Monday, July 5, 2010


The faces are unforgettable: their glances indelible and mesmerizing, they are imbued with mystery and eroticism as they engage the viewer who is captivated by their haunting, though clement airs.  And their eyes, especially, seem the vortex where emotions are identified and revealed.  These faces of singular beauty each hold stories inside. They are the faces that graced innumerable pages of magazines such as Time, Omni, and Playboy.  They graced the covers of novels and posters in New York at a time when the city needed such beauty to gaze upon, and gladly did.  They remain inordinately hypnotic today and remain a remarkable body of work of the artist Mel Odom.

Drawn to art at a very early age, he was never without inspiration for stories in which to interpret fantasy and his personal vision of the world and people around him.  Gifted with an extraordinary eye and technical draftsmanship, he developed one of the most recognizable styles of illustration known today. You can spot an Odom immediately: those faces are unlike any others you've ever encountered.  And he continues with startling new work in painting. Again, his current paintings are also of faces, though this time the extraordinary world of dolls are the inspiration for his personal vision. In these new portraits, he perfectly captures the sense of history, memory and clairvoyance that dolls have.  These objects, which have been held and loved, or ill-cared for and tossed away, remain resilient in their stares -- their eyes fixed upon us, they hold secrets of which only a few will be shared, and they are the constant reminders of what can be invested in loving something deeply.  Iconic and contemporary, these new paintings breathe life into an object taken for granted.  These dolls are from another place and time, yet have the vestiges of our own.  Marked by history, they come alive in compositions that are enriched by Odom's personal and visual universe.

Look closely at what surrounds them: their interior space, what they wear, the places that they inhabit, the long histories they have known.  These stunning faces hold the same stark beauty that all of Odom's previous work is known for, and yet they bring the work to a celebratory new level and subject.  I had the chance to meet Mel Odom at a literary event this past fall.  Having known and loved his work for many years -- and a reader of the many books that his work graced -- I wanted to let him know what his work meant to me.  His disarming openness and generosity of spirit was immediate and he gladly consented to meet with me to discuss his life -- rich in friendships and "serendipity" -- and his work, which remains a tribute to a life of both artistic and personal intention. 

THE ARTPOINT: You knew, instinctively, at a very early age, that you "were an artist", and nothing less. Can you speak of how that realization first came to you? What inspired you that still continues to?

MEL ODOM: I think it was just always my self-identity, what I did.  I loved pictures in books and magazines.  As a child I completely lost myself in magazine illustrations: pictures of perfect Jello, mermaids selling cosmetics, the Green Giant.  I believed all these images.  There weren’t any museums or galleries in the little, Mayberry town I grew up in, so I got my inspirations from print and later from TV.  My earliest picture books have crayon scribbles in them from when I was two or three.  I wasn’t trying to deface them.  I was trying to draw.

You have said that as an artist, "intention is the most important thing." Can you speak to the idea of intention, and how it has informed the development of your work?

Years ago when I was working on creating the Gene doll I was going through a very difficult time with taking care of a best friend who was dying.  All of us in NY were doing this in one way or another.  I had decided that I needed something really different to do in order to get through this, something creative with a lot of details. I used creating Gene as my therapy to help me to keep sane.  I would come from a visit in the hospital, always bummed out, and walk the three blocks to the sculptor, Michael Evert’s, studio.  Then I would work with him in creating this gorgeous little body and head, this little stylized image of perfect health, and gradually I would come out of the funk, and feel human again.  Well, a couple of years later when Gene was a commercial success, I would hear variations of this story from the people who were collecting my doll, how it would get them through tough times and just make them feel better, take them to a happy place. 

I realized that somehow they were experiencing a version of my original intentions for creating Gene.  I thought of all my other work, and realized that for me at least, intentions are an important factor.  I guess so much of me is engaged in the work that I have world-class tunnel vision. It’s made me very honest about why I choose to create something.  I need to really want to see that image or object.  As an illustrator I tried to use illustration as a patron who would pay me to draw, so at times I did some amazingly personal work for clients.  I think that’s how you best approach commercial work, finding the personal thing within it you can explore. 

