Newsletter Issue:
Spring 2024

Interview: Artist Mel Edwards Talks About Art, History, and David Driskell

Fig 1. Melvin Edwards (right), and George Joshua Orwel. Photo courtesy of the author.

by Dr. George Joshua Orwel, PhD 2022

Melvin Edwards (IDSVA PhD honoris causa ’22) has had a sixty-plus-year career as a sculptor, broadly exhibited in the United States and internationally, who molds industrial materials like barbed wires, chains, and found steel objects into meaningful artworks—free-standing sculptures and installations—with cultural connotations, including his now-famous Lynch Fragments series. Edwards, 84, recently sat down with me for a wide-ranging interview during the installation of his most recent public work, a stainless-steel sculpture in memory of the artist and scholar David Driskell, who passed in 2020. He was one of the earliest and strongest supporters of IDSVA and a member of the Visiting Faculty for many years. The David C. Driskell Fellowship is named after him.

The stainless-steel sculpture, David’s Dream, stands in front of the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, College Park. As an artist and a Texas native, Edwards understands the importance of history and race relations in the United States, a theme that he weaves into his sculptures, installations, and drawings. In an artist statement issued through his representative at Alexander Gray in New York, he said, “I have always understood the brutalist connotations inherent in materials like barbed wires and links of chain, and my creative thoughts have always anticipated the beauty of utilizing that necessary complexity which arises from the use of these materials in what could be called a straight formalist style…Wire, like most linear materials, has a history as both an obstacle and an enclosure, but the barbed wire has the added capacity of painfully dynamic and aggressive resistance if [used] unintelligently.”

Fig 2. David's Dream (2024). Photo credit: George Joshua Orwel

Though physically strong and capable of restraining, barbed wires and chains are no match to the spiritual freedom that underlies Melvin’s and David’s works and of which we, too, dream. Their genius, however, lies in how they draw us to this ambient feeling—the way they show us that not only are we all capable of primal violence, but we can break that circle and reclaim our freedom, individual and shared freedoms. It is a choice—one that Dostoyevsky’s Ivan makes—to remedy negative impulses and gaps in history with willpower and knowledge. David’s Dream, made from stainless steel so it doesn’t oxidate, took about four years to make. Below is the interview.

How did you get the David’s Dream commission, and how did you conceive the idea?

The concept is based on freedom. Curlee Holton [IDSVA Honorary PhD 2018, Founding Director and Master Printer at Raven Fine Art Editions, and former Executive Director of the Driskell Center] knew my work well and he was working with David Driskell and knew what he wanted. He had seen a public sculpture, Transcendence, that I installed in 2008 at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, and he liked it. The memorial at Lafayette is for David McDonogh, who became one of the first Black physicians in New York City after escaping slavery in Louisiana. So it was clear that Driskell, who made such a major contribution to education and culture in the United States, would love this story.

Also, I had installed another public sculpture at Morgan State University, and it turns out Gabriel Tenabe, director of the museum at Morgan who knew my work, was a friend of Driskell…both were artists and cultural figures who were well known within the community of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, so they liked my work. In this memorial, David’s Dream is the spirit of Driskell and Elizabeth Catlett, who was also a friend of Driskell.

Tell me more about that spirit of freedom that Driskell loved.

David McDonogh was born into slavery in 1821 on a cotton and sugar plantation in Louisiana. John McDonogh, the white man who owned the plantation, believed in education for his slaves. So he entrusted Walter Lowrie, a senior American Colonization Society official, with two of his slaves, David and Washington, to pursue their education at Lafayette College on the condition that they remained his property until they relocated to Liberia. Lowrie, an abolitionist from Pennsylvania, ignored the stipulation and made David and Washington free men right after facilitating their arrival at Lafayette.

David developed a passion for medicine in college and refused to emigrate to Liberia when Washington emigrated. David instead made plans to attend medical school in New York City after becoming the first Black graduate of Lafayette in 1844, where the Transcendence sculpture now stands in his memory. He attended the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University and went on to practice medicine at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary in midtown Manhattan.

Back to David’s Dream, what can we learn from the sculpture that memorializes Driskell’s life?

This is Driskell’s legacy. I hope people find something from it; I do not know what exactly. I would rather leave the interpretation to the viewer. I build [the sculptures] intuitively, and everybody makes something out of it if they are interested. The significance of an artwork comes from the viewer; my job is to make things and the viewer’s is to be either interested or not. I do not make art for people to be interested. I am happy if they are, but I do not do it for them.

What does this work mean to you personally?

As a public artwork, it is important because Driskell was somebody I knew and the dynamic of public art, in terms of where it is and who will see it, means there are as many realities as those people who will see it. And knowing David, it suits him [because] he was a professor [of art and art history].

What do you remember about Driskell and his role in the field of African American art?

He was a thoughtful person. Positively thoughtful. “Dream” as a metaphor did not start with David and will not end with him. But his contribution was huge. The center named for him is a tribute to his thoughtfulness. I continue to hope that this sculpture will make people be curious about him, that it will provoke thought, and they will look him up.

Can you say whether, like Driskell, your art practice has evolved?

There has been evolution, but we have retained our past. David’s style became more abstract and symbolic as he moved away from figuration, but that’s [in line with] the evolution of the visual art of the 20th century. But you know there is no one aesthetic, it’s plural, even Black aesthetics, because art is based on experience.

That applies to the viewer as well, right?

Yes. We are here [on Earth] for the time we are here, and our work reflects on the experiences in our lives, which differ to an extent. Things change all the time, and so do we. The artist has no control over how and what the viewer will take away from seeing the artwork.

One thing that appears prominently in David’s Dream, which is also a key element of your style—a motif so to speak, is a chain. It is in every piece you have done, whether drawings or sculptures, and there seems, at least to me, to be a link between a chain and the philosophy underlying Driskell’s life’s work. I say this because, from my standpoint, chains are metaphorically restrictive and, in my view, based on research, David had a freedom spirit, a need to free both sides of the American racial divide. What should we understand in your use of chains as a motif in this case or in any other work you have done?

There is nothing particular about a chain. It is like a line. A chain is flexible, like a rope that makes line or a wire, but stronger. And yes, a rope or a chain can restrain things. A chain is also big enough to hold a docked ship. It may or may not be a metaphor. It is just a material I am working with, and I find ways to make steel and chain work for me.

I am not in favor of fixed meanings. That is a limitation of form and modern art in terms of abstraction, i.e., they think that if it is full of form and no conventional composition placement, it is abstract. I worked on this theme for a group of works that I decided to call Fragments, and part of the reason is because I wanted it not to be stuck in formalist limitations Clement Greenberg formulated. Intention is important—in other words, what you make of the material you use. The maker of an artwork is the only one who knows, and all these ideas [about formalism] come from [art] school discussions [about meaning] as if it is a fact, but it is just open speculation. Many people intend their language [to mean] the same thing, but you cannot be sure. There is no fixed meaning and I believe in liberating art from the ideas associated with formalism of Greenberg.

How would you view broken chains as a symbol?

We live in a world where people love to talk about symbolism, but I do not illustrate. Instead, I experiment in my work. I am an artist and so my work does not need to have a singular meaning. I have been breaking chains for 60 years, and what I know is that the process of making art is one of education, whereby things keep on changing, so an object or concept is free to be manipulated and seen in more than one way.

By clicking “Accept All Cookies”, you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts.