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Overcoming the struggles of everyday life may seem like a never-ending battle for some, but Los Angeles artist Mel Kadel is making a career out of the crusade, one illustration at a time.
At first glance, Kadel’s work, which she describes as “loose narratives,” will either leave you feeling forlorn or hopeful. “I don’t want to be melancholy or bleak. I want it to be a good feeling tied up in a struggle,” she explains, adding, “It’s a story that the participant looking at it decides for themselves.”
Kadel, 34, creates her whimsical characters using the tiniest Micron pens she can find and drawing them on old or coffee-stained paper. “I think white paper is impossible to keep white, so I figure if I cover that in a yellow-y look, then it won’t feel so precious, and I won’t get intimidated by the blankness of the paper.”
Fortunately, Kadel has a friend who owns an organic coffee company in Florida so she has an endless supply on hand at all times. “I pour it on the paper and it just does it’s own thing.” She turns out about 10 pieces in two months, ranging from stamp size to 3 feet–by–4 feet. For the larger-scale works, Kadel will collage small pieces of the aged or dyed paper on top of a large piece of thick watercolor paper, a technique where Q-tips come in handy for gluing.
Although her work is said to be influenced by American artist Edward Gorey’s macabre illustrations, Kadel didn’t actually see his work until she was 20 and had already developed her own style, usually depicting females in dubious or surreal situations. She studied illustration at Moore College of Art in Philadelphia and fell in love with artists such as German painter Kathe Kollwitz, abstract painter Cy Twombly and illustrator Raymond Pettibon. But it was Shel Silverstein’s illustration technique for his 1964 children’s book The Giving Tree that really prompted her ambitions at a young age.
Spending summers around her family’s arcade located inside Knoebels Amusement Park in Elysburg, Pa., also played a part in Kadel’s artistic development. “I think it’s probably the sweetest childhood memory,” she says, which is why six years ago she did a solo show at a gallery in Silver Lake, Calif., based on her experiences, called “The Park.” “All the drawings were magical childlike images of what I was remembering, like carousel horses with a little twist.”
Last year, Kadel translated her work into book format, creating a handmade “zine” called Strong Arms, and in January, she followed with a second, Rough Cookie. Hand-assembling the 40-page books can be an arduous job, so she makes only 100 at a time. First, she lays out what pieces will be in the 40-page book using finished works she has already scanned into her computer.
“I pull images next to each other and they start making sense together,” Kadel explains. Next, she dyes about 1,000 pages of regular typing paper, lets them dry and then weighs down the pages with books so they’ll stay flat enough to run through her color printer. “That’s really the toughest task in this—the pages sometimes get chewed because they’ll never go back to flat. I just stand over a feeder and fight this Epson printer.” Once the pages are done, she puts the books together and completes them with a silk-screen cover. The books are currently sold at Cinders Gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; Secret Headquarters in Los Angeles, and Eleven in New York.
Eleven owner Oliver Harkness loved Kadel’s work so much that in June he made a small run of her drawings silk-screened onto T-shirts to sell in his store. Harkness is not the only one who thinks Kadel’s work is a good fit for embellished clothing. Volcom, a skateboard-inspired clothing company, has been collaborating with Kadel for the past two years designing T-shirts, hoodies and fleece jackets.
So far, Kadel’s work has had a love-at-first-sight effect, leading to career-boosting exhibitions and collaborations this winter.
In December, she’ll have a 2-foot-by-3-foot piece displayed at Art Basel Miami Beach as part of the Toyota-sponsored Scion Installation traveling exhibit, which includes 35 artists and is on a nine-city tour. All the artwork eventually will be auctioned off, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to a charity of the artist’s choice.
Also in December, wine distributor Dan Philips of The Grateful Palate will release a 2006 Australian Shiraz with the label featuring Kadel’s work. Kadel took recent drawings, three of which are from her book Strong Arms, and translated them onto labels. Each bottle has a different drawing, and the titles of the pieces are printed on the back label.
Though Kadel has had a few solo exhibits at small galleries, she’s eager about her first official solo show at the Richard Heller Gallery in Santa Monica, Calif., in February. She has been represented by Richard Heller for three years, but has only been part of group exhibitions at his gallery and last year had a split show with her boyfriend, artist Travis Millard.
Kadel is always thinking of new ways to get her art out there. “I think making these homemade books has sparked something where I’d like to take on the challenge of including text in a more classic sense of storytelling. I think it’s all just happening at its own pace, but I’d love to see that happen.”