Chance, serendipity, the right moment at the right time --all seem to have been a part of your life as an artist -- bringing you into contact and opportunities that made an important impact on your life. What have been some of the most important ones in your career and how did they sustain you?

I think one of my biggest blessings has been the ability to see an instant ‘chance’ while it’s happening.  Not always, certainly, but often enough to seize opportunities from random happenstance.  I’ve always kind of believed in my own biography enough to accept that cool things were going to happen, so when they actually did, I was ready for them.  For my work I read a lot of wonderful books during my illustration days, and accidently became very well read and exposed to ideas and individuals I may not have been otherwise.  I met my idol Erte’ and saw Greta Garbo in the first week I moved to New York.  After that, there was no way I was leaving this town.  There were too many amazing people to meet.  So I looked for that, and as a result, found it.  Being Southern with some old fashioned manners didn’t hurt either.

Friendship is an integral and important aspect of your being. You have been blessed with many friendships, professionally and personally. How have these relationships developed your art, or changed it?

They’ve allowed it by their support and friendship.  I worked very well alone for long periods during the 20 years I illustrated. I can slip into a real hermit mode to get my work done.  My friends were the ones who got me out of my studio and into the ‘real’ world and then let me go back and work some more, or the ones who would sit in my studio during the long hours of drawing and watch old movies with me and talk.  I think any generation that has lost as many young members as mine has becomes very aware and possessive of the friends they still have.  My friends are my support system, and of course my partner of sixteen years Charlie Saputo, he’s given me so much nerve to attempt things, things that might not work out, but just might.  He’s been my wealth.

You worked for some of the most interesting and creative publications at a time when support for artists was open -- editors and creative directors took chances. Your work has appeared in, and been awarded for such a wide scope of publications: Playboy, Viva, Blueboy, Time Magazine, Omni -- what was the creative energy that enabled you to be a part of all this? Who were the important "angels" that gave you your big breaks?

Alex Sanchez at Blueboy Magazine would let me do anything I wanted, as long as it was gorgeous.  So I did some very personal stuff for him, portraits of boyfriends and such, mixed into my illustrations.  A lot of my best work from that period was done for Blueboy.  I was also spending some serious personal coin by doing these romantic, homoerotic images.  It was a great liberation for me to express publically this side of who I was.   To be praised for it was just pure gravy.  In illustration I found a livelihood that embraced me.  Playboy magazine saw the things I did for Blueboy and I ended up working with their great art director Kerig Pope for 17 years. That was the best gig I ever had.  Then Time magazine saw my work in Playboy and I started working for them.  I would get along with these people who worked on these great publications, and always have my work done on time.

Your work became known and identified with the beginning of the gay literary movement. Your cover art was the visual equivalent of gay pride, eroticism, and above all -- romanticism. These images spoke to a whole generation and more of readers, with other peers such as Michele Vollbracht and George Stavrinos, among many others. What was it like to present this work? Did you know what impact you were making?

I think I mentioned this earlier that creating these lushly romantic images of men and women was a tremendous expression of what I felt personally.  These drawings were both what I thought was beautiful, and whom. The men and women would sometimes be based on people I knew, or models I thought interesting.  I always liked broken noses on men, you know, imperfect beauty.  I felt like some of these ‘gay’ books I was doing covers for were so remarkable and so important that it was my job to make people pick them up and read them.  I tried to create an image that made you wonder what the hell was going on.  And to depict ‘romance’ in an image of two men, was just not something I was seeing in those days.  I wanted to put that out there, that two men could be romantic, wildly so, not always just slam, bam, thank you Sam.  My first book cover ever was for Edmund White’s Nocturnes for the King of Naples.  That sort of set the course.  I felt honored to be doing these covers.

Your work, and your signature imagery, is that of faces of extraordinary beauty -- classical, engaging, and erotic -- yet there is always something very unique to your interpretation of a face. Why is the face such a rich source of emotion for you?

