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Tue, 05.04.1937

Melvin Edwards, Artist, and Teacher born

Melvin Edwards

*Melvin "Mel" Edwards was born on this date in 1937. He is a Black contemporary artist, teacher, and abstract steel metal sculptor. Additionally, he has worked in drawing and printmaking.

Early life and education

Melvin Eugene Edwards, Jr., was born in Houston, Texas, to Thelmarie Edwards and Melvin Edwards Sr, and was the eldest of his parents' four children. He was raised in Dayton, Ohio, for five years, but by middle school age, the family moved back to Houston. Edwards grew up in Houston during a time of Jim Crow racial segregation. He attended E. O. Smith Junior High School and Phillis Wheatley High School. He was a creator from a young age and was encouraged by his parents, with his father building his first easel when he was 14 years old. Edwards was introduced to abstract art by a high school teacher.

While attending high school, he took art classes at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. In 1955 he moved to southern California to pursue studies at Los Angeles City College. Edwards transferred schools to study art and play football at the University of Southern California (USC), where he received his B.F.A. degree in 1965. While attending USC, Edwards took a history course rooted in a European-centric view, which upset him and fueled him to learn more about African history. This inspired his travel to Africa five years later. He attended Los Angeles County Art Institute (known as Otis College of Art and Design) during breaks from USC to study sculpture with Renzo Fenci.


In 1965, he went on to teach at the California Institute of the Arts until 1967. Additionally, he taught at Orange County Community College in New York (1967-1969) and the University of Connecticut (1970-1972). In 1972, he began teaching art classes at Livingston College of Rutgers University. By 1980 he was a full professor and teaching at the Mason Gross School of Creative and Performing Arts at Rutgers University. By 2002, he retired from teaching. His first one-person exhibition was held at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California in 1965.

Edwards cited jazz music as an influence on his work. In 1965, Edwards was working in Los Angeles as a driver for a film company; on his breaks, he would visit Tamarind Print Institute. At Tamarind, he met many influential national artists like George Sugarman. Later that year, Sugarman had a New York University art exhibition which Edwards photographed for him. At that exhibition, he met a recent Yale University graduate, painter William T. Williams. The two artists went on to have a very close partnership continuing to this day.

In 1970, Edwards took his first trip to Africa, visiting the West African republics of Nigeria, Togo, Benin, and Ghana. This trip influenced his work and was followed by other visits to Africa over the years. Work Smokehouse (1968 – 1970) Smokehouse (also known as Smokehouse Associates, Smokehouse Collective, Smokehouse Painters) was a New York City-based community "wall painting" initiative created in part by Melvin Edwards and William T. Williams, spanning from 1968 until 1970.

The project was a social experiment asking, "can abstraction solve social justice?" These murals were small-scale- never going past 16ft or higher due to the height restrictions of the initiatives ladder. Nevertheless, Smokehouse painted alleyways, tops of buildings, and sides of buildings. As the project continued, MOMA patrons Celeste Bartos and David Rockefeller underwrote these projects. The more recognition they got, the more prominent people wanted them to go. They didn’t feel comfortable going too large. 121st and Sylvan still have the annual tradition of doing a community-based mural project because of Smokehouse. 

Lynch Fragments Series

Edwards’ work Some Bright Morning (1963) started his series called Lynch Fragments and was a reference to Ralph Ginzburg’s anthology, 100 Years of Lynchings (1962). The series now has more than 200 pieces. The sculptures, usually no more than a foot tall, are hung on the wall at eye level. 

Rocker Series

Edwards is also known for smaller freestanding works, the kinetic "Rockers" series. Works from the Rocker series include Homage to Coco (1970), Good Friends in Chicago (1972), Avenue B (Rocker) (1975), Memories of Coco (1980), and A Conversation with Norman Lewis (1980), among others. 

He is also known for works executed in the medium of printmaking. His large-scale, public artworks include Homage to My Father and the Spirit (1969, Cornell University, Appel Commons, Ithaca, New York), Pyramid Up and Down Pyramid (1969, re-fabricated 2017, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City), Homage to Billie Holiday and the Young Ones at Soweto (1977, Morgan State University, Out of the Struggles of the Past to a Brilliant Future (1982, Mt Vernon Plaza, Columbus, Ohio), and Breaking of the Chains (1995, San Diego, California).

Exhibitions and collections

In 2012, his work appeared at MOMA PS-1. A 30-year retrospective of his sculpture was held in 1993 at the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, New York. A 50-year retrospective of his work, Melvin Edwards: Five Decades, opened at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, Texas, on January 31, 2015, and was on view until May 10, 2015. The exhibition also toured the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University. Edwards' works were featured in Art Basel Miami Beach 2015. Edwards works in various public museum collections, including MoMA, The Met), SAAM), and Williams College Museum of Art.

He was married in 1960 to Karen Hamre, and they had three children together. In 1969, the couple separated; Hamre and the children stayed in Los Angeles while Edwards had already moved to New York City. In 1976, Edwards married the poet Jayne Cortez. Cortez and Edwards worked together; she died in 2012: she wrote a series of poems to accompany her husband's work, Lynch Fragments, and he illustrated her book Pissstained Stairs and the Monkey Man’s Wares (1969). His art studios are located in upstate New York and Plainfield, New Jersey, and he often travels to Dakar, Senegal.

His artwork has political content, often referencing Black history and the exploration of themes within slavery. Visually his works are characterized using straight-edged triangular and rectilinear forms in metal. He lives between Upstate New York and Plainfield, New Jersey. He has had more than a dozen one-person show exhibits and has been in over four dozen group shows. Edwards has had solo exhibitions.

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Your door is shut against my tightened face, And I am sharp as steel with discontent; But I possess the courage and the grace To bear my anger proudly... THE WHITE HOUSE by Claude McKay.
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