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Masters of the Southwest: Ed Mell

Author: Rebecca L. Rhoades
Issue: November, 2016, Page 48
Painter Ed Mell is renowned for Southwest landscapes. “Chinle Mesa,” 10"H by 18"L, oil on linen board, reflects his naturalist side.
Renowned painter Ed Mell’s approach to design, color and light brings the West’s landscapes to life

The first thing visitors to Ed Mell’s downtown Phoenix studio see when they open the door isn’t the artist hard at work at his easel. Instead, they’re greeted by the hulking gray form of a 1931 Ford Model A.

“As a kid, I wanted to be a car designer,” says the 1997 Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner. As an adult, he treats his inner child by collecting vehicles that appeal to his artistic senses. “The aesthetic is most important. It’s the reason I buy them,” he explains. “They represent cars I lusted for as a kid.”

Mell at work in his downtown Phoenix studio, which also houses his 1931 Ford Model A.
That appreciation for the art and sculptural virtue of vintage automobiles helped propel Mell on a career path that eventually led to him being one of the country’s most acclaimed Western painters. And while it has afforded him the luxury of owning the vehicles of his childhood dreams, he’s often too busy to enjoy them. On most days, the 74-year-old can be found in his studio in a converted 1930s grocery store. His work area—a large desk on which are scattered his oils, palette and brushes; a comfy chair; and a wood easel—is positioned next to a north-facing window, which lets in copious natural light—perfect for an artist who is renowned for capturing the desert sky’s luminous quality.

Lining the walls along the floor are stacks of paintings in all sizes. Most are studies. Like many old-school masters, Mell paints in series of studies—small copies that are tweaked and perfected with each revision—until he is ready to commit the final version to a large-scale canvas.

“He paints more than 100 paintings a year,” says Ken Richardson, Mell’s gallery director and studio manager. Most recently, Mell has been working on studies that will be used to create the scenery for the Arizona Opera’s upcoming premiere, “Riders of the Purple Sage.”

“I’m doing the artwork for the opera,” he notes of the original theatrical adaptation of a Zane Gray novel. His landscape paintings are being reproduced as massive 3-D sets, while digital images of his works projected onto the stage will serve as the sky and background and enhance the story’s changing moods. “Two panels will be executed at 28 feet high, and another one will be 17 feet high,” Mell notes. “I have to paint two more, right away. It’s occupied quite a bit of my time.

“A stage design is something I always thought would be fun to do,” he adds. “As a painter, you’ve got to keep yourself entertained, or it shows.”

“Cloud Contrast,” 44"H by 56"L, oil on linen, is a prime example of Mell’s disctinctive, almost Cubist, approach to his work. “I’ve always struggled with coming up with a name for my style. I haven’t got an ‘ism’ for it yet,” says Mell. His use of bold colors and geometric forms allows his paintings to shine in a range of interiors.
And Mell has kept himself entertained for more than 40 years, creating works that incite a desire, similar to that which he felt as a child, in art aficionados of all generations and genres. His pieces are the ultimate acquisition for lovers of everything from traditional Western art to contemporary design.

Whether it’s a highly realistic painting of the Grand Canyon or a Modernist, almost Cubist, monsoon scene borne of his vivid imagination, Mell has a way of bringing the Southwestern landscape up close and personal.

“When I stand in front of one of Ed’s pieces, I feel as though I’m standing in that place in nature. I know exactly what the light is like and what the wind is like and what it smells like and feels like to be there,” says Kristin Atwell Ford, collaborative producer of “Riders of the Purple Sage” and the driving force behind Mell’s participation in the project. “To have a collaborator of Ed’s magnitude is a dream come true,” she says. “It’s like working with The Beatles.” She notes that she’s loved Mell’s work “deeply and viscerally” since the first time she saw it. It’s a reaction common among many of his collectors and admirers.

Best known for his trademark geometric renderings of Western vistas complete with richly hued late-afternoon or even stormy skies, Mell also paints more realistic images of landscapes, flowers and even the occasional longhorn. “I’ve always painted in two styles,” he says of his iconic images. “I started out very Modern and minimal and then evolved into more of a naturalist. Then, at some point, I kind of revisited my roots, and now I’m probably painting more Modernist work.

Rain and sun, as seen in “Camelback Downpour,” 20"H by 24"L, oil on linen, “add movement and give you an interesting palette to play with,” says Mell. “Rain is also a replenishing image. Here in the West, we like it. It’s a welcome treat.”
“The two styles feed each other. You take your knowledge of creating a realistic landscape and use that information to abstract it,” he adds. “Picasso always said that you have to really know how to draw before you can really abstract, so there’s a little bit of that in my work as well.”

Mell’s design background—he studied advertising and illustration and worked for a number of years in some of New York City’s top ad agencies—and his innate passion for his home state allow him to capture with paint scenes of which many can only dream.

“Ed’s always had a strong sense of design and how things balance,” notes Richardson. “Plus, he gets away with using greens in sunsets. His ability to use certain colors against each other to create illumination and vibrancy really gives his work that ‘wow’ factor. It’s something I don’t see from a lot of artists.”

As if to underscore Richardson’s words, Mell points to another study in his studio, this one of a storm scene with muddy orangy-brown streaks in the sky. “This color in itself is a very strong color. It’s actually kind of an ugly color, but in the context of the painting, it works perfectly,” he explains. “Adding a subtler, dead color gives more life to the sun rays and emphases the sense of light.” Another study, this one filled with peachy-red tones, features “a color I’ve never touched before,” he adds. “That’s why I paint landscapes. With them, you can invent something new.”

It’s that ability to use the sky and the clouds to evoke emotional reactions that Atwell Ford believes will bring “Riders of the Purple Sage” to life on the stage. “I can’t think of anyone better to be doing the set design for this piece,” she says. “There’s something about when Ed works in a slightly abstracted style that really suits the story. It’s a dramatic life-or-death tale, and any other approach to the set wouldn’t have conveyed the tension in the ways that Ed’s work can.”

For the artist, though, it’s all about having fun and delighting in what he does. “Working on the opera is kind of like when I did the U.S. postage stamp for the Arizona Centennial in 2012. They’re bucket list things,” he says. “But I still enjoy painting.

“Plus, now I can indulge myself in buying too many cars,” he adds with a laugh. He also has an extensive collection of Western art. His studio and Paradise Valley home are filled with works by luminaries of the genre, among them Lon Megargee, Maynard Dixon, Thomas Hart Benton, Diego Rivera and Frank Tenney Johnson.

“I’m lucky to be able to enjoy it all within my lifetime and have fun with it,” he notes, adding that he plans to continue working in his studio for many years to come. “Other guys in their 90s are still painting. I hope to do that.”

His face lights up with smile. “They’ll have self-driving cars perfected in 10 years. I’ll be able to have my car drive me here. That’s my plan. Technology’s coming in right at the right time.”

Dark clouds contrast with pale mountains in “Shades of Earth,” 10"H by 20"L, oil on linen board. “Clouds add drama,” says Mell. “When people talk about landscapes, they're not necessarily looking for the desert at noon with sunny, blue skies.”

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