Nothing is more beautiful or varied than the human face.  Living in New York, I’m visually assaulted daily by the most staggering physical beauty.  I see faces that are mixes of bloods from everywhere, with wild personal style and amazing senses of self.  I never tried to make the people I drew look particularly realistic; they were more stylized than that.  I would make enough details of the face realistic to fool people into thinking they looked real.  Usually I would work from real models, but they would always sort of morph into something more exotic. I just wanted them to be beautiful, and really hot.  And I could express overt sexuality easiest with a face, less editing involved with a nervous art director. 

You create primarily with watercolor and pencil in an intricate, painstaking technique that involves hours of work. Such detailed work takes time, attention, and great patience. Can you speak of your work processes?

My technique is basically lead pencil over dyes on a very smooth illustration board.  I create the sketch initially in pencil on vellum.  Vellum is important for all the erasing and redrawing I do, plus it’s being translucent allows for me to reverse and move things around easily.  Then, by rubbing pencil lead onto the back of the sketch or a photocopy of the sketch, I re-trace the image and transfer it to the illustration board.  Then I add the color with Peerless dyes.  After that its long hours of actually shading and really drawing with traditional Venus lead pencils.  That part’s the challenge, the hours and days it takes to make the drawing look like I want it to.  The grey of the pencil also ties the colors together and gives them a similar tone.  Then if there’s a flat area of background, it’s done with gouache, first painted on with a brush and then sometimes enhanced with layers of different colored flecks of gouache, to change or gradate the color.  I cover the drawn parts with an acetate stencil to protect them during this part.  There’s a lot of tweaking and such during the finishing up period but that’s basically the technique.  As a way to draw it’s pretty diabolical. I think that’s why I decided to stop illustrating.  I had just hit a wall, and didn’t want to draw like that anymore, with that wild, time-consuming technique.

Your doll imagery and the newest paintings are a completely new "face" of you, and yet they are invested with so many levels of meaning and visual associations that are personal to you. How did they come about early in your life and how have they continued to provide you with new ideas?

Playing with dolls as a little boy was my first taste of being a sexual outlaw, of doing something a member of my sex wasn’t ‘supposed’ to do.  I got called a sissy by other kids, and even though my parents were pretty cool about it, by a certain age I knew it was somehow ‘wrong’.  I just thought that dolls were incredibly beautiful and glamorous and probably supernatural.  I suspect I associated their diminutive size with elves and fairies, which I totally believed in.  This mixture of finding dolls desirable and an understood sense of the forbidden made them pretty irresistible to me.  So they had this ‘charge’ about them, as the first things I ever wanted that I was told I shouldn’t want.  That charge never went away, even when I got older and didn’t dare play with dolls for fear of being a total outcast.  In fact, during those years, seeing them and not having them probably increased their attraction for me.  It’s like all these evangelical, political gay-bashers who end up photographed with hustlers.  You can’t escape yourself and what you truly want. 

As I began to understand that I was gay and what that meant, desiring dolls just became another part of my ‘different’ status.  It was so ingrained that I couldn’t really question it, it just was. I have drawings of dolls that I did as a child, so they were always fascinating to me, always something that spoke very personally to me.  After creating my doll Gene Marshall, and the long and varied roads that took me down, I came to realize that dolls were more than a profession or hobby for me, but a totem, a basic symbol of who I was.  So when I wanted to start painting again, they rose to the top as what would mean the most for me to put out there.  I came gradually to understand that everything I had done before was leading up to this, for better or worse.  I kept trying to think of another subject that would mean as much, something perhaps more commercial, but nothing else came close.  I had done faces and sexuality for years as an illustrator, I had expressed that.  I needed something different, a bit more hidden, to explore.  If I was going to make this real and give my paintings my truest self, it was going to be dolls. 

The paintings I’m doing now are also for the most part of very old, Civil War era dolls, sort of the remaining widows of the war.  For me, this gives them the added factors of mortality and time, having survived, having secrets.  As a gay man who went through the early AIDS days maybe I relate to their seemingly miraculous survival.  Also I grew up in the South, having the Civil War shoved down my throat in school and practically everywhere.  These paintings became my coming to terms with this historical, family past that I’d avoided, combined with storybook imagery and personal notes that I’d been accumulating for years.

