Mel Ramos/Artist Interview
Mel Ramos, Red Hots Rita, Lithograph
Making the Most of Everything
* * *
Labels are a drag but it’s difficult not to label Mel Ramos a Pop Art icon. Furthermore, Ramos himself has no problem with labels, using them to great advantage in his art since discovering early in his career that it’s a lot more fun to be a figure painter than an abstract expressionist. Especially when created in tandem with readily recognizable symbols of Madison Avenue Americana. And better for business, too.
While Ramos’ work drew the ire of feministas during the ’80s and ’90s when revolutionary feminist activism peaked, his career-long dedication to the female form in both concert and contrast to commercial depictions that play only on sex appeal and not social or political commentary, has allowed him to grow and prosper as an artist, teacher and, yes, family man. Unafraid to “borrow ideas,” Ramos declares “borrowing” is basic not only to his work, but to all Pop Artists’ work from Robert Rauschenberg to Roy Lichtenstein to Andy Warhol. With that in mind, ready your “copy machine”. We trust you’ll find something in this interview with the artist you can use in your work… and perhaps even take to the bank.
– Mike Foldes
Q) Mel, the first place I saw your work was at Merton Boyd Gallery in Columbus, Ohio, in the mid- to late ’60s. I was blown away by how powerful a connection you made between art and fantasy, and ended up purchasing a copy of the print “woman with cheetah” (apologies — I’m sure I got that title wrong), which has been lost, now, to some unknown realm… At the same time, Wayne Thiebaud was your mentor, and I’m wondering how his works influenced you, or was it more the thought process and technique that was the influence, and not entirely the images he selected as subjects to paint?
A) Actually, all of the above were influences on me. His mind is so crisp and brilliant. This was a time in my life when I had a visual hangover from being a failed abstract expressionist but Wayne’s virtuoso painting technique fascinated me a lot and I became enamored of his style of painting. A style where the bravura applications of thick paint becomes a visual language for me; painterliness was a very important element.
Q) What was it like growing up in Sacramento in the ’40s and ’50s?
A) Sacramento is where I lived for 31 years and have many fond memories of this town. In 1953 I was a senior in high school and Wayne Thiebaud came to my school on career day to speak about careers in art. The next thing I did was enroll at Sacramento Junior College where I took classes from Wayne. During the summer months the California State Fair opened and Wayne was the director of the Art Exhibition and hired his students to work at the fair and put on a juried art exhibition. Those were wonderful memories. I was fortunate to have this opportunity because I learned so much.
MEL RAMOS V10N1
Q) Did your parents encourage you to pursue art, or would they have preferred you take up another profession? Were they artists, as well?
A) My parents were not artists. I think they considered my interest in art as a hobby. Finally, one year I entered a juried art exhibition and won first prize. So my parents finally realized that there is money to be made in art; after I fulfilled my mother’s dream of going to Hawaii for a vacation when I used my prize money to give them an all-expense-paid holiday.
Q) In addition to making art, you’ve spent decades in classrooms teaching art. What have you found to be the most important elements students must learn or understand in the process of becoming a working artist?
A) Learn how to draw. I cannot tell you how important it is to draw with passion. For many of the 40 years of teaching, 31 years at California State University East Bay, I would show slides for the first hour of class to discuss painting and to draw insights into the great art of the world. After which, I’d tell my students if they really want to be an artist, go home and PAINT, PAINT, PAINT.
Q) Who were among your favorite artists growing up, and was your continuing focus on nudes the result of something inside you, the recognition you received as the result of the work, or a combination of the two? I mean, if you’re good at something, why quit?
A) For as long as I can remember, I was very fond of Spanish Painting, Velasquez, Goya, Salvador Dali. When I was fourteen I discovered Dali and I was amazed at his painting skills. It made me want t be an artist. I have always been interested in drawing the figure and I think of myself as a figure painter. Even when I was doing abstract expressionist painting they were grounded in figuration. My work focuses around the figure in various stages of evolution. For example: Figure with commercial objects, Unfinished Painting, Hav-a-Havana, and more.
Q) I understand you’ve had a long and fruitful relationship with Catalonia, the region of Spain where Picasso was born and grew up. How did you discover that area
A) I was in Switzerland in 1972 for my exhibition. Some friends of mine said they were going to Spain to look for cheap real estate. I knew Picasso visited the village of Horta de Sant Joan where he made his first “Cubist” paintings. I went with my friends to this small village in the hills of Cataluna which made a fantastic landscape and bought a house there. Since 1972 I have been going there for 3 months in the summer every year.
Q) Syracuse is a long way from Sacramento…. What was it like teaching there, besides very cold in the winter, and were you acquainted at all with the poet W. D. Snodgrass, who I believe was there at the same time you were? Were your students of a different mind, so to speak, than the students you have in California?
A) I did not do classes at Syracuse University. I was the artist in residence. They provided me with a studio where I painted. Students were encouraged to drop by and chat about art and life. I was not acquainted with W.D. Snodgrass nor did I know if he was on campus.
Q) Did you have a lot of traffic in the studio? What kinds of direction were the students looking for?
A) Not too much traffic. But I always welcome students and collectors who ask to visit.
Q) I was pleased and surprised to see your work in the “We Are You Project” traveling art show at Kenkeleba on the lower East Side of Manhattan a couple of years ago, which is also when I met your student and friend Gabriel Navar, who helped facilitate this interview. How much influence has your Latin heritage played in your life or career?
A) First let me say I that I am not Latino. I am 100% Portuguese descent. My Portuguese heritage never really influenced me in any way until a couple of years ago; I was asked to participate in a Portuguese/American art exhibition celebrating the eruption of the volcano in the Azores (50 years ago).
Q) Would you say your art is more social or political commentary?
A) It’s both Social, Political and more. For example, is the art an appropriation.
Q) What do you mean, “Is the art an appropriation?”
A) I mean when it comes to imagery, I sometimes borrow ideas from other artists.
Q) Do you spend a lot of time sketching before you paint? Do you work from photographs, live models, or your imagination?
A) I used to make preliminary drawings before a painting was realized, but in the last 15 years, I now work from photos of models that I photograph and make images on Photoshop. This allows me to produce paintings more rapidly.
Q) How long does it take you to produce a painting? I know it likely varies, but if you’re working 8 to 10 hours a day, what would be ‘typical,’ if there is such a thing for you?
A) Ten days for small paintings, 2-3 weeks for large paintings (36″ x 60″).
Q) A Chinese friend said the other day that the Chinese have a saying, “Money has four legs and man has two. A man cannot chase money and win, but if the man has something money wants, it will find him.” How does this apply to business as an artist, and especially to you in your career?
A) I guess I have something that money wants, which allows me to have a studio manager (my daughter). Now, I work at making art and all non-art business matters are handled by my daughter.
Q) Looking back over your career, what would you say is – or was – the most vibrant time and place for creativity that you’ve experienced?
A) In 1960 I was wallowing in despair when I gave up painting abstract expressionism and painted something that I used to love as a kid, American Super Heroes, and I did a painting of Superman. My life changed, Pop Art was born and I was caught up in the energy of it all.
About the interviewer:
Mike Foldes is founder and managing editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.
This interview was conducted by email and was edited for continuity, not content. Many Thanks to Rochelle Leininger, Ramos’ daughter and business manager, who helped transcribe the artist’s answers to our questions, and to Ramos’ friend and former student, Gabriel Navar, for bringing us together.