BOMB’s Oral History Project documents the life stories of New York City’s African American artists.
Michael Brenson: "Did you begin to feel, when you were at Otis, that you might actually become an artist? I mean, what was going on when you were studying art?"
Melvin Edwards: "There was nothing else for me to want to be. That was how I felt. I mean, I had other interests, football and sports, but that was the only…. I didn’t just paint at school. When I got to County Art Institute, or Otis, as you call it, they would set up projects in ways that I’d never seen, and then I would set up the ideas in my own mind, and work on paintings at home, at my aunt and uncle’s in the garage; I’d go beyond what I was doing at school. I had two teachers there that I remember well, other than Fenci: one who specialized in drawing, a man named Joe Mugnaini, who was a New Yorker, but [had turned] Californian; and Bentley Shad. Shad was a fairly tight realist, but realist in a way that felt structural and made sense to me. Mugnaini would read from the writings of Ben Shahn and others while in class. He’d just walk around reading. Toward the end of my time there with him, he was discussing one of my paintings, and he said, 'You know what your fight is?' He said, 'You’ve got your weapon.' That was the first time that anybody had ever referred to the work like that. He probably had been involved with the Left. Mugnaini was a thoughtful person, and what he read of Shahn made sense to me; there was stuff that wouldn’t have come into my thinking any other way. I wasn’t conversing with art people. I didn’t have those arguments over abstraction, because I wasn’t around people who argued over it. When I was back at SC, I was more in touch with the graduate students, and those were their battles. But it wasn’t like I was in art school. That was a very short period, that six months at County, and the dynamic was very figurative. If I had been over at Chouinard... That was the challenging art school. Danny Johnson and them, they had all been to Chouinard. They were going to gallery openings when I was dealing with football. They became my friends in the early ʼ60s. I learned to weld just as I left, and Danny Johnson’s wife and I, our works were accepted in one of those shows that the County Museum did, where anybody can enter. I entered one of the first pieces of sculpture that I thought was something, and it was shown."