Profile: Mel Edwards (1937-)

Melvin “Mel” Edwards is an American contemporary artist, teacher, and abstract steel metal sculptor. Additionally he has worked in drawing and printmaking. His artwork has political content often referencing African-American history, as well as the exploration of themes within slavery. Visually his works are characterized by the use of straight-edged triangular and rectilinear forms in metal. He lives between upstate New York and in Plainfield, New Jersey.

Early life and education

Melvin Eugene Edwards, Jr., was born May 4, 1937, in Houston, Texas, to Thelmarie Edwards and Melvin Edwards Sr, and was the eldest of his parents’ four children. His father worked for Houston Lighting & Power and his parents divorced in early childhood. He was raised in Dayton, Ohio for five years, but by middle school age the family moved back to Houston. Edwards is Black and grew up on Houston during a time of racial segregation, he attended E. O. Smith Junior High School and Phillis Wheatley High School. He was a creator from a young age and was encouraged by his parents with his father building his first easel when he was 14 years old. Edwards was introduced to abstract art by a high school teacher. While attending high school he started to take art classes at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

In 1955 he moved to southern California to pursue studies at Los Angeles City College. Edwards transferred schools to study art and play football at University of Southern California (USC), where he received his B.F.A. degree in 1965.While attending USC, Edwards took a history course that was rooted in a European-centric view, which upset him and fueled him to learn more about African history, and eventually inspiring his travel to Africa five years later.

He attended Los Angeles County Art Institute (known known as Otis College of Art and Design) during breaks from USC to study sculpture with Renzo Fenci. Additionally he was mentored by Hungarian-American painter Francis de Erdely, and studied under Hal Gebhardt, Hans Burkhardt, and Edward Ewing.

Teaching

In 1965, he went on to teach at the Chouinard Art Institute (now known as the California Institute of the Arts) until 1967. He moved to New York City in 1967. Additionally he taught at Orange County Community College in New York (1967-1969), and the University of Connecticut (1970-1972).

In 1972, he began teaching art classes at Livingston College of Rutgers University, (now part of the Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences). By 1980 he was a full professor and teaching at the Mason Gross School of Creative and Performing Arts at Rutgers University. By 2002, he retired from teaching.

Art career

His first one-person exhibition was held at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, California, in 1965.Edwards cited jazz music as an influence to his work.

In 1965, Edwards was working in Los Angeles as a driver for a film company, on his breaks he would visit Tamarind Print Institute. It was at Tamarind where he met many influential national artists such as George Sugarman, Richard Hunt, Leon Golub, Louise Nevelson, and Gabriel Kohn. Later in that year, Sugarman had a New York University art exhibition which Edwards photographed for him. At that exhibition, he met Al Held and he asked him for a job and Held pointed him to a recent Yale University graduate, painter William T. Williams. The two artists went on to have a very close partnership continuing to this day.

In 1970, Edwards took his first trip to Africa, visiting the West African republics of Nigeria, Togo, Benin, and Ghana.This trip influenced his work, and was followed by other visits to Africa over the years.

Work

Smokehouse (1968 – 1970)

Smokehouse (also known as, Smokehouse Associates, Smokehouse Collective, Smokehouse Painters) was a New York City-based community “wall painting” initiative created in part by Melvin Edwards and William T. Williams, spanning from 1968 until 1970. The project existed as a social experiment asking the question “can abstraction solve social justice?” The wall paintings consisted of hard edge graphics and geometric patterns, occurring between 120th street and 125th street of Harlem. It was born out of the pondering of how the 19th-century tradition of stacking houses affected the human psyche and Melvin Edwards believed there is a strong correlation between living spaces and the lives of people. He mentions this in an interview at the Soul of a Nation Symposium in 2018 stating: “If you change places, you can change the lives of people.”Edwards wanted the public to participate in the way cities were developing. In every project, Smokehouse would hire someone elderly within the community and someone young.

These murals were small scale- never going pass 16ft or higher due to the height restrictions of the initiatives ladder. Nevertheless, Smokehouse painted alleyways, tops of buildings, and sides of buildings. William T. Williams handled the logistics of the organization. As the project continued, MOMA patron Celeste Bartos and David Rockefeller underwrote these projects. The more recognition they got the bigger people wanted them to go. They didn’t feel comfortable going too large. 

121st and Sylvan still have the annual tradition of doing a community-based mural project because of Smokehouse.

Lynch Fragments series (1963 – present)

Edwards’ work Some Bright Morning (1963) started his series called, Lynch Fragments and was a reference to Ralph Ginzburg’s anthology, 100 Years of Lynchings(1962). The series now has more than 200 pieces. Inspired by the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement, these small-scale welded metal wall reliefs were developed in three periods: 1963 to 1967, 1973 to 1974, and 1978 to the present. Edwards created the series as metaphor of the struggles experienced by African Americans. A variety of metal objects are employed as the raw materials for these works, including hammer heads, scissors, locks, chains, and railroad splices. The sculptures, usually no more than a foot tall, are hung on the wall at eye level.

Rocker series

Edwards is also known for smaller freestanding works, the kinetic “Rockers” series. Works from the Rocker series include, Homage to Coco (1970), Good Friends in Chicago(1972), Avenue B (Rocker) (1975), Memories of Coco (1980), A Conversation with Norman Lewis (1980), among others. These moving sculptures are inspired by his memories, including one of him falling off his grandmother’s rocking chair and another as a homage to his friendships. Edwards used the term “syncopate” to describe the interaction while rocking, and the relationship of syncopation in African-American music.

Personal life

He was married in 1960 to Karen Hamre, together they had three children. In 1969, the couple separated, Hamre and the children stayed in Los Angeles while Edwards had already moved to New York City.

In 1976, Edwards married the poet Jayne Cortez.Cortez and Edwards have worked together, she wrote a series of poems to accompany her husband’s work Lynch Fragments, and he illustrated her book, Pissstained Stairs and the Monkey Man’s Wares (1969).

His art studios are located in upstate New York and in Plainfield, New Jersey, and he often travels to Dakar, Senegal.

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