web analytics


Finding Focus: An Interview With Mel Kadel

Finding Focus: An Interview With Mel Kadel

Mel Kadel resonates a great peacefulness, which puts you at ease just from sitting near her. You can’t really put your finger on where it comes from, but you know its there and, if you are familiar with her work, you see it in her pieces. It may be a connection with nature or a the influence of beautiful weather, as we sit on her porch under the shade of treetops, overlooking her woody neighborhood. She shares her space with artist/boyfriend/frequent collaborator Travis Millard, whom she frequently collaborates with. The space is very fitting for her as it is almost a living treehouse and she reigns over it as an heiress to Mother Nature.

“I was born in Georgia, but I was a tadpole when my family moved to Pennsylvania, which is where I grew up. My parent’s squeezed me in really quickly before my Dad was getting discharged from the Army because you get free healthcare. So, I was a free baby,” she says, laughing. Pennsylvania was your standard American place-where-you grow-up for Mel. “It was a very suburban, strip mall, kind of boring-ish town,” she explained, “You know, there’s cows grazing outside my high school. It’s just a funny place. And, my family is pretty much still there.”

Finding Focus: An Interview With Mel Kadel

While attending school there, art wasn’t really her focus, but it was her older brother who greatly influenced her: “I wasn’t like a really extremely amazing artist in high school. I wasn’t really gifted–I kind of just started doing it my when my brother did (my older brother and I are really close). He always turned me on to things. He was into skateboarding and punk rock music and all this stuff. I gravitated towards a lot of the stuff he was discovering, you know?”

“Whether it was the record covers I was looking at, there was artistic value in it,” she says of her younger art encounters, “There weren’t museums, there weren’t art galleries–there was a huge lack of culture in general. I was really following [my brother] and his friends: it was their lead. He’d give me assignments. Like, he’d give me a Ziggy Stardust or another Bowie record and tell me, ‘Now, draw it upside down so you’re not thinking about what you’re looking at: you’re just drawing what you see.’ He was always giving me these little assignments at home.”

Finding Focus: An Interview With Mel Kadel

From this influence, Mel pushed herself to do everything related to the arts–even things she would never imagine herself doing. “I messed around with photography and some other stuff–I was even taking acting (as shy as I am!),” she said, laughing, “I was taking acting lessons and doing whatever I could out of school to find some interest. But, the drawing really felt like this centered behavior when I was doing it. I really focused on it and I had a pretty good discipline at a young age for it. I knew I wanted to go to art school throughout high school: I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Thus, she went off to Mass Art in Boston for some time, but it didn’t really work out there. “There were no grades so there were all these 17 and 18 year-olds hanging out, they’re not getting graded, they’re going to art school, and they’re just like, ‘Lets just drink Robitussin all day!’” she detailed, laughing, “I just knew I was not gonna do well there: I had to leave. I left after one semester.” She took some time art from school after Mass Art. “I wondered if art school was the place for me,” Mel said, “I kind of traveled around a little bit–had some part time jobs, etc.–then ended up going back to school in Philadelphia. It was pretty, pretty awesome. It wass actually an all women’ s art school (Moore College) and it’s the only one in the country like that.”

Finding Focus: An Interview With Mel Kadel

The school was quite small and didn’t have dorms, which provided for Mel to have her own apartment. She explained that she was a bit of a tomboy and that “most of my friends [were] guys,” who are all she hung out with outside of school. “I didn’t really feel like it was this real feminine, feminist art school,” she explained, “Looking back, maybe now I see it in retrospect. But, I don’t know if I would do it again there, if I had the choice. One thing, though, is girls weren’t so concerned about, ‘Oh my God: do I have to look like this?’ and you didn’t have this competitive thing going on in the classroom, thinking that you’re gonna be judged by a guy. Especially at that age, when you’re really vulnerable and you’re a little bit insecure still: you’re battling those issues. In that way, it was kind of cool.”

Mel left Moore and headed to New York City, which was an easy move since it was so close. She lived there for a few years. “I think leaving school I was like, ‘Well, I like to draw and I want get a job…I don’t know how that’s possible, so I’ll just..I’ll be an illustrator.’” she says, “I didn’t have a lot of confidence in what I was doing, first of all. And, how do you make a living making art? But then I just added all the elements I could and I thought to myself, ‘Okay: that’s what I should do. I should illustrate.’ This was pre-internet, so I would take my black portfolio–that plasticky thing–around to every magazine and every newspaper (The Times and The New Yorker and Details–all over).”

Finding Focus: An Interview With Mel Kadel

“I had an internship at Interview and people would nicely say, ‘No, thank you’ and give me my portfolio back two days later,” she said, “I was just working at a restaurant. I did that for a couple years was feeling like I’d made a big mistake and I didn’t know what I should be doing. It was a dark period where I kind of stopped drawing for a little bit–for a few months at least or half a year.” 

This all changed though–it all changed after a trip out West. She came out to visit a friend her and just made the move. “I didn’t even agree with this place–it didn’t even stick. Nothing about it really felt familiar, good, or like a place I really wanted to be,” she said, “But it seemed so literally physically far away from everything I was going through at that moment that it was an oasis to me. I just came out here with two suitcases and left my apartment in New York.”

