By Christopher Harrity
Originally published on Advocate.com March 24 2012 1:00 AM ET
If you were on the scene in 1975 when Blueboy magazine started publishing then you had the treat of seeing early Mel Odom illustrations. Soon his beautifully rendered work appeared on book covers, on greeting cards, and in more mainstream magazines such as Playboy and Time. In the post-Stonewall commercial art world, some of the most talented and prolific illustrators were also out and gay. Mel Odom's unique style that seemed to be a combination of art deco, movie star stills, and pre-Raphaelite sensuality set a new ideal for beauty. Odom has continued to follow his very specific muse in depicting and creating dolls and it seems a natural evolution.
The Advocate: Your Facebook posts of your childhood artwork are really wonderful. Was your family encouraging to you as a child in your artistic interests?
Mel Odom: Oh, yes, they realized early on how much it mattered to me, so they incorporated that into who they thought of me as being. They gave me paper and crayons and enough room to sit and draw for hours, without any agenda other than pleasure. They were impressed that I did that so devotedly on my own, without anyone making me, and encouraged me the way all parents should, and unfortunately few do. I was given drawing lessons with a local artist from about age 7, once a week, after school. It was always my social identity, I was the one in my school class who got asked to draw things for projects and such.
Your early work was iconic for gay men and women of a certain age. Did your career put you in touch with other notable art stars of the time like Antonio? George Stavrinos? Michael Vollbracht?
Antonio I would see in clubs and parties, and we would always plan to get together, and he would always cancel at the last minute. So I don’t really know him that personally, but he’s a beyond brilliant fashion illustrator whose work I’ve loved since college. He always seemed like a nice man and I went to his memorial service at FIT where people were wailing and singing spirituals. It was amazing!!! And made me wish we had know each other better. (An Interview magazine cover by Antonio, left.)
George Stavrinos and I were good friends and neighbors. I don’t remember where we met but we lived 10 blocks apart and he went out of his way to befriend me. George was a doll. A very sweet, complicated man with a huge heart and tons of talent. I did lithographs with Eleanor Ettinger in order to spend time with George. I liked the idea of lithographs but I loved the idea of George and I sitting there at a table drawing together. And it sort of happened like that for a while. I feel like Colette sometime, speaking of the friends and artists who are gone, the last survivor of an era. But SO many of my illustrator friends died, so many that I don’t want to start a list. (A Stavrinos illustration for Blueboy magazine, right.)
Michael Vollbracht and I met at a party thrown for Blueboy magazine in NYC. There were lots of illustrators and writers and very decorative people there, and when Michael walked into the room my mouth went dry. He could not have been more handsome and nice, and really sexy. I had a huge crush on him for years. But I had a junkie boyfriend at the time and Michael just seemed too nice to get involved with all that drama, on any level. Michael’s still around and doing wonderfully well. He’s still handsome and I still get awkward around him. It’s great! (Divine in a Volbracht kimono, left.)
Many of us first saw your work in erotic magazines like Blueboy. Did that ever pose a problem working for more mainstream clients?
No, that’s where they had seen my work. Playboy hired me directly from my Blueboy work, and Time magazine from seeing me in Playboy. It’s a food chain, and the big fish nibble on the best parts of the little fish. I was blessed to be in Blueboy, because the art director Alex Sanchez would let you do anything as long as it was beautiful. He really directed from the viewpoint of art. They were very fun to work for and paid $300 a page.
Which artists, writers, celebrities, etc., were the greatest influences on you as you became an artist, and has that list changed? Who would be the newest influencers?
Well, probably my first and longest-lasting "art crush" is Aubrey Beardsley. I saw his work as a teenager and instantly felt some sort of connection that directed my art. I did pen and ink to mimic him for a while, but eventually his sensibility seeped in enough that I didn’t have to copy to feel connected. And before that, cartoons had had a huge impact on me, one that lasts to this day. The drawing in Popeye and Disney cartoons was my earliest idea of beauty. And magazines. I loved the ads in magazines, mermaids selling cold cream, stuff like that. I looked at everything as a kid.
