A Sculptor’s Five-Decade Journey to World Acclaim

Like his life, an artist’s meaningful, dynamic work defies convention.

March 01, 2016

After graduating from high school in Houston, Melvin Edwards ’65 headed to Los Angeles with two simple objectives: study art and play college football.

Art and football might be an unusual combination for aspiring college students—especially in the 1950s—but Edwards’ prolific career has proved that being typical was never his life’s goal.

After two years at Los Angeles City College, Edwards tried out as a walk-on for the USC football team at the urging of his community college football teammate Don Buford. Edwards knew about USC’s football reputation. Back at his segregated Texas high school, he had heard of Brice Taylor, an African-American player who was named an All-American in 1925—the university’s first football player to be given the honor.

Edwards made the team and the following semester was awarded an athletic scholarship.

Edwards enjoyed playing football, but he made time for his other passion. “I was always an art major. I was serious about art from age 9 or 10,” Edwards says. Initially focused on painting and drawing, he was inspired by sculpture professor Hal Gebhardt and introduced to welding by George Baker, a USC graduate student. Something about the techniques spoke to him, and welding would become an important tool for his artistic expression.

“I’m not a painter. I’m not an illustrator,” says Edwards when asked to describe his art. “I’m a sculptor. I don’t make stuff that’s nice and somebody wants to hang it over the couch. My work is more expressive, more dynamic and industrial. So that’s what I’ve been interested in, and within that, history”—in particular the complex histories of African-American and African experiences.

Edwards left USC in 1960 (he received his fine arts degree five years later, after completing his final graduation requirements with night classes) and had his first solo exhibition at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in 1965. The Whitney Museum of American Art followed a few years later, making him the first African-American sculptor with a solo exhibition at the prestigious museum. He has earned tremendous public acclaim and exhibited at nearly every major art event around the world, in nations from Brazil to Zimbabwe.

A professor of sculpture at Rutgers University in New Jersey from 1972 until he retired from teaching in 2002, Edwards continues to create works, even as he’s dealt with personal heartache after the unexpected death in 2012 of his wife and creative partner, the poet Jayne Cortez. Earlier this year, he had a retrospective, “Melvin Edwards: Five Decades,” at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas (his exhibit catalogue sold out—a first for the Nasher) and his pieces were showcased during the 2015 Venice Biennale.

Every once in a while, young aspiring artists ask him for advice about pursuing a career in art. He strives to be honest about the sacrifices that go along with a creative life, noting that he never planned out his next career move. “I just started making art, had babies and worked.”

For Edwards, the work itself was his driving force: “There are no careers. There never was one. It’s art.”