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Ed Mell's art will be remembered as synonymous to Arizona

Arizona artist Ed Mell died last week at the age of 81.

Mell is probably best known for painting Arizona landscapes, but in a more architectural way. One of his paintings was the inspiration for an original production by Arizona Opera; another was featured on a stamp celebrating the state’s centennial.

The Show spoke about Mell’s career and legacy with Betsy Fahlman, a professor of art history at Arizona State University and adjunct curator of American Art at the Phoenix Art Museum.

Full interview

BETSY FAHLMAN: His work is really amazing and I, you know, to me, it's such a loss to the arts community to lose him. But he managed to convey the landscape of Arizona, both in a modernist way and in a traditional way. And you have so many artists who they do the ... landscape, but they all begin to look alike. And Ed was had a very distinctive aesthetic and he loved the Southwest. You know, when he came back to teach at Hopi for two years, he said I've got to come back. I want to get out of advertising. So it's very beautiful work that really transcends much of the current Western landscape painters, I think.

MARK BRODIE: How did he manage to do that? Because his paintings were pretty much exclusively landscapes. And yet while you can tell that they're his, by the style, they somehow don't all look alike.

FAHLMAN: No, they don't. And I think that's another big achievement that he did. That he didn't seem to do the same thing every day. He also did prints, he did sculpture, he did "Jack Knife" if you've been up to the Scottsdale area. And so he, he really made it, he kept it fresh all the way through.

BRODIE: And he is somebody who is from Arizona, and as you referenced.

FAHLMAN: He was from Arizona, he left to study and then he got into advertising and then he decided he just really didn't want the grind and came back to Arizona.

BRODIE: What was it about Arizona that, that drew him to it and to painting its landscapes?

FAHLMAN: I'm from the East, and I never thought I'd see landscape that looked like this in my life. You know, I came out from my interview and I drove up to Sedona and like, what is that red rock? But it's got so many areas of really astonishing beauty, whether I mean, maybe if you're in the urban area, no, but when you get out of here, it is just a stunning experience.

BRODIE: How would you describe how he painted the landscapes? Because as you pointed out, it is a little bit modernist. It's, you know, they're very distinctive lines. It almost looks a little bit like art deco perhaps a bit, like, how would you describe? How, how would you describe how his paintings look?

FAHLMAN: He does have some, some of that. I think because he not only just, just the, the landscape, he also dealt with the sky and the sky as, as, you know, and Arizona was, is so gorgeous at different times. I mean, this last week where the moon has been sort of coming in and out like Halloween, you know, it is, it is really just beautiful. And so I think that combination of being able to do the sky and the, the landscape below it made his paintings very, very strong.

What does he mean and what, what has he meant to Arizona, both in terms of having people here and out of the state, see what the landscape looks like? But also what does he meant to the arts community here?

FAHLMAN: Well, he's one of the iconic artists of Arizona. You know, that he, he rose to the top. He kept painting, he had the stamp in his honor.

BRODIE: The centennial stamp.

FAHLMAN: The centennial stamp, and he had did the "Riders of the Purple Sage" and he did, you know, so he did a number of other things that really put him in the, in the view of, of the public and of the art community. And everybody says I did not know him very well, but everybody says what a great guy he was. And there was one, I, I'm trying to think where that obituary was, but it was Bob Boze Bell talking about him saying, here's this guy dying of cancer and he's making me laugh. So it's that kind of good guy thing that I think he also kept some, you know, some artists can be prima donnas. You know, you never know what you're going to get. He consistently had one dealer for the last 20 years and that was Mark Sublette. And you know, so I think that's part of his, his legacy that he left.

BRODIE: I'm curious about the ubiquity of his work because you mentioned that he did prints and, you know, I grew up on the East Coast as well and going into doctor's offices, for example, like I would see Ed Mell prints on the doctor's offices in Connecticut. I had never been to Arizona, like for the longest time, I assume that his paintings are what the state looked like.

FAHLMAN: Well, it isn't quite true. Not every, not every part of the state looks like what he, what he painted. And I know he traveled all over the place just to see where the landscapes were that he might want, who might want to paint. So he's, you know, less maybe of a sort of dirt desert guy, but he's more of a sort of really not exactly lush but really strong images that really captured a state in, in, in very interesting ways.

BRODIE: Ed Mell seems like the kind of artist that maybe a lot of people would recognize his work, even if they don't recognize his name. Is that a fair assessment, do you think?

FAHLMAN: I would think so because, I mean, the art world and you've got so many ways of accessing it, you know, whether it's on YouTube or X or any of those things, and half the time they don't even label what they are. So, but it's just part of that sort of zeitgeist that he's part of the, the furniture or the, you know, view of Arizona that is almost subliminal.

BRODIE: So you mentioned that a lot of artists talked about what a good guy he was. Like, what, what was your experience working with him being around him?

FAHLMAN: I mainly had a lot of contact with him when I was working on Lon McGarvey, who was Arizona's original cowboy artist. And he was a real fan of McGarvey and owned paintings. So we would sit and talk a little bit about what I was, what I was doing with that, I was doing a show at the Desert Caballeros Western Museum. And so he was very interested in that show because he owned work by him.

BRODIE: So we talked about his, his impact on the art community here. What kind of legacy do you think he's leaving both to, to Arizona and to the Arizona arts scene?

FAHLMAN: Well, there's so many ways you can chart a legacy. One is obviously with his art, but the other is the sort of rigor with which he did his paintings. And so he didn't really, I don't think he really sold out anywhere. He didn't, you know, just sort of keep churning out the same things. I think it really mattered to him to make each thing a little bit different and look at different things. Toward the end, he was doing rather more abstract work, which was quite stunning. I was like, I hadn't seen that before.

And so he, you know, he really kept changing and thinking about Arizona. So that legacy of always working of being an artist full time, which is very hard to do. Not that many artists can make a living with their art. And those that can well, more power to him. He was just an amazing person, and I think he was very generous to other artists when he would run into them. So that's, that's a, that is a real legacy, not to sort of block yourself out.

BRODIE: As far as, you know, did Ed Mill ever paint humans or was it just landscapes and, and the occasional horse?

FAHLMAN: I can't think offhand of a human picture. But yeah, he did horses and he did cows and stuff like that, but I can't think that he did was a portrait person.

BRODIE: And it's amazing that he never as, as we discussed, like, he, he painted the same kind of things. It was landscapes but never the same, not really the same thing twice. And he never seemingly got bored of it. Like, it's kind of impressive.

FAHLMAN: Right, right. Well, I think probably if he went to his easel every, every morning, you know, to think of something different and, you know, see how something struck him that he might have seen, because I'm sure he just didn't sit in the, the, his studio all the time, but I'm sure he went out and looked at all of these things and it just kept fresh. I mean, I, when I look at the landscape, it, it never goes stale.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.