Interview/Words by Alex Khatchadourian
There's something to be said about an artist whose work can be identified upon seeing it. Whether it's discernible color palette, distinct imagery, or a marked visual technique, it is a testament to authenticity - the artist's ultimate ability to hone their own pronounced style in a now largely saturated art realm.
This rings true for artist Mel Kadel; you know a Mel Kadel piece when you see one. Soft but alluring color tones illuminate her meticulous line-work, and an infamously reoccurring female figure takes on new obstacles and adventures in each of her hand-stained and sun dried pieces. Carefully detailed and painstaking intricate, Kadel's drawings boast an affinity for illustrative interconnectivity and balance, giving her work a long-noted and remarkable sense of complexity and depth.
Using predominantly pen and hand-mixed inks, Kadel tells stories of human behavior, personal battles, and the amusement in overcoming obstacles through her quick-humored drawings. Kadel's illustrations have graced the cover of Juxtapoz magazine and the inside pages of The New Yorker, aired on Adult Swim, used as album artwork, and printed on everything from linen towels to furniture.
Havoc caught up with the Los Angeles-based artist to talk about growing up on strict diet of punk rock and skating, finding a close knit community of art friends in Fecal Face, and her most recent show at Slow Culture gallery, "Sky's Eyes".
Tell us a little about yourself. What were you like in high school and when and what originally brought you to LA?
I didn’t like school! Even now when I drive by a random high school, 20 years later, I feel really uneasy. My grades were ok, but I’d skip a lot or sneak out to hang in the woods with friends. I was tight with a lot of different people, that didn’t really mix with each other, so it’s not like I was in any particular group.
I listened to Dylan, The Grateful Dead, NWA, Minor Threat, everything. There is nothing like being 15 and hearing the best music ever for the first time. And there was Selby Doughty, an incredibly influential art teacher, who’s room became a life changer for me and a handful of other kids.
I was pretty motivated but the whole thing just felt rough. We were in the middle of the suburbs, the school was really huge, but the bubble was small. After I graduated, I moved around the east coast a bit, and came to LA on a whim expecting to stay 1 year. I was 25 yrs. old then, and it felt like a quick adventure.
In what ways did music and skateboarding play a role in your initial interactions with art? What were some of the first places you discovered artwork that you liked?
I spent a lot of time with my older brother and his friends. They skated, built ramps, went to punk shows, and I was the sister tagging along with them. I was a sponge for everything they were into. It was an exciting time. To go into basements in Harrisburg, PA to see a loud live show that was a couple miles from my silent neighborhood.
Skating and art was such a pure marriage. It energized me to find that. Until I started venturing into New York and Philly, art existed only in books, magazine, album covers, and fliers.
How did you originally get involved with Fecal Face? How has Fecal Face and its family of like-minded artists become your art family over the years?
Fecal Face was all about community and building on that, with a loyalty to neighborhood and friends, but growing into a really big place to see art from all over the world. There was nothing quite like it at the time. It gave a lot of people an audience who really deserved the exposure.
They asked me to do a quick Q&A for something called “Sketchbook Mondays” I think? It wasn’t a big feature or anything. The internet wasn’t as saturated then, and most artists barely had their own websites, let alone FB or Instagram. So people went to Fecal Face to get inspired and to connect.
I don’t think I really had a community of art friends until then. It was encouraging to see everyone sharing their work and supporting each other at the same time.
The straight-faced woman in your drawings always seems to be in the process of discovering, battling, or struggling to do something. How much of her is autobiographical? How has she evolved over the years?
It could be me, because I’ve been drawing her for years and feel very committed to her battles and accomplishments. At the same time, it’s not me at all, because making art feels like a place to escape to.
I don’t think it’s too autobiographical, but my personality is very much reflected in the work I make. The stories behind the drawings are snippets that I relate to and feel I can communicate for some reason. I think people can connect to them on their own (and not feel like they are looking at “my” story).
Where do all of these patterns come from? Is there anything/anywhere in particular you go to for pattern-inspiration?
There has always been something very comforting to me, aesthetically, about patterns that I’d see around in my grandmother’s house, or while walking around a flea market. I feel like there is something inherent about patterns themselves, and repeating an image over and over again, that is very attractive.
Maybe it’s a mix of aesthetic pleasure and nostalgia. But, working them into my drawings feels natural and it’s a detail I like fixating on.
For your recent show at Slow Culture, “Sky’s Eyes,” you cranked out 119 small pieces. How and what new directions and techniques did you take to build on your existing drawings for this large body of work?
Working that small has a nice freedom, for me. It’s like the obsessiveness I have when I make a drawing couldn’t be fully exhausted on such a small piece of paper. In other words, it helped me to keep moving on to the next idea and try different techniques. I would still care for each piece, but I could move through ideas faster and let more surprises happen. It was like short bursts of commitment instead of working on 1 thing for 15 days straight.
Do you think your illustrations would still translate properly if they weren’t as detailed? Is it sort of meditative to work in such a detailed manner?
That’s a good question. I think I struggle a little bit through everything I draw, so maybe it’s apparent that these pieces aren’t on any kind of autopilot mode. As repetitive as some of the imagery is, there is care for each one and there aren’t any shortcuts to get there.
And yes, it’s very meditative once I have the rough idea figured out and I can focus on the line work and colors.
You’ve illustrated for everything from editorial, to show posters and album artwork, to linen towels and furniture, to wine bottle labels and bathing suit design. What is it like to work with so many different textures? What do you like about the variety of mediums your work is printed on?
The towels, and wine labels for example, have been some of my most exciting jobs. The work has an opportunity to find it’s way to a dinner table instead of just hanging in a frame that only a handful of people will see at a gallery.
Don’t get me wrong, art shows are everything to me because that’s where I build a body of work over long periods of time. I want to continue making intimate drawings and find ways to translate that into something accessible that you can hold or dry your dishes with.
Do you have a favorite illustration of all time?
I don’t have a favorite image, but Shel Silverstein remains one of my favorite artists. Quick, clever, humorous ideas that were thoughtful and spontaneous.
When you’re not creating art, where can we find you? What is your ideal day in your ideal spot like?
Every day I wake up, I wake up to a different schedule. It revolves around getting work done and balancing the rest. Almost daily I’ll be found walking on Elysian Park trails or going to the post office.
In what ways does Los Angeles - the city, the people - inspire you and your work?
I actually like LA more and more as the years go by. I’ve been here long enough so I know how to avoid the nonsense. Growth and creativity is so contagious, like any city, so being around such inventive and wild people just rubs off and we all end up inspiring each other.
At the same time you can lay belly up under a palm tree and soak in some of the lazy calm this city has to offer.
For more from Mel Kadel head to http://melkadel.com/.