Accepting Mystery

“Mel Odom’s art first attained prominence in the mid-1970s with a series of erotic illustrations done for skin magazines.  These pencil and watercolor drawings soon attracted assignments from art directors higher up the publishing, food chain, including in a seventeen year, free-lance relationship with Playboy magazine, and covers for Time and Omni magazines as well as countless books.

Birgit's Guests

 During this period, a successful line of posters and greeting cards using Mel’s iconic images was published by paper Moon Graphics.  The cards were distributed worldwide and triggered the release in Japan of his first book of drawings “First Eyes” published by Genko-sha Publishing in 1982.  A second book followed in the USA with “Dreamer” published by Penguin in the mid-80s.  A line of hand-drawn lithographs was produced with Eleanor Ettinger, and up to the mid-90s Mel was one of the hardest working illustrators in New York City, with dozens of industry awards to his credit.

In 1995 Mel retired from illustration and focused on a three-dimensional project, a fashion doll for adults named Gene Marshall.   Gene’s story of being a movie star during the 1940s and 50s was irresistible to collectors, and within a year of her 1995 launch at Toy Fair, Gene was in fact a star.  Bits of her story came with each doll and costume and in 2000 her lavishly illustrated biography: “Gene Marshall, Girl Star” was published by Hyperion Press.  Gene has been voted the most influential doll since Barbie.

Pansy Boy

Mel returned to two-dimensional art several years ago by beginning a series of human-scaled oil portraits of mostly Civil War-era china dolls.  These paintings are spooky and cool in tone compared with his highly sensual illustration style.  They are a continuing series, until when and if he finds another subject he prefers.   He occasionally takes an irresistible illustration assignment, like a portrait of Tori Amos for her autobiography cover.  He continues to live happily in NYC.”


You have been an artist from a very early age, when did you paint the first painting you were proud of?

My childhood images were all drawings rather than paintings and I suspect I was proud of all of them at the time.  Drawing was something I chose to do without anyone suggesting it.  It very quickly became my identity.  I just picked up pencils and crayons from very early on and started trying to draw.  There are crayon scribbles in my older brother’s picture books that are my first attempts to draw.

81530 Mel Odom 2 001

Your work is a lot about beauty.  What is your idea of beauty? 

There are many kinds of beauty of course, but the one that has been with me the longest and probably has the deepest hooks in my psyche is a sleek, beautifully turned image of something extraordinary happening.  What is actually happening may be obscure, but the feeling it gives you is need, for whatever it is.  It’s accepting mystery as a part of life without wanting to ruin it with an explanation.  I see illustrations from storybooks that I saw as a kid, coloring books and paperdolls that were what I thought beauty was.  I didn’t like the restrictions of coloring books but I loved their beautifully illustrated covers, ballerinas and movie stars. Model Suzy Parker selling lipstick in magazine ads.  I have a drawing of her from when I was 9.  I still own paperdolls from the third grade in school because I’ve always, to this day, thought they were so beautiful.  I use them in paintings, my earliest muses.

Invermay's summer

You have a lot of paintings who portrait dolls and a lot of paintings who portrait people, what are the differences and what the similarities between them as paintings and as symbolism?

They’re actually quite different in how I approach them.   With real people I feel free to stylize them, to make them more perfect, to twist them in a way that makes you see them afresh.  I did cover portraits for Time magazine and with that you learn how to show just enough in a portrait, but not too much, of that person.  With dolls, because I love them, I’m trying to honor the original beauty of how they look.   That’s what attracted me to them in the first place.  I stylize the original faces very little, because their original stylizations are so interesting to me and so beautiful.  There’s nothing easier than making creepy images with dolls.  You see it all the time, and it can be wonderfully effective.  But that’s not what I’m trying to do.  I love dolls and am trying to give them a visual, obscure story life through my paintings, somehow give these obsolete objects a voice in the 21st Century, try to build a personal vocabulary with them.  What I do is place these dolls in contexts that are riddled with questions.  You are asked to fill in the blanks.

Constant Severine

Each painting seems to have a whole story behind it, which one is your personal favourite?

I really don’t have a personal favorite other than the one I’m working on at any given time.  I have to commit to a painting in a way that is like falling in love, compulsive and personal.  But the story thing is very important to me.  I think of these paintings as illustrations for obscure fairy tails, maybe ones that were too dark to endure.  Many of these images have personal references and my idea of the perfect story is the one you create in your head from seeing them.

crazy crown

How do you think society and art are changing over the years for an artist? Do you think things are getting better or wore?

I think there are things that are very daunting in the art world right now.  I suspect it’s always been variations of that though, always tricky.  You’re doing something no one asked you to do, or advised you to do, in fact frequently discouraged you from doing.  But you need to do it, to feel whole.  So you’re bound to try and figure it out, in your own way.  If you’re following someone else’s example, you’re already doing it wrong.  It has to be your way, and no one else’s

The Rain Queen

What are you working on right now?

I’m doing a series of round paintings based on cameos.  I’ve always loved cameos and am trying to develop a way to do modern portraiture based on that history of the enclosed, carved image.  I’m just starting really but loving the challenge.  I’ve done portraits of people as cameos before but am starting to be a bit more serious about exploring the format.  Or maybe not so serious, I just did a cameo portrait of Bluto, Popeye’s cartoon nemesis.  It’s a sexy painting, a little threatening, but clearly affectionate, like love sometimes is.

Bluto Cameo 1

by Josh McKenney
portrait by Josh McKenney