And of course that changes and evolves as you’re exposed to more. But for me, the first blocks of my aesthetic foundation still stand.
I see tons of things that inspire me today, artists of today whose work I admire, and I’m constantly discovering artists of the past whose names I didn’t know but art I loved. I could list names but there are too many.
Regardless of the subject matter of your work, the mood is always outrageously exotic, mysterious, sensual. Is that your nature? Or do these qualities live more in the work than in everyday life?
I never thought of myself or my work as exotic, even when other people did. I was too much of a hillbilly to ever feel on top of the NYC scene. I came from a very small town and a part of me always remembered that. My work was the most "outsider" part of my personality and probably reflected much more about me personally than I was aware of. Like everyone else, I’d had the mundane and everyday crammed down my throat since childhood, so when I starting creating images of my own, I wanted them to be exceptional and different. I was very lucky at the time to have a paying audience for my work, so I made it a priority in my life. I was very self-disciplined.
The dolls — from the Gene doll to the current Civil War-era dolls, you seem very focused. And there is still rebellion in idea of boys playing with dolls. Earlier your work was boldly gay. The dolls seem to be exploring a more delicate world of gender identity and embracing femininity. Can you talk about your current work?
I always loved dolls, as far back as I can remember. I also learned pretty early on that there was something odd about that. So eventually they became a forbidden thing, and nothing is more attractive than that, especially to a kid. They were my first taste of being a sexual outlaw, of wanting something my sex wasn’t suppose to want. I also suspect that as a child I associated dolls with the supernatural, because of their diminutive size and beauty and my complete belief in fairies and such. I remember when I was very little, entering my cousin Carolyn’s bedroom and starting at her dolls. I never touched them, just looked. They seemed to know things, and became what I thought of as "most beautiful." As I grew older the attraction to dolls just had to go underground for me to survive, so there developed a sense of "the hidden" about them too, shame I guess. These are all very potent emotions for a child to live with, or an adult for that matter, and when I started painting a few years ago, dolls came up first as to what I needed to explore. These paintings aren’t sexy, which people sort of expect from my work, at least they aren’t yet. They’re more about mourning than anything else.
My doll Gene is sexy, very poised and innocent at the same time. Gene was a project I gave myself to do when, in the early '90s, my best buddy, designer Brian Scott Carr, was ill and dying from AIDS. His family was in the Midwest and I knew I needed to step up and be the daddy in the situation. By then I had started collecting dolls as an adult, mostly Barbie. I wanted an intense, creative thing to be involved with, just to get through Brian’s decline, and chose to create Gene for that project. I made her into something that if I saw in a store I would be unable to resist. And during the months of working on her, I would go from the hospital and the sadness of seeing Brian, to Michael Evert the sculptor’s studio, where I would work on Gene. Michael is this great guy and understood what was going on, so he let me be quiet until I felt better and became myself again. Gene became my means to get myself out of the depressed funk of the hospital. Gene saved my neck. I lived with her for 20 years in various ways and retired her in 2010, in part to give me a chance to do something else.
These doll paintings are a part of that "something else." They are the most creative fun I have, and done from the most personal place imaginable. It would be easier commercially for me to continue in my illustration style for new things, and some people would like that I think. But after drawing in that anal-compulsive, meticulous style of my illustration, consistently for 25 years, I just hit a wall and stopped enjoying it. And if you’re not going to enjoy it, sell shoes. And all that art that I created over 25 years still exists, it hasn’t gone anywhere. So these paintings are always evolving for me, being influenced by new things and a constant challenge. I get to leave the door open to random inspiration. I think my paintings are beautiful. I would want them. And I’ve always been the one to please for my art. It has to be that way. For right now they’re what I need to do, and I’ll do them until I think of something I’d rather do more. That’s kind of how I work.
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.