Not long ago, it wasn't difficult to find Melanie Taylor Kent, or one of the artist's colorful serigraphs, for that matter. As recently as 1984, Kent could regularly be spotted among other artists at various local street shows in Encino or Westwood, selling her silk-screened prints for $200 each.
But things have changed. Now that she is considered by many gallery owners to be one of the country's most popular serigraphers, purchasing one of the Encino-based artist's original works is often more complicated.
"She's a modern-day phenomenon," said Phil Wasserman, president of Artistic Investments, a Florida-based company that distributes Kent's serigraphs to numerous art galleries in Florida. "When people hear about her future works, they want to give us money before they even know the price or when they will be available. Some of the galleries sell out before the serigraphs even arrive."
According to Kent, nearly 150 galleries nationwide carry her serigraphs. Kent's first two serigraphs contained 300 prints to a series; she has since boosted that number to 500.
One Color at a Time
Unlike a poster of a painting, which can be mass-produced by presses that print all of the picture's colors at one time, serigraphs must be hand-fed through the printer, and only one color can be laid down at a time. Kent's serigraphs, which illustrate some of the country's most celebrated and larger-than-life events in activity-packed detail, contain as many as 150 colors.
In recent years, she was among the artists commissioned to draw the opening of the 1984 Olympic Games and the rededication of the Statue of Liberty. She also did a serigraph of the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York.
Kent is working on a serigraph celebrating Walt Disney World's 15th anniversary, which will be issued soon.
Kent says her fascination with modern events came when she took a leave of absence from her 10-year teaching position at San Fernando High School in Pacoima in 1978 to have a baby.
"Walking the floor with a colicky baby who's crying all the time can turn your mind into a mushroom," the 40-year-old mother of two recalled recently from her office at Aurora Serigraphics in Van Nuys, where the last eight of her serigraphs have been printed.
"So I started looking around at what other artists were doing, just to keep from going crazy. There are all of these wonderful events going on in the country today, and I realized that no one else was painting them."
Colorful, Happy Drawings
The first gallery to recognize the marketability of Kent's serigraphs was Lori's Gallery in Woodland Hills. Owner Carol Redlich says she immediately saw that Kent's colorful, happy artwork filled a niche.
"When it came to Americans in my gallery, I was lost," Redlich said. "Most artists draw cows, ducks, geese or flowers. But people here in the Valley don't want to put cows in their living rooms. What Melanie is portraying is fun and whimsical and as American as Mom, apple pie and baseball. But she's more than an artist--she also is creating a history of the current times."
Kent's work is now well-known among numerous galleries, although not necessarily among museums that specialize in American art. One explanation, according to a spokesman at the UCLA Grunwald Center for Graphic Art, is that many successful contemporary artists are represented exclusively by galleries, and their work does not appear in museums.
A former art and history major at UCLA, Kent now thinks of herself as a recorder of history as well as an artist, and hopes her works will become time capsules of modern-day Americana.
'America Back Then'
"Maybe people will look at these 100 years from now and think, 'This was America back then.' Or maybe," she added, "they'll think, 'How funny everyone looked.' "
All of her pictures contain hundreds of easily recognizable people, along with historical references. In her Liberty serigraph, for example, are the faces of 101 famous immigrants throughout history being sworn in by former Chief Justice Warren Burger--among them New York Philharmonic conductor Zubin Mehta, John Lennon, Henry Kissinger and Albert Einstein. Trying to determine who they are, and why they are there, she said, makes it a little like playing Trivial Pursuit.
Kent's serigraphs also contain humorous aspects. In addition to the other famous immigrants in the Liberty serigraph, for example, Kent included "E.T." and Mr. Spock of "Star Trek."
Since Kent's serigraphs depict an event before it takes place, the artist says she must gather as much information as possible, and then "fantasize the rest." In the case of the Liberty serigraph, Kent met with David Wolper, the event's planner, a year before the event.
"He told me about the famous people who would be singing and dancing, that the President was going to be pinning medals on 10 famous American immigrants and that there we would be tall ships, a laser show and fireworks."
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