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Edwards, Melvin 1937–

Melvin Edwards 1937

Sculptor

At a Glance

Selected works

Sources

Whether the piece is a small mask hung strategically on a wall or a large, standing sculpture in the middle of a courtyard, the metalworks of Melvin Edwards command power, intensity, and attention. Originally a painter, Edwards discovered the craft of welding metal, and it is within this medium that he has found a prominent voice in the world of art. He was born on May 4, 1937 in Houston, TX; mother His family loved reading and were all artistically gifted. Reading broadened young Melvins horizons, and he devoured books ranging from do-it-yourself manuals to histories, adventure novels and National Geographic Magazines, which first exposed him to the wonders of Africa. His parents, moreover, ensured his exposure to the world of the arts. His father, Melvin, Sr., who worked during the day as a corporate waiter, spent evenings working in Houstons nightclubs as a photographer, while his mother, Thelmarie, was a talented seam-stress.

From an early age Edwards displayed a strong creative bent, an interest which was recognized and encouraged by both his family and his school teachers. A diligent draftsman, he participatedin his high schools elective art program. As a junior, he was one of six students chosen to attend classes at Houstons Museum of Fine Arts. This experience greatly influenced Edwards. As he told Gail Gregg of ARTNews, Being able to see work in a museum was very special, very important. He saw works by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci for the first time, which also sparked his lifelong interest in human anatomy.

Art was not Edwards only interest as a high school student. He was also a talented athlete. Edwards was a member of the swimming and baseball teams and he played football well enough to earn a football scholarship to the University of Southern California. Before enrolling at USC, however, Edwards began his college education in art and art history at Los Angeles City College. He then transferred to USC in 1957 and spent a year at the Los Angeles County Art Institute. While attending the art institute, Edwards was profoundly influenced by his fellow students because their primary focus was perfecting their artistic talents. The following year, Edwards returned to USC.

During his college career, Edwards primary artistic focus was painting. Just prior to graduation, he took a course in welding, a course which would transform his art forever. Although drawing would always prove to be an aid in his structural process, welding transformed Edwards from a painter into a sculptor. As he later reflected in an interview with Brooke Kamin Rapaport of Sculpture, Ive never romanticized the power in working with metal, but I have always liked the stronger, more expressive side of art Art makes you look at your world, and you see other things about your world that give you ways of extending your own vision. Welding opened up sculpture for me.

Following graduation, Edwards continued to audit night classes at the university until he was able to afford his own studio and equipment. His career took off after a show at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in 1965, only two years

At a Glance

Born Melvin Edwards May 4, 1937 In Houston, IX; mother Thelmarie Edwards (seamstress), father Melvin Edwards Sr. (corporate waiter, photographer); Married to Jayne Cortez; three daughters. Education: University of Southern California, BFA, Los Angeles; studied at Chouinard Art Institute, Los Angeles.

Career: Taught at San Bernardino Valley College, 196465; California Institute of the Arts, 196567; Orange County Community College, 196769; assistant professor, University of Connecticut, 197072; Rutgers University, 1972-; Livingston College; Mason Gross School of the Art, Visual Art Department.

Awards: Long Beach Museum of Art Award, 1967; Santa Barbara Art Association Award, 1969; National Endowment for the Arts & Humanities, 1970; Los Angeles County Museum Grant; John Hay Whitney Fellow-ship; Los Angeles County Art Institute Fellowship; NJ State Arts Council/National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, 1984; Fulbright Fellowship to Zimbabwe, 198889.

after he began work on what would prove to be his most momentous collection of pieces, Lynch Fragments. He moved to New York in 1967, and solo shows followed at such institutions as the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (1968), the Whitney Museum of American Art (1970), and the Studio Museum in Harlem (1978).

Edwards came of age both personally and professionally during the turbulent civil rights era of the 1960s. Politics, violence against African Americans, and the cultural legacy of Africa constitute his primary subjects. Involved in the community activism of his colleagues, Edwards sought through his art to deal with African American history and culture. As he began to explore the themes of racism and injustice, he told ARTNews, It seemed logical that in some way I should be able to participate through my work.