Finding Focus: An Interview With Mel Kadel

Mel worked a 9-to-5 job and was greatly unhappy. She hated Los Angeles, she didn’t have any friends, and she didn’t know if she had made the right move. “What it took for me was to start meeting people that had a liked-mindedness that I did,” she described, “I felt like the group of people I was starting to surround myself with here–or my attitude–was starting to become a little more pure, a little less worried about where it fits in and more about just making it happen and doing it: I was building my craft.”

She started to give herself goals and worked her ass off creating. She aimed to show her work off at Millie’s Café in Echo Park and do flyers for bands: she was building herself and her work up. “I think my work was getting stronger,” she explains, “I was getting more focused and I was building up confidence. It felt like everyone was growing up together, these people I was surrounding myself with.”

Finding Focus: An Interview With Mel Kadel

“It felt like I suddenly made the best decision ever,” she said, “Because it really started with a very small community of people and neighborhoods and audience. Any response I was getting felt very honest: it wasn’t being judged.” She started getting good gallery shows and illustration jobs–but she doesn’t find that she is an “illustrator.” “I think that’s a term that people use because it’s a style of, like, pens and paper. If you’re not painting, you’re illustrating because you’re drawing,” Mel describes, “But, I think illustration is a really hard thing to do, first of all. It’s meant to play a role with words and text or to illustrate an idea–those elements. I think I have an illustrative style, but I think after awhile of fighting that feeling of what is it, how is it defined, or where it belongs, [I see] my images might be illustrative in style but they belong on their own.”

Her excelling and truly becoming a full-time artist is a product of her moving to Los Angeles in a lot of ways, as opposed to staying in New York. “First of all, I couldn’t afford not to work at a restaurant or anything like that,” she says of living in New York, “I would come home and work at my desk and draw all the time–but the box you live in pushes you out because you want to go outside. And the hustle and bustle drives you out because you want to soak in the awesomeness. I think it’s the best place in the world: it’s my favorite when I go back! I always cry getting back on the plane because I hate leaving. It’s an incredible place…but, I couldn’t flourish there. I couldn’t get anything done. I couldn’t find focus–and my happiest is when I’m on a roll and I’m focused. It’s momentum. When I’m on it, I don’t want to leave the house. It’s not like I’m in a dark corner, it’s the best feeling–and I found that in LA.”

Of course, living where she and Travis lives is perfect, as they are in the middle of the city but removed, in nature. The city has made her more disciplined, but it’s also made her excited about everything. “I feel like a kid again, when you’re 16,” she says, “You’re investigating music and, if a weird club opens up in a suburban strip mall, you want to go to a show there. It’s that feeling of searching and–I don’t know–experimenting with things.”

Finding Focus: An Interview With Mel Kadel

“You’re buying cameras at thrift stores, you’re searching through shit more–like a kid,” she furthers, “And, when I came out here, I felt like people were doing that here: they’re really busy and I thought that was so awesome. Yeah, they party like crazy and have barbecues for no reason every other day but I didn’t feel like it was that ‘laziness’ that I’ve heard of in Los Angeles. Honestly, I think that reputation has changed as more and more people drift out here and have a good experience. It’s like the “La La” part is just, ‘Oh, yeah: you can have a backyard and a fruit tree instead of a dump truck in the front.’”

Moreover, this more laid back and somewhat youthful attitude leads for so much more creativity: people are discovering voids in LA’s culture and filling them with great excitement. “Fashion doesn’t only exist in the four other cities you hear they’re in,” she says, “I remember when I came out here, I was more aware of fashion having come from New York and it being the business my brother’s in and the people I was around. I thought, here, there’d be nothing happening: ‘They don’t even have runway shows here, do they?’ I thought. Now, that gap isn’t so wide. People are celebrating the absurdity that happens here.”

Finding Focus: An Interview With Mel Kadel

Mel wants to keep on pushing forward in her practice, getting things better and better as she moves forward. She doesn’t have any plans of leaving Los Angeles because it suits her quite well. “I think it is a better lifestyle,” she says, “But, I personally totally miss winter, to be honest. But, you know, I’m not complaining: it’s gorgeous here.”

For more on Mel, be sure to check out her website. She also is very happy to share that she will be be having a solo show at Merry Karnowsky Gallery next year in mid-October.

Finding Focus: An Interview With Mel Kadel

Finding Focus: An Interview With Mel Kadel

Finding Focus: An Interview With Mel Kadel

Finding Focus: An Interview With Mel Kadel

Finding Focus: An Interview With Mel Kadel

Finding Focus: An Interview With Mel Kadel

Finding Focus: An Interview With Mel Kadel

Finding Focus: An Interview With Mel Kadel

Finding Focus: An Interview With Mel Kadel

Finding Focus: An Interview With Mel Kadel

Finding Focus: An Interview With Mel Kadel

Finding Focus: An Interview With Mel Kadel

Finding Focus: An Interview With Mel Kadel

Finding Focus: An Interview With Mel Kadel

Finding Focus: An Interview With Mel Kadel

Finding Focus: An Interview With Mel Kadel

Finding Focus: An Interview With Mel Kadel

Finding Focus: An Interview With Mel Kadel

Finding Focus: An Interview With Mel Kadel

Photos by Justin Sullivan.

Leave a Comment