Reference Entry

Edwards, Mel

Monifa Love Asante

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Edwards, Mel

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visual artist and educator, was born Melvin Eugene Edwards Jr., in Houston, Texas, the eldest of four children of Thelmarie Felton Edwards and Melvin Eugene Edwards Sr. His father was a brilliant and gifted man who worked as a waiter, laborer in the oil industry, photographer, and a professional scout for the Boy Scouts of America. His mother, a seamstress, from whom Edwards learned to sew, was also athletically and artistically talented. His grandmother was a quilter, whose patternmaking and use of color influenced Edwards. Woodcarving was passed down on his father's side, and one of his maternal ancestors was a blacksmith brought to America from West Africa. Both his father and George Gilbert, a family friend that Edwards considered an uncle, were interested in art and they nurtured Edwards. His father built his first easel. Edwards Sr. also passed on a love of music, especially jazz, to his son. Both his parents conveyed their love of reading and learning to him. The family's National Geographic magazines prompted his early interest in Africa and adventure.In pursuit of economic opportunity, the family moved to McNair, Texas, when Edwards was five years old; when he was seven, the family relocated to Dayton, Ohio. Edwards began drawing at an early age, making sophisticated, life-like figures. In Dayton, he studied the exhibited works at the Dayton Art Institute and other venues. Edwards' family moved back to Texas when he was twelve. At Houston's Phillis Wheatley High School, one of his teachers, Ethel Ladner, furthered Edwards' study of the relationships between music and art. James Thomas, who taught drawing and architecture, emphasized precision, structure, and the relationship between human beings and their environment. Edwards became acquainted with the artist John Biggers, who taught at Texas Southern University. Edwards and his classmate, Joe Louis Johnson, were selected to take art classes at Houston's Museum of Fine Arts in 1953. Edwards became committed to realizing his goal of making his living as an artist.After graduating from high school in 1955 Edwards moved to California, where he joined the naval reserve and lived with an aunt and uncle. From 1955 to 1960 Edwards studied art at the Los Angeles City College, the University of Southern California (USC), and the Los Angeles Institute of Art (later the Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design), where the painter Charles White taught and where Edwards studied sculpture with Renzo Fenci. In 1959 Edwards first exhibited his paintings at the All City Exhibition in Barnsdall Park in Los Angeles and he participated in community exhibitions with the Seekers, an African American artist collective. Edwards played on the USC football team and credited his study of diagrammed plays with helping him to understand composition, space, and movement with greater insight. While in school and during the summers he worked at the post office, at Los Angeles City and Cedars of Lebanon hospitals, on the Houston waterfront, and in the warehouse district. All of this experience offered him material for his drawings.In 1960 Edwards married the painter Karen Hamre, with whom he would have three daughters. Edwards supported his family by working with Tony Hill, an African American USC alumnus. Hill owned a factory where he produced decorative ceramics, along with other arts-related enterprises. On his lunch hour, Edwards often visited a nearby printmaking workshop, where he met artists Leon Golub, Richard Hunt, and Louise Nevelson, among others. He sought the company of other artists to learn from the creative problems they worked to solve. It was also in this year that Edwards became more deeply involved with sculpture. He created works in wood and plaster, and began taking welding courses at USC with George Baker.In 1963, in response to sociopolitical conditions in the United States and human rights struggles worldwide, Edwards began his best known body of work, Lynch Fragments. He has dedicated more than forty years to this highly acclaimed series of organically welded steel wall sculptures that comment on power, human sacrifice, and the terrible knottiness of living.The year 1965 was an auspicious one for Edwards. He earned a BFA from USC and had his first solo exhibition at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. He received the Los Angeles Contemporary Art Council Award and participated in three other exhibitions including one in Chicago. He joined the faculty of the Chouinard Art School. In 1966 Edwards moved to New York and established a studio there. Two years later he and Hamre divorced.Edwards' solo exhibitions included groundbreaking shows at the Whitney Museum of American Art (1970), the Studio Museum of Harlem (1978), the New Jersey State Museum (1981), the Sculpture Center Gallery in New York (1982), those at colleges and universities across the United States, and at leading art venues around the world.In 1971, and 1984, he received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for Visual Arts. In 1972 Edwards joined the faculty at Rutgers University, where he was instrumental in the development of the innovative visual arts program at the Mason Gross School of the Creative and Performing Arts. He began his Rocker series that year. These kinetic works represent the intersection of childhood memories and African sculptural aesthetics. Edwards was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Award in 1975, the year he married avant-garde poet and performance artist Jayne Cortez. He would produce artwork for many of her jazz-influenced, incantatory books and albums.In 1988 he won a Fulbright Fellowship to Zimbabwe. In 1993 Edwards won the grand prize of the Fuji-Sankei Biennial in Japan, and in 1995 his work was included in the Cairo Biennial. His work has been included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Bronx Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the LA County Museum of Art. His significant public commissions include Confirmation, installed in the Federal Plaza in Jamaica, New York.In his extensive travels throughout Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, and Asia, Edwards met with master sculptors and artisans, learning from and incorporating into his own work their aesthetics, approaches, and interpretations of abstractions. Edwards' commitment to abstraction, sacred geometry, and his use of chain, barbed wire, and implements of labor have allowed him to meld the political, philosophical, spiritual, and architectural. Through this convergence, he has offered his vision of the souls of black folk.

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Subjects: History

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