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  • Writer's pictureShea Stanfield

Chasing Light and Shadows

"I work from nature; seeing the real thing has much more impact than photographic representations. I then push it a little further to bring back nature's impact in real life."

Ed Mell. The result is an amazing array of vast, majestic panoramas of the American Southwest and up-close and personal nuances of flora and fauna, given their power with contrasting light and shadow, deep space, and colors that vibrate the space they occupy.

"Heart of the Storm" 50"x 70", oil on linen, ©2012 Ed Mell

Born in the upstart town of Phoenix, Arizona, in 1942, Ed Mell was the middle member of the Mell Boys; as some knew them, Frank, Ed, and Lee were all gifted artists. Ed began drawing as soon as his fingers could grasp the circumference of a pencil. Although he was exposed to an endless selection of desert plants, animals, and landscapes, his brother's drawings of WWII combat aircraft captured his attention. Ed's real love developed into designing cars. After graduating from North High School in Phoenix, he attended Phoenix College to hone his illustration skills. By this time, his interest in advertising and illustration had landed him a spot at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, California.

"November Cloud I" 24" x 20", oil on linen, ©2013 Ed Mell

Although an advertising major at ACCD, Ed veered off that path into the school's highly regarded automotive design department, where his design and illustration abilities came to the attention of Young and Rubicam, one of the premier advertising agencies in New York City, Ed was quickly promoted to Art Director. By all indications, his career was off the starting block. Later, with the agency Kenyon and Eckhardt, he secured significant accounts as Helena Rubenstein and Air France. However, "times, they were a changin'." Ed pumped the breaks on the Art Director petal and accelerated to full-time illustrator and airbrush artist, opening Sagebrush Studios with buddies Skip Andrews and Robert Grossman. The studio featured Ed’s airbrush illustrations of angular forms inspired by the Art Deco movement. Ed, Skip, and Robert were three of the first airbrush artists of the 1960s. Commissions for cover illustrations came streaming in from powerhouses such as the National Lampoon, Esquire, and Psychology Today. Ed was also flagged for advertisement illustrations for Air France, Helena Rubinstein, Tang, Faberge, and many more, leaving his competition in the dust.

"Different Times and Places" 30"x 30", oil on linen, ©2012 Ed Mell

About this time in 1970, the Arizona boy in New York City received an invitation home to teach art for two summers in Hotevilla, a town of 200 on Third Mesa, Hopi Reservation. During this time, the lights of the Big Apple faded, and the grandeur of the Colorado Plateau's vast spaces and unearthly incandescent sunsets would work their magic in Ed Mell’s creative soul. In typical illustrator style, Ed fills pages of his sketchbooks with sketches of landscapes using colored pencils. Yes, it was time to come home again.

"Unfolding Desert Bloom" 22"x 22", oil on linen, ©2016 Ed Mell

In 1975, Ed emerged from the gauntlet of illustrator trappings into a full-blown landscape painter. Ed Mell, brothers, and other artists, including illustrator and author Bob Boze Bell, started renting the 1930s grocery store at 10th Street and Oak in Phoenix. ED eventually purchased the space in 1982. The Studio is where the rubber met the road with creativity, friendships, and workspace. In 1981, Ed had a sellout show in a Scottsdale gallery; the headlights blinked on; he could see his way to making a living as a fine artist.

Ed built his reputation as a painter with his eye for architectural structure, and he leaned heavily on the graphic elements of his compositions. Details from landscapes, storms, longhorn cattle, and desert flowers fall into the background, yielding Ed’s exploding colors, electric lines, and larger-than-life sweeping vistas to dominate the viewer's gaze. Ed prefers to work in oil on canvas because of their richness of color. "For me, color is intuitive. The more you study the subject, the more you see the subtlety and variety of tones.” The name Ed Mell soon became synonymous with the Western themes of the desert American Southwest; according to Ed, his style is a desert modernism akin in spirit to Maynard Dixon’s simplified cubist images of nature used to intensify a scene.

"Clouds Drifting North, Vermillion Clifts" 20"x 40", oil on linen, ©1999 Ed Mell

Ed’s style exhibits a fluidity between expressive realism and abstraction depending on the impression or the mood he wants to convey in the piece. Always looking for an angle to keep him on his game, the concept of changing perspectives caught Ed's attention when Jerry Foster, a pilot and newscaster for Phoenix's KPNX-TV, invited Ed to take to the sky for an aerial view of Arizona’s landscapes from above. “The helicopter showed me a vertical scale and a horizon-to-horizon cinematic perspective that no earthbound traveler could see." The experience would come in handy years later in 2017 when Arizona Opera asked Ed to design the stage set for their production of Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage.

By the mid-1980s, harking back to his car design interests, Ed began an adventure into the territory of bronze sculptures. One of his most recognized pieces, Jack Knife, a large cowboy on a bucking bronco, is placed prominently at the intersection of Marshall Way and Main Street in Old Town Scottsdale. Another, Rising Phoenix, stands majestically outside Phoenix City Hall. Much like his painting style, Ed's sculpture is stylized with strong, straight lines to give the piece the illusion of speed, power, and energy. Regardless of the subject, Two Horses, Long Gone, Sidestepper, Upward, and Toro del Yermo have a powerful story that is uniquely Ed Mell's style.

The year 2008 saw Ed Mell's contribution to the state's history enshrined with the Arizona Historical League’s History Maker award presentation. From a family who settled in Arizona in the 1920s until today, Ed's work immortalizes Arizona's eternal qualities for future generations through his art. In 2012, as part of Arizona's Centennial Celebration, Ed was asked to design the Arizona Centennial Postage Stamp, a scene of Cathedral Rock in Sedona, which he unveiled in Prescott, Arizona, the state's first capitol. During the same year, Ed received the Arizona Governor's Arts Award for his contribution to the arts in Arizona. In 2020, Desert Caballeros and Western Museum honored Ed with the Lifetime Achievement Award and a one-person retrospective show.

Painter, sculptor, and teacher Ed Mell’s works have been exhibited across the country over the years; in museums, many of his works are in the permanent collections such as the Eiteljong Museum of American Indian and Western Art, the Rockwell-Corning Museum of Modern Art, the Booth Museum of Western Art, Denver Art Museum, Phoenix Art Museum, Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, Mesa Southwest Museum, Tucson Museum of Art, Desert Caballeros Museum of Western Art and many more. His public art resides in the City of Glendale, the City of Scottsdale, and Kartchner Caverns, State Park in Southern Arizona, to name a few. There are many private collectors, among them celebrities, politicians, business owners, family, and friends. Ed's work is represented by Owings Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Medicine Man Gallery in Tucson, Arizona; and Ed Mell Gallery in Phoenix, Arizona. Painter Mark Maggiori sumed up what Ed Mell's work meant to art, "He carved the path for all of us; he broke the rules, opened the doors to possibilities, dropped modernism on American Western art, and took it to the next level."

Photo Credit: John O'Neill


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