Conversation with the Artist: Susan and Mel Henderson

After returning from World War II in 1946, San Francisco artist Mel Henderson went to art school thanks to the last few years of his GI Bill.  While he was still at California College of the Arts (CCAC) in Oakland in 1956, he created these two radical sculptures of human heads draped in leather jackets, perhaps foreshadowing the politically charged artistic lifestyle he would later embody.

This past fall, Peter came across the sculptures, but the only information accompanying them was a small tag with the artist’s name, the sculpture name, the city, and the year they were bought.  After a bit of research, I called Mel and his wife Susan.  I ended up speaking with her for about twenty minutes, enjoying the stories from Mel’s experiences as a teacher, artist, and political activist during his time at San Francisco State University.

Immediately following graduate school, Mel landed a position at SFSU as a sculpture teacher.  Soon after, he met his wife Susan, who remembered one of Mel’s first projects in San Francisco: “Mel would fill leather purses from the thrift store with polyurethane foam, close them up, and then allow the foam to expand through the seams and openings.  They were quite sensual pieces.”

Mel also enjoyed working with plaster of Paris, a medium he would use to transform whole rooms into bizarre scenes of undulating shapes bursting from the walls and floors.  As the political climate in the 60s began to boil over, however, Mel and his fellow faculty members would transform their art into protest.

In 1968, Mel and a few other teachers were given permission to install thirteen searchlights along Market Street in San Francisco for the purpose of calling attention to the paranoia and injustices surrounding the Vietnam War.  As pedestrians passed by, they were encouraged to blast the searchlights towards two planes that were part of the installation.

A year later in September of 1969, Mel and a group of protesters from the college used biodegradable dye to write the word ‘OIL’ five times in the San Francisco Bay to protest a recent oil spill.  A month later, the same group helped organize through word of mouth a protest of the government’s suspicion of large groups gathering in public.  Hundreds of citizens adorned themselves in yellow and took yellow taxis to the Castro interchange and successfully halted traffic.

Mel continued creating art and teaching at SFSU throughout the 70s and 80s.  He is now 88 and lives with his wife in Northern California.

Paul DesMarais, Contributing Writer

Lot Information

Mel Henderson
Leather Head
1956-57
approximately 21″h x 23″ x 10″
To be offered in March 6, 2011 Auction
Estimate $1,500 – $2,000 (each)

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