing when I click on the text… are you using some js or something?

  2. Hi, Jon – Not sure what’s causing your crashing. WordPress doesn’t allow for the use of JavaScript, so that shouldn’t be causing the problem.

    Mary

  3. I’m curious…I have a framed Lee Mero art print…Shrine O’ Dreams…Any idea on the value or rarity of such an item?

  4. Also, can you tell me if the mchs has any Lee Mero’s on display?

  5. Hi, Thomas – As museum staff, we’re not allowed to do appraisals on the monetary value of items. I can tell you that we haven’t seen a lot of Lee Mero originals, so either there’s a lot of his art tucked away in people’s homes and they don’t realize who he is or Mero didn’t produce a lot that ended up in personal collections.

    In seeking a monetary value on your piece, I would look for a certified art appraiser and bring him/her whatever info you have on Mero (i.e. a copy of the above article!) so the appraiser has something to work from.

    We only have a couple of small pieces of Mero’s, which are not currently on display. He produced the art for one of the Little Falls High School yearbooks. If you’re interested in seeing his pieces, you can visit the museum and we will show them to you. If you call a day ahead of a visit, it will give us time to retrieve the items from our collections.

    Thanks for your questions.

    Mary Warner

  6. Did Lee Mero make lithographs? I have what appears to be a signed one of a mill and stream with a Lawrence Hawthorne poem on the bottom.

  7. Hi, Sally – Lee’s work certainly was conducive to lithographs. In fact, the article above confirms that he did have lithographs of his work with this sentence:

    “His artistic talents also made news as the Transcript in December 1910 reported that large lithographic reproductions of his drawings were on sale locally and were “attracting considerable attention.””

    Mary Warner

  8. Sally – Sounds very familiar! I too have a signed Lee Mero lithograph of a mill and stream with the following poem at the bottom:

    Through all changes of the years
    The faithful brook flows on,
    Just as true frendship will remain
    When other joys are gone.
    Lawrence Hawthorne

    I have had this litho for many years and it has been interesting to read about the artist Lee Mero.

  9. I love Lee Mero’art. I have the original One Christmas back in Grandfather’s Time. Does any of his work appear in a art gallery in Georgia?

    • Hi, Jlever – I don’t know whether Lee’s work appears in a Georgia art gallery. We have learned more about his work after posting this article online, but don’t know where all of it has ended up.

      Mary Warner
      Museum Manager

  10. I have a Lee Mero that came from my grandmother’s house. It’s a litho? of a watercolor of a stage coach stop: horses, dogs, chubby service people, a hint of snow against a night-black background in purple, orange, turquoise…where can I get more information on it?

  11. Hi, M. Alice – Without seeing the art, we can’t identify the process Lee used to create it. While we have some information on Lee Mero within our files, most of it is biographical information related to him and his family. We only have a few pieces of his art. We did some research to find out more on his Christmas art, but we didn’t have much success. At this point, much of what we’re learning is coming through comments on our website, but that’s not much. We’re getting a lot of comments like yours – people wanting to know more info. Here’s a blog post we wrote about Lee’s connection to “Christmas: An Annual of Christmas Literature and Art”: http://morrisoncountyhistory.org/?p=128&cpage=1#comment-1635

    If you’d like more biographical info on Lee, send an email request to us at contactstaff@morrisoncountyhistory.org. We have a research fee of $5 for the first half-hour and $25 for each hour after.

    Thanks for your comment.

    -Mary Warner

  12. I found a large book published by Augsburg Publishing House, Volume Thirty-two, in 1962. In the middle of the book is a “water color” by Lee Mero on heavier paper called “Home for Christmas”. It’s a winter scene of house, with barn, lots of running children with skiies and ice skating on a little river, and draft horses pulling a wagon with logs on the wagon. Also there is a picture story illustrated and probably written by him called, “Christmas in the Village.” It’s a charming depiction of life in a small village. The book is 101/2 inches by almost 14 inches.
    I wondered if you had seen this work by him.

    • Jan – We do already have a copy of Volume Thirty-two (1962) in the museum’s collection. Lee Mero’s work is fascinating and we are glad to hear from others who are interested in his work. The prints in the Augsburg Christmas publications are charming. Ann Marie

  13. Hi, Jan – The book wouldn’t happen to have the title “Christmas” on the front? We’ve been collecting issues of this annual magazine (mostly softcover, but we found one hard-bound issue) because of the Lee Mero art inside. Our curator will check to see if we have the 1962 issue.