The doll images are hypnotic -- that is the word for them that describes how they affected me immediately. You have been able to give gesture and intent to these portraits. They are life-filled, rather than just life-like. They seem to hold history, secret loves, long dreams, and yet very modern sensibilities in their glances. They are dolls for our time, even as they are timeless. How do you choose which dolls to paint?

I had the dolls standing in my studio for a long time, and kept feeling there was such vast content to them.  These are mostly 19th century dolls, some dressed in mourning.  It occurred to me that all the people who had made the dolls, the children and adults who had played with them, they were all long gone.  The time in which these dolls were created has long passed, and they’re the only witnesses to it all, and they’re not talking.  Of course they’re merely beautiful objects if you choose to think of them that way.  I guess I grew up on too many ‘toys come alive’ stories to feel only that way about any toys. As a child I always assumed that toys had real lives whenever I was gone or asleep. Maybe these paintings are about those lives.  I think many of the paintings look like illustrations to forgotten, obscure fairy tales.

I started doing these doll paintings soon after my mother died.  I think I really wanted to do a portrait of her, but felt it was just all still too raw to attempt.  So I used one of the dolls as the subject of the portrait.  After that, they became stand-ins for a lot of missing people in my life, people that I would never get a chance to paint.   The dolls brought their own antiquated personas to the lives of my lost ones and helped give me the objectivity I needed.  Even as merely objects, they speak volumes to me, and I wanted to give them some sort of contemporary voice, some record of their having been here.  They deserve that, by their sheer beauty.  I try to make the actual painting of them very brisk and objective, very matter of fact, with an underlying geometry.  

Compared to my drawing style, painting feels like flying to me. This isn’t even touching on the aspects of a gay man painting pictures of pretty dolls.  What does that say?  Gay men tend to be very touchy on the subject of dolls.  

They can love them or be very uncomfortable with them, and frequently both.  I suspect this is the result of too many boys being called ‘sissy’ or being punished for wanting to play with their sister’s Barbies.  I’ve already had these paintings called ‘girly’ by a fellow-artist, and I guess that’s a valid appraisal.  It’s just I got over letting anything like that deter me when I was four.  Maybe that’s a part of it, choosing to paint something that could be interpreted as saying so much about who I am.

What was it like to go back to oil painting, in the new work?

Heaven, scary at first, and quite intimidating, but then the ‘technique challenge’ kicked in and I was completely drugged by the process.  I’d paint for hours and totally loose myself.  As I went along I was making up the way I painted, the same way I created my drawing style, simply by doing it.  These paintings are much larger than any of my illustration work.  That was part of the appeal for me.  My illustrations were all designed to be viewed close up, while you’re holding them in you hands, in a book or magazine.  They usually were drawn the size they were to be printed, or maybe smaller.  The paintings are meant to be seen from a wall, and as a result are looser in technique and many times larger.  I love the larger scale.

Gene had a wonderful nativity! How did she come to you? How has she developed your work as an artist? How is Gene doing today?

Gene came to me by degrees.  She started out as just a drawing I’d done for myself, the result of designing makeup for a friend’s doll in need of a makeover.  Afterwards, I wondered what a doll I designed would look like and started drawing.  I wanted to retain aspects of my illustration style, the dreamy, wide-spaced eyes most notably.  The drawing of Gene hung over my drawing table for months, during which I was refining the face and also deciding who she was.  Making her a ‘vintage’ movie star was the big jump, setting her in a period that so many people already know and love through the movies.  After that the details of her life (and fashions) just kind of fell into place for me.  Bit by bit I decided who she was.

