First Eyes (1982).
I’ve emphasised the artist label to distinguish this Mel Odom from the very prolific writer of the same name. The artist received a fleeting mention here in the Gay artists archive but for many years he’s been a highly regarded book and magazine illustrator, with a Gold Medal from the American Society of Illustrators among his accolades. (By coincidence, one of his covers was for an Ellen Datlow horror collection, and I happen to be illustrating a new Ellen Datlow collection of horror stories this week.) More recently Odom has gained a very different audience for his doll designs which are mentioned in passing below. I’m grateful again to John Wisniewski for offering me this piece. Thanks to John and to Mel, more of whose gorgeous art can be seen at his website.
John Wisniewski: When did you begin drawing and painting?
Mel Odom: I’ve been drawing since I was about 4 years old and painting since my early teens. I have scribbles in an early picture book of mine that I’m sure were my first attempts at drawing.
JW: Whom are some of your favorite artists?
MO: I like so many different artists. The Pre-Raphelites were a huge influence on me as well as artists like Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keefe. Aubrey Beardsley has been an early and constant favorite of mine. Representational art moves me more than the abstract for the most part. Disney animation also shaped what I still think of as being beautiful.
JW: Have you had any exhibitions? If so, what was the reaction to your work?
MO: I’ve really never had a one-man exhibition. When I was illustrating I was too busy to bother and illustration was not considered gallery worthy. Then when I quit illustrating to create Gene [Marshall] there was simply no time to even consider it. I’ve been in tons of group shows where the reaction has been everything from adoring to dismissive. I’ve been working on a series of oil paintings towards a show.
JW: Your work is easily recognizable to those in the art world, Mel. Did you expect this to happen, when you began?
MO: When I started out I knew my drawings didn’t look like anyone else’s, but it wasn’t a conscious ploy for recognition. I devised my style by the process of elimination. I knew what I didn’t want them to look like. I just drew with a vision that made me need to see what the drawing looked like completed. My drawings were always based on a very personal sense of beauty.
Hello, I Lied (1997).
JW: What is the greatest work of art, in your opinion, Mel?
MO: I don’t think there’s any such thing. Art is such a subjective thing and to claim one thing the greatest work of art is to deny the tastes of everyone else. Not just that, but also to deny what you might have thought differently last week. If you have a broad exposure to art, your favorite changes. I think the concept of art is the greatest work, the idea of creating something for no other reason than it heals your soul to create it. It’s great when other people admire and want to look at it or listen to it or whatever. That’s gravy, but the real meat of art is the rush or thrill or challenge the artist has in creating it.
JW: What are you doing when not drawing or painting, Mel?
MO: Living in New York City is like perpetual cardio. You can feel the energy on the street. I go to the gym every week-day morning and get that out of the way before I do anything else. That helps me to keep my head and ass in gear, plus I have friends there so it gets me out and socialized.
If I’m not painting or drawing I’m thinking about it, or working towards something else I want to do. I’m still doing my Gene Marshall doll with a new company called JAMIEshow, so I might work on this as well, doing research and such. I could go to Bushwick and work on prints or have lunch with friends. Charlie, my husband, says I work 24 hours a day. I think it’s just that everything connects with me, my hobbies become my careers, I can’t separate the two. If I’m working it’s mostly at night. So I can do stuff during the day and still choose to work if I want to.
Sleeping in Flame (1989).
JW: Are there any artists currently whose work that you like?
MO: There are tons of current artists whose work I love. Artists like Ed Ruscha, Odd Nerdrum, and David Hockney have been favorites for years, and I see beautiful sculpture and statement from Ai WeiWei. John Currin makes beautiful art and I love my friend Scooter LaForge‘s paintings. I’m a representational art kinda guy, I’ve very last century about that. I see a lot of art that I think is stupid too, but I keep that to myself pretty much.
JW: Do you hope to bring your art to a wider audience?
MO: I’m working towards a new book of my art, it’s been years since the last one. When you’re deeply involved with your work you can lose touch with the outside of it, the part that touches other people. Creating the Gene doll got me out of that isolated place and meeting thousands of people who were moved enough by Gene to want to tell me. That was an unexpected plus.
JW: How do you feel about the progress of gay rights movement? Was there anyone special to you in the Gay Liberation Movement of the 1970s?
MO: The gay rights movement has moved ahead in ways I thought I’d never see. My boyfriend of 19 years and I were married in 2013, something I’d never expected to experience. My friends from years ago were men and women who helped found the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and worked for gay rights. At the time they were just fighting for their lives and the lives and rights of their friends. That’s how important movements happen, from small groups of people who set out to change things. •