  14. Yes, it does have Christmas on the front cover.

  15. Just saw 4 issues of the Christmas annual at a local antiques mall this afternoon, one was v.14, 1934; also v.24, 1944; didn’t notice the details of the other two. They were all in fairly good condition and possibly $10 each. What I DID notice was the Lee Mero contributions in two of the four. Are you still looking for fill-in issues? I would be happy to see if any of those 4 are issues the Museum needs, or put you in touch with the antiques outlet. I’m now looking for Lee Mero information because there is suddenly a possibility I may have (finally) found the source of some illustrations I’ve been looking for for… forty years? Mr Mero’s style is very close to the pictures in my head 😎 and I’m going to be looking for more info on his Christmas work. Please write if I can provide more info about those 4 issues.

    • Thanks, Patricia. We do still have several gaps in the collection, including the two that you mentioned. Lee Mero had a distinct style that made for great illustrations. Ann Marie

  16. hello, i just recently found the little green velvet book called
    “once upon a christmastime in the long ago” and i was wondering,
    can you tell me what year lee mero wrote that?

    • Beverly – We could not find a specific date for the book, Once Upon A Christmastime In The Long Ago”. My best guess is that it was done in the 1950s or 60s. It seems to fit with his work for the Augsburg Publishing House (now Augsburg Fortress). Mero worked as a freelance artist from 1937 until his retirement in 1971. Thanks for the question. Ann Marie

  17. thank you ann marie

  18. I just purchased an engraving by Lee Mero, showing a vast towering group of trees standing against a starry sky, with a figure, possibly an Indian, astride his horse, looking upwards at the sky. The paper has Mero’s signature, and there is a printed poem by Longfellow. Written on the dust-protective paper on the back of the framed image are the words “When Twilight Falls”. I have no actual insight into the artist, other than that he is quite talented, but I thought it might add to the little bit of information available here.

  19. I have a gilded Poem MOTHER of Lee Mero, poem by Maurine Hathaway, A Buzza Motto,….
    God sent the birds and sunshine To gladden all the world;
    When did he do this and what can I find out about it??

    • Carol – we have not had any luck finding anything specific on a poem by Maurine Hathaway, “Mother”, illustrated by Lee Mero. It is possible that he worked for the Buzza Motto company in Minneapolis while he was studying at the Minneapolis School of Art. The Minnesota Historical Society has a small collection of photographs showing the company. It looks like it was fairly prosperous. Ann Marie

  20. Just found a 1959 Christmas Annual Lee Mero piece on-line. see here: http://amothersminute.blogspot.com/2007/12/blog-post_23.html
    The poster claims it’s not perfect, but something is better than nothing!

  21. A friend of mine obtained a print of “Shrine O’ Dreams” about a year ago, and I have just fallen in love with it. I would like to find a print of this piece of Mero’s work myself. Any suggestions where I might find one?

  22. Hi, Rachel – I wasn’t familiar with Lee Mero’s “Shrine O’ Dreams” until I Googled it and found it as the header image on this blog:

    http://shrineodreams.wordpress.com/

    A beautiful piece. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen one in the flesh and really have no idea where you can find one. You could try garage or estate sales. I’m a regular at thrift stores and wouldn’t suggest that because most of the stuff is too new, although you could get lucky. I’ve been able to find the Christmas annual at thrift stores, but not old prints.

    Good luck on your search.

    Mary Warner
    Museum Manager

    • Every year at Christmas I look forward to a few hours with our three Augsburg volumes….the remarkable work by Lee Mero being the principle reason.
      I really enjoyed learning more about him in this site.

      • Thanks so much, Mark. We’re glad you found our site useful. The Lee Mero page is particularly popular among our site visitors.

        Mary Warner
        Museum Manager

  23. I found a lee mero at a local shop.. but I cant find ny info online bout it … its metalic silver with black ship and a lion on the flag of the ship … if you h ha ve any information pleave let me now

    • Thanks for the question, Phil. We do not have any specific information on the Lee Mero work you found. Hopefully another researcher will have some information they will be willing to share.
      Ann Marie

  24. Bettye Duplantier

    Dear Ann Marie,
    I have an original painting on paper/board signed Leo Mero. The paint is a water-base tempa. I’ve had it for close to 40 years and I think it came from my material Grandmother. It is tucked away at the moment. If you are interested in seeing it, I will send you a jpeg of it once I find it. Please advise.
    Sincerely,
    BBD

    • Bettye, Thank you for your comment. We would be interested in the painting. If you can send a jpeg image that would be great. Ann Marie

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