“I love processes,” Truro artist Deb Mell says. “I keep thinking of more complicated and time-consuming ones. That makes me happy.”
Which is not to say that Mell’s work appears ordered. She uses found objects and paint, sculptural forms and drawing, non-Western iconography and a trained sense of color and balance, and she fuses them together into a riot of detail and narrative.
But that love of process is manifest in all her work. Pieces will have hundreds of needles, thousands of beads, layers of sequins, feathers, stickers, and whatnot. She uses a multitude of figurative forms: dolls’ heads and miniature men, bones and animals. Objects are meticulously glued and accumulated.
“I’m always collecting things that I think are interesting,” Mell says, and her basement studio is stacked with drawers and boxes that are filled with such treasures. “I’ll just get an idea: I want to go to Lieutenant’s Island and get a hundred crab legs. They don’t have to be recycled. They can be anything.”
There’s an intensity to her obsession that goes beyond a mere arts and crafts project. “I always use found objects as my palette,” she says. “I try to transform something to make it into something that’s mine. I never find this bone that looks like a seal and make it into a seal. I think of myself as a painter. I don’t think in terms of shape, form, as sculptors do. There are tons of artists who just make things.”
But there aren’t tons of artists who get to show at Berta Walker Gallery in Provincetown. Mell joined the gallery this year and is part of a three-person show (with Lucy Clark and Joseph Diggs) that opens on Saturday, June 20, and is on view through July 11, seen in the window of Walker’s Bradford Street gallery or by appointment.
In her decade-plus of living on the Outer Cape, Mell has shown pieces at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum and was part of a group exhibit at the experimental AMP Gallery in 2017. Having her work at Walker’s gallery, a luxurious space that showcases the masters of the Provincetown art colony, is an unlikely yet marvelous fit. Walker has always championed women artists and radical visionaries, and Mell, despite her irreverence and shirking of pretension and categories, wants her art to be seen and taken seriously.
“When I first encountered Deb Mell’s studio,” Walker says in a late-night email, “I was mesmerized by the grand scale, grand humor, and grand disregard for the formal artworks revealed. Her totems and beaded figures distort the human form while enveloping the spirit of their ancestors, just as African art does.” Walker references Mell’s Native American roots and also her “kinship with the Chicago Hairy Who — in particular, Gladys Nilsson and Jim Nutt — who were known for grotesquerie, surrealism, and complete un-involvement with New York art trends. They, and Deb Mell, are fantasy-based art makers.”
Mell herself openly acknowledges the influence of the Hairy Who and many others, such as the feminist movement artists Miriam Shapiro, Joyce Kozloff, May Stevens, and Joan Semmel, whom she met when she was studying at the Brooklyn Museum Art School in the ’80s. “They were amazing,” Mell says. “Joan was so upset that I was married. ‘Why did you do that?’ Then I had kids, and she said, ‘Why would you do that?’ ”
Mell smiles. “I get inspired by all different things. I just borrow the shit out of every culture. I’m unabashed — just borrow, take, steal. I see nothing wrong with it. Nothing is completely new. You make it new by how you transform it into your voice.”
Growing up in Collinsville, Ill., Mell was a square peg in a repressive small town. “Most girls played with girl things,” she says. “I built Frankenstein models. I started painting with a group of adults when I was in sixth grade. Who does that?” She met her husband, Greg Taylor, in high school. “Only five percent went to college. My dad said, ‘You’re not going to college.’ I was just stubborn and strong-willed. I just wanted to be an artist.”
She was a scholarship student at Illinois State University, then came to New York City, then moved to Maplewood, N.J., where she and Taylor raised their three kids, now grown. All the while, Mell taught art, did residencies, showed when she could. Here, on the Cape, she devotes herself completely to creating art. She works continuously and is quite prolific. For Mell, that’s the point.
“I hate these artists who don’t make much work,” she says. “Not every piece is going to be good. You have to make a lot of it. Sometimes a piece just doesn’t work. So, I’ll try to rework it, or, sometimes, I’ll throw it away. You have to be able to do that. That’s the problem with people who don’t work a lot. Everything becomes precious.”
It’s all about process. “I enjoy making art so much, if I don’t make it, I get angry,” she says. “I have to. It’s like air to me. I need the art to breathe.”
Beautiful, Twisted Fantasies
The event: Exhibit of Deb Mell’s work at Berta Walker Gallery
The time: June 20 through July 11
The place: Berta Walker Gallery, 208 Bradford St., Provincetown; gallery open by appointment only: calendly.com/bertawalker
The cost: Free