Politics, according to Nancy Princenthal of Art in America, has always been an implicit theme in Edwards work. His titles, metaphors, allusion to tribal artifacts and rituals, and the sustained formal tension of his work all embody the spirit of his activism and his attitude towards the plight of his people. Edwards drew upon the rich and varied aspects of his life and welded them into sculpture that, as Gregg noted in ARTNews, not only confronts struggle but also celebrates it. Welding together hooks, knife blades, hammers, chains, handcuffs, saws, farming implements, and railroad spikes, Edwards transformed these relics of his childhood in the segregated South to create compositions that suggest tension, repression, and violence. Interestingly, despite the messages implicit in the implements themselves, under Edwards creative powers they ultimately seem inconsequential and almost weightless in comparison with the strength of a piece as a whole. As Vivien Raynor of the New York Times astutely commented, Since [Edwards] does little to change the appearance of his ingredients, one can only conclude that they are transformed because he has chosen them. Through his artistic talents, Edwards has been able not only to convey the African American struggle but to give it universal meaning to a broad-based audience, constructing an uplifting, hopeful whole from both the pleasant and the painful fragments.

While the political overtones in Edwards work are clearly discernible, he has always chosen an abstract approach to address these issues. As Gregg explained in ARTNews, the exploration of abstraction has remained as critical to the soul of his sculpture as its narrative content. In the catalogue to Edwards show at the Neuberger Museum in Purchase, NY in 1993, art critic Lowery Stokes Sims continued this analysis, noting that one sees in Edwards art the vindication of a steadfast commitment to an abstract vocabulary that encapsulates the essence of American modernism, and at the same time expresses an often neglected aspect of the African esthetic essence.

The energy and drama of the American political scene affected not only Edwards artistic output, but also his passion for African art and traditional crafts. Beginning in 1970 Edwards traveled extensively throughout Africa and even earned a Fulbright Fellowship to Zimbabwe in 1988. During his travels, he sought out village blacksmiths and bronze casters in order to study their centuries-old techniques. During his first trip, he met Nana Osel Bonsu, an Asante and a master woodcarver. In 1971 he met Omoregbe Inneh, the chief of the Benin bronze casters. These esteemed men, both of whom were university teachers as well as practitioners of African sculptural traditions, provided ample inspiration for Edwards.

The series of reliefs in Lynch Fragments best epitomize Edwards style and form. Begun in 1963, Edwards worked on this series for many years. By 1993 there were approximately 200 Fragments, made in three periods: 1963 to 1967, 1973, and 1978 to the present. While few of the pieces overtly address lynching, Edwards explained to Rapaport in Sculpture that he intended the titular continuity to bring that scale of intensity and that kind of power to all the works [The lynching theme, moreover,] has allowed him to wrestle or grapple with a particular social phenomenon and what it means metaphorically or symbolically. Like Edwards other sculptures, the Fragments incorporate chains, bolts, scissors, padlocks, nails, gears, axes, hammers, and other tools, all welded together into sculptures of incredible energy and intensity. Together, they explore the cruelty which humans inflict upon each other. With no one sculpture standing more than 12 inches, they are each hung on the wall at eye level, thereby increasing the sense of confrontation between the object and the viewer. This display also helps to accentuate the impression that these sculptures, and particularly the earlier ones, are actually masks in the African tradition. Expressing not only fear, violence, vigilance, sexuality, and play, these fragments welded together as mask-like compositions also seem to be faces, looking, pointing, warning, no matter, as critic Michael Brenson of the New York Times noticed, how much them seem to be impaled, wedged in, enslaved.

