Creative Spaces: Artist Mel Kadel

Artist Mel Kadel works carefully with hand stained paper to create multi-layered, intensely intricate pieces at her studio in California. Milk Made sent rove reporter Mike Abu to discover both her unique studio and how this methodical artist regards her work.

When we showed up to Mel Kadel’s cabin tucked deep in a canyon above Echo Park, the first thing that struck me was the ping pong table sitting in the driveway.

“Ping-pong table…” I muttered to Milk Made’s Kalvin Lazarte, “… cool.”

There’s something trustworthy about a person who owns a ping-pong table. It’s hard to necessarily define, but when I see a dusted off table sitting in close proximity to any creative workspace, I know there’s a serious artist nearby. That’s just kind of the way it goes—for whatever reason, ping-pong just happens to be the preferential sport for creative people. Somebody should look into that.

Mel was on the porch working on a project for her new art show, patiently painting cherries on a character’s blouse. Her boyfriend, artist Travis Millard, sat drinking coffee in the front room, working on his own projects. A slight breeze blew through the leaves as she began to describe her home.

Her house is an old cabin lots of history. Apparently, the kitchen was originally a stagecoach that had been chopped off and built into the side of the home in the 1920s. The wagon had been dragged there by Amy McPherson, a fiery Christian fundamentalist who founded the nearby Foursquare Church. The entire house was an intriguing mix of art and eccentricity, with eye-catching drawings hung above floors tilting in odd directions. Charles Bukowski had lived in a cabin close enough to sling a rock to, and so had his editor from Black Sparrow. Steely Dan wrote “Betty Don’t Lose That Number” next door. Ernest Hemingway had also occupied one of the homes nearby for a short time. There was clearly some creative electricity in the general vicinity.

She took us inside and gave us a glimpse of what she’d been working on, and everyone unfamiliar was instantly dumbstruck. Her art was just sort of amazing. The colors in her work fade beautifully into one another. Her body of work is filled with timeless pieces that conjure up a beastless version of Where the Wild Things Are and an untroubled method of individual expression.

She broke down her approach to art for us, explaining how when she’s working with thicker paper, it takes her multiple razor blades to get through her cuts cleanly, as they tend to break multiple times per piece. Hour after painstaking hour, she slices, rearranging her pieces to create fitting backdrops for her characters to live within. Although she enjoys drawing figures and creating collages, Kadel finds herself creating most fluidly when filling in empty spaces with repetitive patters. She zones out in the repetition, her “caterpillar foot” sized pen bleeding ink onto coffee stained paper, turning what was once a naked canvas into an intricate field of imprints.

She often draws the same character in her art, though the exact details of how she looks varies a bit. Sometimes she’s fat, sometimes she’s skinny, at one moment tall, at another moment squat. The character itself is fairly androgynous, and it’s impossible to really assign any particular ethnic background to her. Who was this character, and where did she come from?

“I think it’s inevitable that I interject myself into the character,” Kadel explains, “so there is a reflection of me, although she doesn’t act as a self portrait. There is a lot of emotional content that I relate to her on, and in a weird way she sort of keeps me in check because she’s such a survivor. So, even though I make up her world, she helps me in return.”

We walked around and took the place in. Mel apologized if the kitchen had a weird funk to it thanks to nesting raccoons, but we didn’t pick up on it, we were more interested in her art. What inspired her to create this existence up in the hills, and how did she deal with the discouragement so many of us (talented or otherwise) struggling artists seem to face?

“When I was a teenager I remember how much pride I would feel when a painting or drawing turned out ‘good’. I can’t remember anything else that created that feeling more than making art. What inspires me to draw comes from a combination of looking to repeat that proud moment, and wanting to improve on it. That sounds like a selfish endeavor, but it really only works when someone connects to it other than me. And over so many years, that strange challenge of taking a blank page and turning it into something hasn’t worn off. There are discouraging times, but nothing is good all of the time, so when the work feels good and right, I soak it in.”

If there was anything I understood, it was that feeling. When asked if she takes days off from drawing, she responded, “I don’t really take days off because it’s more fun to keep it going. It’s so easy to get off track, and momentum can be shattered so quickly, so it’s better to keep working.”

While Mel works on one thing, in the back of her mind she’s thinking about the next. “When I’m working on one thing and I know where it’s going, I think about the next thing immediately, so the ideas are a little sharper, a little more in tune with the overall body of work.”

I’m not sure what it was, but there was something inspiring about the way she went about it all, something just fucking intensely rad about how she approached art. I thought about whatever it is I’m doing, about how everyone I knew was developing, and I couldn’t help myself but ask her questions that were both revealing about how she created as well as likely reaffirming my own process.

“Do you recognize the evolution of your art as it’s evolving,” I asked her, “or is it something you can only notice in hindsight?”

“This idea ways heavy on a lot of artists,” she responded. “There is pressure from ourselves, and whatever audience, to see the work evolve. Personally, I notice that my work changes slowly over time. I always think about how slow and long the process of drawing is, and to find a voice and process that works for it. So, to feel like it has to constantly be reinvented is a negative idea to me. However, it’s hugely important to always push yourself. I see bodies of my work evolving in weird chunks over the years, and am really only aware of it in the back of my head.”

She paused to break up a cat fight that was taking place in her yard, returning shortly with a gnarly gash down her forearm.

“If there’s any success within my work, it’s people having personal connections to it,” she told me nonchalantly, disregarding the scratch.

‘Well,’ I thought, ‘if there’s any success in my work, it’s having a personal connection with people like you.’

Mel Kadel’s next solo show opens on Oct. 13th, at Merry Karnowsky Gallery in Los Angeles. Trust me, you’ll want to be here.

Photos By: Koury Angelo

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