Ed Mell


By Lynn Pyne Davis

In an Ed Mell painting, cotton-ball clouds and rocky mountains often undergo a metamorphosis, becoming simplified forms with knife-sharp edges. A rose or a cactus bloom may take on a colossal scale, with crystalline petals resembling shards of stained glass. Pink buttes may be rendered as a deep coral rose, and blue-gray rain may appear as blue as sapphires. By deviating from reality, Mell succeeds in creating a feeling that is closer to the actual experience of witnessing nature first-hand than any photograph.

“I work from nature, and sometimes I push it a little fur-ther,” Mell says. “Seeing the real thing has much more impact than a photographic representation of nature, so in order to duplicate nature, I like to push it a little further and bring back some of the impact that nature has in real life.”

The Southwest lends itself particularly well to Mell’s approach, since the region is renowned for dramatic sunsets and storms that can deliver dazzling light shows. Some of the Arizona artist’s canvases depict recognizable sites such as the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and Lake Powell, while others are only loosely inspired by actual locations. Of the latter, Mell says they are invented from fantasy, mood, vague recollections, and impressions that come from the visual store-house of images he has absorbed through the years.

LA FLOR BLANCA [2002], OIL, 26 x 28.

“There are certain moods to the landscape, and sometimes that’s the main focus, to capture a mood rather than an actual depiction of [a place],” he says. “A lot of my more abstracted landscapes just kind of invent themselves as they go. Sometimes they’re based on a sketch, or sometimes I’ll just sit down and put a few lines on a board and let them suggest something and see where it goes. Some kind of invention happens, almost like auto-painting, but in a calculated way. Once you have enough confidence that you’re not nervous about where it will go, you can have freedom and fun with it.”

Mell’s habit of embracing variety in his style, subjects, and media keeps him fresh and challenged. Stylistically, he moves fluidly between the polar opposites of realism and abstraction, but never goes completely in either direction. One of the distinctive qualities in Mell’s work is that he distills the complexities of nature into essential geometric forms to a greater or lesser degree depen-ding on the painting. On the other hand, no matter how abstracted, his subjects always remain recognizable. Mell’s subject matter mainly consists of landscapes and florals, but the artist also paints cattle, horses, and cowboys on occasion. And though oil painting is his primary medium, he has been sculpting since the mid-1980s. In 1993 he completed Jack Knife, a monumental sculpture of a cowboy on a bucking bronco that now greets visitors to downtown Scottsdale, AZ. Currently Mell is working on another major public project, a 40-inch bronze sculp-ture of the mythical phoenix bird for the Phoenix Sister Cities Commission.


Besides finding variety enjoyable, Mell makes use of it to generate a visual dialogue in which he can explore ideas that will surface later in another style, subject or medium. For instance, many of the artist’s friends thought his paintings of flowers which started in 1988 with a batch of pink gladiolas from a local nursery were a fleeting diver-sion. However, Mell continued painting them, and a rainbow array of roses and crimson and yellow cactus blooms now thrive in his studio. The floral paint-ings are an important focus of his work and have cross-pollinated ideas by introducing a new palette of colors into his landscapes.

Mell makes reference to the floral and landscape palettes in a separate discussion of the translucency and the inner glow that are trademarks of his paintings. “Contrasts are what make things come alive,” Mell says. “For example, if you do a yellow flower and you put in a dark purple background, which is the opposite on the color wheel, that color makes the yellow come alive more than any other color. Plus, you’re dealing with light that illuminates the flower. So you have two things going for you to create a glow.”


Several of his landscapes, likewise, have deep purple clouds against patches of mustard yellow sky. “I just sort of invented this color scheme, but I’m sure it’s out there,” he says. “I don’t recall ever seeing a purple sky like that, but then again, you’ve got this purple against this yellow and it kind of makes it work. And you can tell it is casting purple light on the land.”

Mell makes his studio in a converted 1930s-era grocery store in the Coronado historic district of downtown Phoenix, just three blocks away from the hospital where he was born in 1942. The studio reflects the artist’s varied interests and his penchant for collecting. Hanging on the walls are a sampling of works by his favorite painters, including Maynard Dixon, Al-onzo “Lon” Megargee, Thomas Hart Benton, Frank Tenney Johnson, Jimmy Swinnerton and Richard Lillis. Vis-itors entering through the back door of the studio first encoun-ter a gleaming black 1936 DeSoto Airflow coupe. He also owns a 1962 Corvette, which he drives every year in the Phoenix Art Museum’s road rally fund-raiser.

Automobiles have been a passion all his life. Mell’s boyhood hobby was building model cars and doing pencil and water-color sketches of cars, which led to drawings of other subjects. After high school, he studied advertising and illus-tration at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. In 1967, Mell accepted a job as a junior art director at a major New York advertising firm, but within a year he became disillusioned, feeling his creativity was being smothered. He and a friend opened their own illustration firm in New York and became very successful, with clients of the caliber of Cheerios and RCA. Even so, three years later, Mell still found life as a New York illustrator to be repetitious and unfulfilling.

“I saw those guys living the dream, but it wasn’t my dream,” he says. “It was a great education, but it wasn’t where I wanted to stay.”Mell accepted an offer to teach art classes one summer on the Hopi Reservation in northern Arizona, and the experience awakened a yearning to return to his roots. “Looking at the landscape with a fresh eye, all of a sudden there seemed to be a real magic to it,” he recalls. “You have to go away sometimes to be able to appreciate it.”
Mell and his younger brother opened their own illustration business in Phoenix, but it wasn’t long before the fine-art painting Mell was doing in his spare time evolved into a full-time occupation. Initially, Mell took an extremely minimal, almost reductive, approach to the landscape, paring it down to its basic forms and colors. Exploring geometry and angles enabled Mell to invent a fresh approach to capturing the strength and the dynamics of the Arizona landscape.


After a time, Mell found himself exploring form and light, and his paintings became less a conceptual statement and more a response to nature. They became naturalistic but still retained a crisp angularity in their forms. Eventually Mell found himself revisiting his first, more abstracted, approach. Since then, he has moved back and forth between the poles of realism and abstraction.

The artist explores the Southwest with camera and sketchpad in hand but says he finds ideas wherever he goes, even on his own doorstep. Although Mell prefers hotels to camping out, he does do some hiking and travels to scenic spots by car. Each year he joins painters Gary Ernest Smith and Larry Clarkson on a plein-air painting trip into Capitol Reef National Monument, and he has taken about 40 helicopter trips to explore the more remote scenic wonders of Arizona. “To me, it’s fun to find sights that aren’t accessible any other way than by air,” Mell says.

Currently the artist is preparing for a desert flora-themed solo show in November at Medicine Man Gallery in Tucson, AZ, followed by his annual exhibition in March at Overland Gallery in Scottsdale. In 1996 his career was the subject of a book, Beyond the Visible Terrain: The Art of Ed Mell by Donald J. Hagerty. His works are represented in the collections of the Phoenix Art Museum, the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, and Tri-Star Pictures, and in the private collections of Bruce Babbitt, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and others.

“There’s always another level of recognition out there, but to me, painting is not so much about recognition as it is about doing the best work you can,” Mell says. “It’s great to be appreciated, but it is more important to be happy with what you’re doing.”

Ed Mell is represented by Medicine Man Gallery, Tucson, AZ; Overland Gal-lery, Scottsdale, AZ; and Owings-Dewey Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM.

Featured in October 2002