Artist Spotlight: Mel Odom

Odom's outrageously sleek and sensual renderings set a style for a generation and kept on going.




Melvyn Lee Odom was born in Richmond, Va., and grew up in the tiny tobacco town of Ahoskie, N.C. The second son of William and Ethel Odom, Mel discovered his passion for art at the age of 3. By the age of 7, Mel had convinced his indulgent parents to send him to his first drawing classes with a local artist.

In 1972, Mel completed his bachelor’s degree in fine arts in fashion illustration from Virginia Commonwealth University. Following graduation, Mel worked the graphics department of Leeds Polytechnic Institute in England for a year and a half. Upon returning to the United States and Richmond, Mel worked on an illustration portfolio, in anticipation for his move to New York City, in 1975. Mel’s work appeared in a wide variety of magazines, such as Time, Rolling Stone, and Blueboy. But Mel’s favorite work was his regular contributions to Playboy. His illustrations earned him multiple awards from the Society of Illustrators and other graphics and illustration organizations.

Mel’s style spread internationally through book covers for major publishers, a line of Paper Moon cards and posters that ultimately triggered the publishing of his first book, First Eyes, in Japan in 1982. Two years later, a reedited book of his work, Dreamer, was published by Viking Penguin, featuring a foreword by Edmund White. Mel also worked on art projects, including limited edition lithographs for publisher Eleanor Ettinger and, more tellingly, three-dimensional masks.

In 1991, Mel channeled his passion for dolls into his own design, Gene Marshall, a sultry movie star doll reflecting the 1940s film noir era. After several years of private development, Gene Marshall was licensed and manufactured by Ashton-Drake Galleries and introduced at the 1995 Toy Fair. Gene was an immediate sensation in the doll world, and within months was second only to Barbie in the burgeoning online chat rooms for fashion doll collectors. Collectors voted her the most important doll since Barbie.

In 1999, Hyperion Press commissioned Mel to write and illustrate Gene Marshall’s biography. Gene Marshall, Girl Star was published in 2000 and established Gene as a bona fide three-dimensional character, complete with family tragedy and a believable classic Hollywood bitch rival, Madra Lord. Miss Lord became the second doll in a line that eventually grew to include seven characters. In 2006 the license for Gene was transferred into the capable hands of Integrity Toys, where Gene flourished until 2010. Upon Gene’s 15th year in the doll market she “retired” in order to allow Mel the time to focus on other projects.

Also in 2006, Mel renewed his work with Secrets Garden, a series of human-scale oil portraits of mostly Civil War era dolls, refocusing his interest from the business of dolls back to their aesthetics. These paintings are his first two-dimensional work not related to Miss Marshall since the mid 1990s, reflecting his lifelong interest in the mystique of objects that look like life, yet are not.