Interview by Jeffrey Felner
For those who missed the glory days of printed media it can be said that some of the greatest artists and illustrators of the 20th century were hatched and represented on a regular basis on an international stage; It might have been l’Uomo vogue or Blueboy, Linea Italiana, Interview, when it was of the moment, or GQ when it was the bible for menswear. Illustration and the artwork of artists like Mel Odom, George Stavrinos, Richard Bernstein, Antonio Lopez, and Tony Viramontes was everywhere including your daily newspaper when illustration was the preferred visual method of advertising especially in newspapers. Those years were explosive and life altering in so many ways that none of us could have ever predicted.
Mel Odom’s Illustrations during the Seventies and even today are unique in style and immediately identifiable. Besides his stunning technique they have a mystery and mood that transforms the viewer to magical sometimes surreal place. Mel is iconic within the Illustration world.” Richard Vyse, illustrator, artist, portraitist
I have known Mel as an acquaintance for most of those 40 years so it gives me great pleasure when my peers can be lauded and celebrated for their accomplishments and of course when I get to interview them. One of my favorite expressions is that one has to look back to see what’s ahead and so with that in mind, here is Mel Odom in his words…
Jeffrey Felner: Can you sort of give us a brief run down as to how you arrived at your present station in life; you
Mel Odom: I grew up in a very small town in North Carolina. My father was a mailman and had a tobacco/peanuts farm with his sisters. My mom stayed home and took care of my older brother and me. I had a good life there with friends, playing in the woods and enough alone time to play with dolls and draw. Drawing was my favorite thing to do. My being able to draw became my identity throughout my school years and when I went to college to study illustration at Virginia Commonwealth University. I was fortunate enough to live in London for a couple of years after college studying music and working on an illustration portfolio; life in London saved me from being a total hick when I moved to NYC.
NYC was very kind to me and I got illustration work right away. I met interesting people and managed to climb the publishing “food chain” from lurid skin magazines to more established ones like Playboy and TIME. I worked for several years with Blueboy while exploring my personal sexuality in print as well as in front of the whole world. I suspect my work ethic saved me from the excesses of New York City but even so, I left a portion of my hearing at Studio 54 from nights spent on the dance floor. In 1980 my commissions to illustrate book covers led me to become the go-to artist for the burgeoning genre of gay literature; dozens of covers, then for all sorts of fiction followed … I had an actual career.
By 1991, bored a bit by illustration, and in need of an all-consuming passion, I designed a fashion doll for adults, “Gene Marshall’, a fictional movie star of the 40s and 50s. She was launched commercially in 1995 and within one year she was second only to Barbie on the newfangled Internet. She was a huge success and occupied my time to the exclusion of illustration, except for illustrations of Gene. She was a lot of work and a lot of fun and after ten years with Ashton-Drake Galleries, Gene changed companies for five beautifully fashioned years with Integrity Toys where she “retired” in 2015. Truthfully, I was afraid that if I didn’t return to my drawing and painting then, I might never go back to it. I loved doing Gene, but the travel and compromise was exhausting. ‘Coaxed back into pictures three years later’, Gene Marshall returned for five more years in the spotlight as a ball-jointed resin doll with JAMIE show. This past January, appropriately enough at a Palm Springs convention, Gene retired once more ‘to move to a private life in Italy’… or that’s what I’ve decided.
JF: If you could invite any 5 people to dinner who would they be and why?
MO: Aubrey Beardsley would be my first choice as He’s always been my favorite artist. He was a genius, flat out and His influence on modern art is just being understood. He produced a lifetime’s worth of work by the time he was twenty five. I would LOVE to invite the amazing actress Cate Blanchett, and seems likely to be an equally amazing person; she’s funny and brilliant without being grand about it. Georgia O’Keeffe though I imagine she would be fairly quiet but intense. I think the other two guests might be my now deceased parents because I have so much I’d love to tell them … or Oprah, she’d be a blast to meet and talk to!!! or Idris Elba!
JF: There is another part to your life besides the art can you explain and expand on what that entails?
MO: I have a great private life; my husband and I spend weekends and holidays together, sometimes weeks together. We maintain separate residences as I’m good alone since I need it to work. My husband Charlie and I have been together for 25 years and married for five. We really love being together; he’s from the Bronx and I’m from Mayberry so we’re very different in a way that works. Having amazing friends is something that enhances us both.
JF: If you could collaborate on any project of any kind with any one of your choice, who and what would it be and why?
MO: I want to work with a brilliant book designer who can create a book of my life’s work. It’s been decades since the last one and I’d like to be involved with the process of building a monograph that is a more a comprehensive examination of my oeuvre. I always hear a clock ticking!
JF: I’m curious to know what your feelings are about social media, the upside and downside, and what it’s breeding in terms of the so called famous and influencers?
MO: Well, you’re reading this because of the Internet, so how bad can the Internet be? We don’t know yet. I was rather reluctant to embrace social media, but once I did, I starting reaping rewards for doing it and meeting interesting people I probably wouldn’t have met otherwise. It can be a good thing…or the opposite. I just try to not let it suck up too much of my time. I’m happier drawing or doing something in the real world.
Every generation has its own form of new celebrity. When I was a kid it was TV stars, they were the new media stars, not quite movie stars but more familiar and ultimately more powerful. Sort of like Internet stars of different varieties, they’re in your home. Hell… they’re in your lap!
I like people who make and do things, artists and creatives. I don’t follow much of anybody who’s just famous for being themselves; unless they possess incredible beauty … I’m always up for that. Today’s Media is a totally different world than we once knew.
Daniel Cooney Fine Art is pleased to announce the first gallery exhibition of illustrator Mel Odom’s drawings titled Gorgeous. The exhibition will consist of approximately 30 small-scale drawings primarily created in the late 1970’s-80’s on board and vellum. These meticulous drawings are executed in pencil, dyes and gouache.
Exhibition dates: January 10 – February 23, 2019
The opening reception for “Mel Odom: Gorgeous” is January 10 from 6 – 8pm at 508 W 26 St. ste 9C