While the earlier pieces tend to be rather small and dense, the later additions to Lynch Fragments are more linear and varied. Some even contain a striking bolt of color created by polished steel and the raw seams of the dark residue produced from the forging process. The later pieces often bear no relation to heads or masks, and while at times surrealistic, they have a hard physical weight which surrealism never had. At the same time, according to art critic Judith Wilson in Art in America, they seem more active, more inventive in terms of direction and space. It is as if the artist has returned from the contemplation of a blood-soaked history to announce a new promise of freedom. In the last phase of the series, the sculptures are also physically larger, a tendency which Edwards attributed to his having worked outdoors during his Fulbright fellowship in Zimbabwe.

The implicit meaning as well as the techniques which lie behind Lynch Fragments are symbolic of Edwards entire body of work. The series, in essence, compressed the continuum of the African American experience and the historic oppression of African Americans into tightly-constructed, highly-emotional forms. While the forms themselves may be abstract, their jagged edges and cold, black steel surfaces communicate pain and fury. And yet, through Edwards craftsmanship and touch, they also instill the viewer with thoughts of remembering and overcoming. Thus they are celebratory as well as angry. As Catherine Fox of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution explained, Just as the reference to African masks symbolizes a rich artistic heritage, the use of forging pays homage to the ancient craft of blacksmithing practiced in Africa. And while the inclusion of axe and shovel blades might suggest slave labor, it also represents hard work. Even chains can suggest kinship, cooperation, and links-to the past, to the peopleas well as memories of imprisonment and hurt. As Brenson remarked in the New York Times, the ease with which the artist manipulates seemingly unbendable steel bars is essential to a body of work that is very much about the fullest possible understanding of freedom. No matter how aggressive the solid shapes, attention is inevitably drawn to the voids.

While the pieces of Lynch Fragments certainly comprise a large portion of Edwards portfolio, he has not restricted his art simply to this one series or even just to smaller-sized sculpture. In fact, he has also made a significant impact on the art world through his large public sculptures, a medium with which he first experimented in 1969. Unlike in his smaller pieces, these larger pieces have a lighter spirit and a different feel, leaving an initial impression of memory and hope. Most importantly, his larger, outdoor pieces tend to be constructed from stainless steel as opposed to steel, as Edwards capitalized on the play of light off his pieces. Similar to his smaller works, though, Edwards utilized each sculpture to further his exploration of the African American culture. As Brenson suggested in the New York Times, in large-scale works such as Tomorrows Wind, Edwards was clearly less interested in originality than he [was] in making an intense and full human statement. As Edwards himself told Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times, public art makes life better for living. Ultimately, while his smaller pieces chronicle an inward journey to personal and racial memory, the larger pieces, Brenson concluded, look outward and roll ahead.

Edwards talent and his unusual work have earned him a respected place in the art world and as a regular exhibitor at museums. However, the charged content of his work historically seemed to distance private dealers and collectors from his work. In fact, it was not until 1990 that Edwards had his first solo show at a commercial gallery, the CDS Gallery in New York. As Edwards himself admitted to Rapaport in Sculpture, he became an adult in a very confrontational period in relation to African people in the world, a fact which he believes impacted the public recognition of his work. He has, however, begun to benefit from the general trend in American culture which seeks to embrace multiculturalism and pluralism. Since 1972, Edwards has maintained a professorship at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where he has taught drawing, sculpture, and art history.

Taken as a whole, Edwards work, in its constancy of tone and its independence from artistic trends, has paid homage not only to the creativity of humans but also to African American history, which he has illuminated so expressively. This history, according to Edwards, is his, and the struggle is not over. His continued fight is manifested in his enduring body of work, and, as Susan Wadsworth of Art New England, suggested, once his work is seen, it cannot be dismissed nor forgotten.

Selected works

My Bell and One Thing, 1966 (steel).

Untitled steel, 1967.

Pyramid Up & Down Pyramid.

The Yellow Way.

Hard Times.

Benny Andrews.

Lynch Fragments.

B Wire-corner.

B Wire-pyramids.

B Wire-womb.

B Wire-chain Curtain.

Rockers.

Wachung.

Asafokra.

Felton.

Thelmarie.

Tambo.

For Richard Wright.

Asafo Kra No.

To Listen.

Tomorrows Wind, 1991.

Confirmation.

Unruly.

Conversation with Igun.

Sekuro Knows, 1988.

Some Bright Morning, 1963.

Afro Phoenix No. 2, 1963.

Sources

Periodicals

Art in America, October 1980, pp. 136137; September 1990, pp. 190191; March 1993, pp. 6065; January 1997, pp. 9697.

Art New England, February/March 1995.

ARTNews, September 1990, p. 157; February 1995, pp. 104107; October 1996, p. 135.

Atlantic Journal and Constitution, February 1, 1991, p. D2.

New York Times, December 23, 1988, p. C 36; March 30, 1990, p.C 28; March 8, 1991, p. C 30; July 26, 1991, p. C28; May 23, 1993, p. 2, 35; March 31, 1996, p. NJ15.

Scholastic Art, April-May 1996, pp. 23; March 1998, pp. 1213.

Sculpture, October 1996, pp. 2427; October 1998.

Time, March 31, 1980, p. 72.

Lisa S. Weitzman

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Melvin Edwards

Melvin Edwards

Melvin Edwards (born 1937) was an American sculptor who attempted to work within accepted main stream aesthetic standards without rejecting his African heritage. His art addressed his existence as an African-American as well as the oppression of African people in their native countries.

Melvin Edwards was born in Houston, Texas, on May 4, 1937. His early interest in art was encouraged by his parents. His father built his first easel for him when he was 14. He moved to southern California for his college education, where he attended the Los Angeles City College and the Los Angeles County Art Institute before receiving his B.F.A. degree from the University of Southern California.

After college Edwards was an educator as well as an exhibiting artist. Before leaving California he taught at the San Bernadino Valley College (1964-1965) and the Chouinard Art Institute, now the California Institute of Arts, known as Cal Arts (1965-1967). In 1967 he moved east to be nearer the New York art scene. He then taught at the Orange County Community College, New York (1967-1969), and the University of Connecticut (1970-1972). In 1972 he went to Rutgers University's Mason Gross School of the Arts, where he was still teaching in the 1990s.

His first one-artist exhibition was mounted by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in 1965. Later he had solo exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Maison de l'UNESCO, Paris, France, to name a few. His work is in many public and corporate collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Los Angeles County Museum; New Jersey State Museum; Chase Manhattan Bank; and Peat Marwick Inc. He has outdoor sculpture in Mount Vernon Plaza, Columbus, Ohio; Lafayette Gardens, Jersey City, New Jersey; on the Winston-Salem campus of North Carolina State University; and at the U.S. Social Security Federal Plaza, Jamaica, New York. Yet he did not receive his first one-man exhibition in a New York gallery until March of 1990.

Almost from the time Edwards started making sculpture (around 1963), he began a series of small welded steel pieces he called Lynch Fragments, and he continued to add to this series at various times throughout his career. These wall-mounted reliefs, usually no more than a foot tall, consist of bent and welded steel frequently combined with found objects such as nails, short lengths of chain, and discarded machine parts. Like the African ceremonial masks that inspired them, the Lynch Fragments express emotional extremes. Edwards' use of found objects not only has its precedence in modern art, but recalls the African practice of empowering so-called "fetish" figures with nails, blades, and other materials.

Shortly after moving to New York in 1967, Edwards was commissioned to produce an outdoor sculpture for Bethune Tower, a middle-income housing project built by the New York City Housing and Development Administration. Double Circle (1968) consists of four eight-foot-diameter steel disks, each with an opening in the center of approximately six feet. The four rings are mounted on edge one behind the other at sidewalk level, inviting visitors to walk through and between them.