I’ll tell you an interesting story.  A number of years ago, while I was visiting Paris, a French couple asked me if they could do Gene’s horoscope.  I said yes and filled them in on a lot of details of her imaginary life, some of which I made up on the spot.  When the horoscope arrived it was the most in-depth analysis of Gene’s personality, as well as my personality imaginable.  It was totally who I was, even though Gene Marshall had been born in 1923 with a completely different life than mine in a completely different era.  I had gone out of my way to give her a different beginning than mine, in another part of the country, different in practically every way.  Somehow the horoscope was all me though, down to intimate detail.  I was so freaked out by this that I took the horoscope to a therapist I was seeing at the time, and asked him to look it over.  He came back a couple of weeks later shaking his head and as freaked as I was.  He told me the horoscope dealt with the key issues of my life.  Somehow I had created the perfect astrological doppelganger for myself.  

Now I know, artists frequently reflect themselves in their art, but this went beyond that, to Twilight Zone territory. By the time this is published Gene Marshall will have officially ‘retired’ as a product on the market, after fifteen years. It’s quite an emotional thing.  I’m good for about twenty years on something, and then I get anxious to move on to something new.  I did that when I quit illustrating and created Gene.  With the years of private development and all, it’s been about twenty years with Gene now for me, and I just want to do something else.  Believe me, I’ve considered all the factors, professional and creative, and I think it’s time for Gene to ‘pull a Garbo’, and disappear for a while.  I’ve always thought that a huge part of any star’s success, was in knowing when to leave the spotlight.  I can’t say I’ll miss her, because she’ll always be with me.  We can’t be separated.

The project for "The Lost Library" was a wonderful way to keep the work of writers -- many that are no longer with us -- in the hands of new and future readers. Why are literature and writers so important to you as an artist?

I had the good fortune to read a great deal when it was part of my profession to do so.   And I do have an enormous stack of books by my bed that, for the most part, I’m planning on reading.  I love to read, it’s a tremendous luxury for me.  I’m just so busy lately that I have to save my reading for travel or vacation, or when I’m dining alone.  Like everyone else, I’m inspired by beautiful writing, it takes you out of yourself.  My earliest idea of art was that it always came with words, like in my childhood picture books.  I just always associated the two as being inseparable.  And when I made illustration my career, I cemented that relationship with twenty years practice.  It’s a great compliment to an artist for a publisher to think their work appropriate for the cover of a great book.  It makes you up your game to create something that’s good enough to represent the book. 

What is the most important aspect of your life that informs your work?

Without sounding too grandiose, I’d have to say all of my life.  When I look at what I’m doing now, I see many of the tracks leading through my past that bring me to right now, to exactly what I’m doing.  All the ways I was a nerd, all the things I thought were cool, all the subjects I couldn’t get enough of, all coming to this.  I think the challenge is to recognize your path and not be afraid to walk it.  I’ve always played my hunches about what it is I should be doing.  Sometimes I’m right, sometime not, but you simply have to believe in those instincts.  They’re what you’re given as your personal GPS.  Following those directions certainly doesn’t give you all the answers. It just makes not knowing the answers a bit less frightening. 

Your art began with the foundation and support of your family, and your life has been filled with continued support of loving friendships and family to this day. Where does this work continue to lead you in your new projects?

I guess you could say it grounds me, gives me enough security that I dare to attempt unlikely things.  I bounce my ideas off my friends and see what they think, and then I listen.  I don’t always follow their advice or agree with them, but I’m always curious about what they think about what it is I’m doing.  It matters to me.  But ultimately, the choice has to be mine.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT MEL ODOM, 2010. Reproduced with the kind permission of the artist. 

Images, top to bottom: "Charleston"; cover illustration for Augustin Gomez-Arcos's "The Carnivorous Lamb"; "Bette"; "Gene"; "Rhett"; original cover illustration for Edmund White's Nocturne for the King of Naples"; "Mary Todd Lincoln"; "Laura Elizabeth"; "Tears of Cecile"; "Invermay"; "Rain Queen"; "Birgit's Guests"; India and Mr.D 2"; "Frost Child"; cover illustration for The Lost Library, edited by Tom Cardamone ; "Inside Invermay". 

1 comment:

  1. Am really curious to know what gallery he is represented by? Please let me know! Thanks