November 17, 2023
Tonight we are honoring Ed Mell at the Shemer Art Center in Phoenix and I have been asked to talk about our long friendship and what it has meant to be his studio mate and what, if anything I learned from the experience.
First of all, I have to say I learned more from Ed just by osmosis—working in the same space with him—as I did in five years of study at the Fine Arts College at the University of Arizona.
The first thing I have to say is Ed likes to mess around and have fun, but when it's time to paint, it's time to paint. In the six-year-period I shared studio space with Ed (1980-1986) we often went to lunch at nearby MacAlpine's lunch counter or Ye Old Sandwich Shoppe or Durant's and we would laugh and laugh, but as soon as we came back to the studio and came in the front door, Ed would make a hard right, sit down and start painting. Seriously. It was jarring, especially to someone who could fritter away the entire afternoon joking around and not going back to work. Ed Mell's work ethic is the best and the most amazing I have ever encountered. He is ruthless when it comes to putting in quality time on his art. I have never forgotten this.
The neighborhood around Ed's studio at that time was filled with eccentrics including a crazy guy named Bill Drummond and his zany crew who lived in a dwelling a mile or so away they called The Hate House. They were early punks on the Phoenix scene and they often came by the studio to see Ed and "Beanie Bob" Steinhilber, who helped Ed with canvas stretching and he also played drums in the legendary punk band The Meat Puppets. One night Ed prepped his studio for an interview the next day with a national prestigious art magazine. Unbeknownst to Ed, Bill Drummond and The Meat Puppets came in and did a photo shoot for an album cover in the studio and got pretty crazy, utilizing severed doll's heads splattered with fake blood everywhere. In the morning, Ed came in and found the bloody mess and did what he could to straighten it up, but of course, it was pretty bad. Then, to make matters more hilarious, as the journalist came in to do the interview, Beany Bob came stumbling over from his house next door in a bathrobe covered in cat hair and tried to make it right. Ed just smiled and kept going and the interviewer didn't mention this crazy sidebar in the piece.
More Classic Ed Mell Studio Tales
One time an art tour came through the studio made up of a local Phoenix women's group who support the arts. When the group came through Ed was working on one of his giant, geometric landscapes and he was using a ruler, actually more of a straight edge, to draw the horizon on his canvas. One of the older women in the group was quite shocked and blurted out, "Isn't that cheating?" Ed just turned and smiled at her and said, "Not if you don't get caught."
Ken Richardson told me about a wealthy client who ordered a commissioned painting from Ed (this is six figure territory), then brought a pillow case his wife wanted him to give to Ed to match the colors in the painting he was going to do with the pillow case. Rather than tell him off and say, this isn't Bed Bath & Beyond, Ed took the pillow case, smiled and said, "I'll sleep on it." Of course Ed never tried to match the pillow case, but this is a good example of Ed's quick wit: I'll sleep on it, indeed! And, because of Ed's superb color sense, the clients thought he had actually matched their pillows!
A well-known Phoenix journalist wanted to do a story on Ed and his art and asked to see his studio. Ed picked her up at the newspaper offices and drove her up 10th Street to Oak and as they drew close she noticed a whole bunch of gang graffiti on a corner building and said, "Oh, my, this is a rough neighborhood." Ed pulled up in front of the building with the gang graffiti, put the car in park and said, "Welcome to my studio."
Ed's good friend, the late, great Dan O'Neal told a story about being with Ed and a very wealthy art collector who had decided he wanted to get in the art game himself and do painting. How hard could it be? They were drinking wine and the art collector finally looked at Ed and said, "Ed, you've got to tell me the secret to painting." Ed smiled and said, "What do you want to know?" And the Wealthy Wannabe Artist said, "I don't get it. I've bought the most expensive brushes and paints and I've got the best canvas money can buy but everything I do is just crap. What is the secret? I've got to know the secret!" Ed took a sip of wine and said with a straight face, "Practice. Practice. Practice."
Note to budding artists: No, better advice has ever been given.
Traveling with Ed to Santa Fe was like being with a rock star. In the nineties we were at a Maynard Dixon retrospective at the New Mexico Museum of Art and we were trying to look at the paintings and people were constantly coming up to him and grabbing his arm and saying, "Are you Ed Mell? Oh, my god, you are Ed Mell! Look honey, it's Ed Mell!" This happened in restaurants and bars up and down Canyon Road.
And, of course, more than a few real rock stars want to hang with Edmundo as well
"I'm a messed up, torn down worthless bag of trouble I get right there in your hair I got a real sharp pin which which to burst your bubble."
—Meat Puppets, "Huevos"