Edwards' exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1970 featured four installations of barbed wire and chain. Pyramid Up and Down Pyramid consisted of strands of barbed wire of varying lengths stretched between two converging walls to create the single plane of an inverted pyramid descending from the ceiling to a point where the two walls meet the floor. Curtain for William and Peter was a curtain of barbed wire suspended from the ceiling and weighted at the bottom by scallops of heavy chain. These works have an affinity to the dematerialized perceptual installations of the 1960s, such as Dan Flavin's fluorescent light sculptures, but Edwards' choice of barbed wire charged his sculptures with social and political meaning.

Edwards' experiments with barbed wire formed an interim between his early Lynch Fragments and his Rocker series, begun after the Whitney exhibition. The Rocker series employs large semicircular steel plates on which the sculptures rock. The series was conceived when Edwards' interest in kinetic sculpture and animated film sparked childhood memories of his Grandmother Cora's oak Mission rocking chair. Like the Lynch Fragments, the Rocker series is a theme to which Edwards continued to return throughout his career. In 1978 the Studio Museum in Harlem organized a retrospective exhibition of these two aspects of his work: the Lynch Fragments from 1963 to 1966 and the Rockers of 1972 to 1978.

A third aspect of Edwards' work is his outdoor public sculpture. In 1981 the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton exhibited six monumental works around the exterior of the museum. Like his first public commission, Double Circle, and the Rocker series, his large, outdoor pieces are, for the most part, comprised of geometric shapes. Confirmation, a public sculpture commissioned in 1989 under the art-in-architecture program of the General Services Administration for the U.S. Social Security Federal Plaza in Jamaica, New York, is representative. It consists of a 12-foot-tall disk leaning against and welded to an arch. The surface of the entire sculpture is polished steel. The influence of African sculpture is present in the geometric compositions, albeit filtered through Western Cubism.

Edwards refused to assign specific meanings to any aspect of his art, even though it is filled with layers of symbolism and implication. Hints at the artist's intent are present in some of his titles. Homage to Billy Holiday and the Young Ones of Soweto stands on the campus of Morgan State University in Baltimore. Homage to My Father and the Spirit is at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Angola, which commemorates the independence of that country, was included in the 1976 American Bicentennial exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Also, many of the Lynch Fragments have African titles, such as Da Ten Da Mhiza. In general terms, the Lynch Fragments are personal reflections on his African heritage as well as expressions of the fear and anger of the civil rights movement. The large outdoor pieces, in comparison, are open, bright, optimistic, and playful. However, the chain, a frequently recurring motif, evokes oppression, alienation, and slavery.

Edwards continued to explore his heritage, to educate others, and to accumulate awards. He traveled repeatedly to Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt, France, Mexico, and Cuba. He received a New Jersey State Arts Council grant, a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, and two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. In 1988 and 1989 Edwards, the great great-grandson of an African blacksmith brought to the United States as a slave, received Fulbright fellowships to travel to Zimbabwe to conduct workshops in the art of metal sculpture for artists of that country.

Further Reading

Melvin Edwards, the exhibition catalogue published by the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, in 1978, includes an essay by Mary Schmidt Campbell and "Notes on Black Art," a statement written by Edwards at the invitation of the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1971. (The Whitney refused to publish it.) Melvin Edwards: Sculptures 1964-84 was published by the Maison de l'UNESCO in Paris, France, in conjunction with an exhibition there in November 1984. It includes essays, in French, by April Kingsey and Mary Schmidt Campbell and a statement by the artist. "Black Art: Talking about Books," in the Two Rivers Quarterly (London, 1970) is an article on Edwards by Frank Bowling, a frequent contributor to Art News and Arts magazine on African-American art.

For contextual background, Since the Harlem Renaissance: 50 Years of Afro-American Art, the catalogue of an exhibition organized by the Center Gallery of Bucknell University, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1984, includes statements by many of the artists as well as brief essays about the history of African-American art. Also, The Pluralist Era: American Art 1968-1981 by Corinne Robins (1984) includes a chapter on African-American art and artists. □

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